Dan McCracken Interview: Selected Quotes


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That's good stuff, I want to do that

In college, I graduated in 1947 and in 1946, I think, I read an article in Time magazine about whatever the latest machine at Harvard was -- the Mark IV maybe, not sure about that, III, it doesn't matter -- and it described what was being done with it, differential equations and all that kind of stuff. And I remember that moment and I said, "That's what I want to do, that is interesting stuff." [...] No, I'm sorry. I got the dates wrong. I graduated from high school in 1947, college in 1951. So, this would have been in ... the Harvard Mark whatever -- epiphany -- would have been in 1950, give or take a year. I said, "Yeah, that's good stuff, I want to do that."

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Being asked to write a FORTRAN book

[I was w]orking for Herb Grosch [at General Electric in] Cincinnati; working on the 704. He'd asked me to teach a course for the new employees coming in, one of whom turned out to be a co-author and a life-long friend. And I like to teach and I'd written anything I could. We were at a meeting in Boston in 1954 or 1955, I'd have to struggle with pinning that date down, probably 1955. And two editors from Wiley, who were really on the ball, they had kept up, they had said, "This is going to be big stuff." One in particular was an engineer and had gone to the University of Michigan summer program and learned something about computers. They were looking for somebody to write a programming book, of which there weren't any at the time, no text books. And they went to Herb, who was extremely well known at that point, and said, "Why don't you write a book on programming?" He said, "Nah, not me. But I've got this kid working for me ought to write a book." They said, "Fine, when can we meet him?" And he said, "Well, he's right over there. Would you like to meet him now?" And one thing led to another and that was my first book a couple of years later. And I wrote that on GE time.

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FORTRAN book for only $2.95

That first FORTRAN book sold about 300,000 copies, which was a stunning number. I think still would be, but certainly was at the time. Mind you, it sold for $2.95. So the royalties -- well, the royalties were great and a typical textbook at the time was probably around $10. So $2.95 for a book. It has a quaint sound now, doesn't it?

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Secret book-writing project

And Honeywell said, "Why don't you write us a FORTRAN manual?" I was using FORTRAN on the 704 there, so I had someplace to practice, so to speak. And I wrote the book for Honeywell. And it was sometime -- it must have come out in 1959 or so -- and at some point in there, I said, "Wait a minute, there's a book in there. It could be big!" And I made a proposal to Wiley and the editor who had gone to the Michigan thing saw it. He got it. He said, "Yeah, this could be big." And it was so big that I did something that I've never done since. I refused to talk about it. People asked me what I was working on and I said, "Well, I don't think I want to tell you yet. It's too good an idea. I'll tell you in six months but right now, I don't want the idea stolen." Today that would be just meaningless, you couldn't write a book on that basis, but that's how it seemed at the time. Wrote the book. And of course it wasn't totally secret because it had to have reviewers, so people knew about it. But I kept it under wraps as long as I could. By then I was self-employed, I didn't stay at NYU very long at all. Couple of years. And living off royalties and royalty advances. And there we are. I was off and running.

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Life as a greedy algorithm with local optimization

Just making small decisions that added up to a career. Sometimes I just shake my head: "How can I have been so lucky that things worked so well?" I was just taking the local optimization, a greedy algorithm, you know, "Do what's the best in the local sense and it'll turn out that that's globally optimal." Well, that you can prove, it's Dijkstra's algorithm. In a career you can't prove that, obviously, but it sometimes seems to me that I've been incredibly lucky and that's how things have worked. What was optimal at the time turned out also to be career-wise optimal.

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ACM's oldest member-since date?

