A little before 9am on Tuesday 29th January, I filed into ANU’s Llewellyn Hall along with approximately 700 other Linux.conf.au delegates to listen to the daily keynote speech. I’m now a little embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of Radia Perlman. A little over an hour later, I was a fangirl.
Radia delivered an engaging, funny, and highly-technical keynote address at LCA2013, and the audience of IT professionals and enthusiasts present lapped it up. In it, she placed the technical details of the network protocols she and her colleagues developed in an historical context. She half-jokingly explained that this was the only way in which anyone could hope to understand why the protocols we work with today include ‘features’ in their design that would otherwise seem crazy to an outside observer.
In delivering her keynote, Radia gave us not just the technical detail behind the development of networking protocols, but also wove in details from her creative side, as well as tidbits about her children’s involvement in her technical life. The crowd was delighted as Radia shared with us the poem that she created (an ‘Algorhyme’) shortly after devising the Spanning Tree Protocol in 1985 while at DEC. For as she says, “Every algorithm deserves an algorhyme…” (You can hear Radia reciting her AlgoRhyme in Dan’s video interview with Radia over at Australian Science, and read the text here.) There is also a recording of Radia’s daughter, Dawn Perlner, singing the Algorhyme set to music by Radia’s son, Ray Perlner. Radia also mentioned her son Ray’s involvement in the creation of an AlgoRhyme V2 to mark the creation of her most recent network protocol, TRILL.
Later in the week, I had the pleasure of heading off to lunch with Radia and a small group of fellow delegates during a break in technical sessions. She is engaging and thoughtful, and concerned as much with solutions for societal issues as solutions for thorny networking challenges. Radia is eternally self-effacing, and repeatedly claimed that she had “never done anything difficult” in her work. To the contrary, it seems to me that she applies her sharp brain to examining problems from all sides, building up a mental picture and thinking upon them until she distills her deep understanding of the situation into an elegant solution. The end result may appear ‘simple’, however the “thinky work” involved is anything but. Many delegates that I spoke with about Radia were in awe of the apparent ease with which she has managed to solve incredibly complex problems.
I’m a particular fan of Radia’s “auto-configure everything” approach to engineering solutions. She articulated her philosophy that all networking protocols should be designed to ‘simply’ auto-configure themselves to the optimal setup for any given network environment. She described the way this happens in the Spanning Tree Protocol as all of the nodes simply “gossiping amongst themselves” to figure out the topology and automatically devise optimal routes. When she tried to implement her “auto-configure everything” approach however, she found that “customers want knobs to fiddle with.” So, if it makes people happier to have some parameters to tweak, she’ll happily “give them some knobs”. It’s clear from her tone that she sees this as superfluous to an elegant solution, but shrugs her shoulders and moves on with her work.
I got the feeling that Radia Perlman is quite content to confine herself to solving the ‘simple’ problems, creating engineering solutions that enable our computers to talk to each other efficiently. She allows others to focus on the inelegant commercial aspects of things.
The full video of Radia’s LCA2013 keynote is now available online for you to view.
This article was originally commissioned by Australian Science, and was published there on 6th February, 2013. Their version includes a full transcript of the video interview, as well as the video itself. I haven’t reproduced their original content here, and encourage you to visit their site to watch and/or read the interview.