I joined ACM in 1954. I might have the oldest member-since date in the organization. I don't know any way to check that. I'm even embarrassed to ask. But I'm not sure that there's anyone still alive who joined earlier than that and has stayed a member continuously for the whole time. I've asked for a 50-year pin. So far I'm still asking. Apparently, there's not much demand for them. No, Herb Grosch said, "If you join ACM, it will be easier for me to get you travel money." So I joined ACM. [And how has ACM influenced your career?] Oh, an enormous influence! Given me a professional venue for -- Oh, ACM National Lecturer. Got a lot of travel exposure. Chance to sell books and do research on what's happening in the departments. Of course, the leadership opportunities, the exposure there. The name recognition out of that -- which is zero now! Nobody knows ... for everybody who knows that I was ACM president, there are 500 that know I wrote the FORTRAN book. That's just the way it is.

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SIGCSE involvement as a major career factor

I was involved in SIGCSE from very early. There have been -- how many? 36 meetings [of the annual SIGCSE Symposium] now, some such number, I've probably been to 20 or 25 of them. I've been on the program probably a third of all meetings. And that's just been incredibly important to me as a way of keeping in touch with the field, meeting new people, staying in touch with friends. It's been a major factor in my career.

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Early concern about Universal Identifiers

Another example of what ACM has done for me is the chance to do something in an area that I felt strongly about. Could meet good people. Get to testify before congressional committees. And just have lots and lots of fun professionally. And some of us in like 1974 thought that the idea that social security number would be public information and be a UID [Universal Identifier] -- we thought that was a terrible idea. And 99.99 1/2% of the rest of the population thought we were out of our minds. Just a stupid thing. Of all the things you could pick to worry about, that's got to be the least important. And now I am trying to find records -- as far as that got was a council resolution and there must have been some sort of press release and I'd like to find that press release. Made absolutely no impact at the time. But today, makes me feel pretty good, that we at least saw the problem before anybody else did.

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The value of interplay and communal learning with students

{Question: What role has supervising your undergraduate and graduate students played on your own career?} It's been absolutely central. I can get rhapsodic about this. The interplay, the back and forth, the communal learning, the way I help them and they help me. They keep me alert. In their own way they encourage me to keep up to date and teach the new stuff. And they're the source of a great deal of technical information. It's always the case that in any course there will be a couple of people who know very much more about some aspect of the course than I do. For whatever reason. Maybe they're working in Web design, I've had people in the course who are doing Web design, supervising Web design. They're certified in Java and taking my Java course. It's the kind of thing ... what happened there is they dropped out of school at the peak of the bubble, you didn't need a degree. Now, everybody wants them to have a degree, or they've realized that down the road a degree is going to help. So they're coming back to get a degree. And in some cases taking my course is just an easiest way of getting an A+ without doing much work. I say, "That's fine by me if that's all you want to do, that's OK, but I would be delighted to have you contribute and give a lecture now and then or certainly let me fall back on you when I'm stuck." And mostly they all say, "Sure, sure, I'll help." Or just get an extremely bright student who does extra work that supports the class project.

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The active-learning business as a core value

I figure that my most important job as a teacher is to pick assignments that let the students learn on their own. This active-learning business is a core value and for that to work best the assignment needs to be something that they first look at and say, "I'll never be able to do this!" And I say, "Look I know how you feel. You're thinking, 'I never can do this.' But, you know, look at it. Look at it again in the morning. And I predict that within about ten days, that's a week from Thursday, you will have completed this project and you will be amazed at how much you've learned and you'll be very proud of what you've done." And for the bulk of the class, it works. And for that to work you have to have the right assignments. You have to know what they know, so that you're not giving them something that's impossible. You have to give them something that is a challenge, where they're going to have to fight to do it. And it needs to fit into the collection of such things. So that when you put them all together they've learned what you want them to learn out of that course.

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A student's thank you thought

A student came up to me, came back to visit the campus about a year after she graduated. She took two courses with me. She took the Software Development thing where we do Java and Web development programming and all that that I've described, and she took my Web Design course. She came back and we chatted a little bit after class, in the Web Design classroom. She wanted to say thank you. I appreciated that. What she said thank you for, she said, "You taught us how to teach ourselves." And I'm very proud of that.