Roger’s Big Day
On Sunday, I devoted my Observer column to Roger Needham, one of the great computer scientists of our time. I spent yesterday at an event organised by the Cambridge Microsoft Lab to celebrate Roger’s 50th year in Cambridge and his 5th as Director of the Lab. Amazing to see some of the great names of the field all gathered in the same room. Chuck Thacker, the man who built the Xerox Alto, was there, for example. Butler Lampson gave a masterful presentation about the impossibility of using software components in any of the hyped and advertised ways. Listening to him, I reflected that what marks out the really great figures in a field is their ability to confess to ignorance: everyone else is too insecure to admit to it. Ross Anderson gave a bravura presentation showing how the entire architecture of banking security is, in fact, built on sand. Which makes one think: what now? Do the banks write off the billions they have invested in their current infrastructure and admit to the problem? Or will they try to rubbish and defame the awkward messenger who brings us these gloomy tidings?
Rick Rashid, the Microsoft VP in charge of research, gave a nice talk at the end, and then it was Roger’s turn. He talked briefly about the importance of theory in computer science. And then he put on a hard hat and said “But at heart I’m still an engineer”. It was a wonderful, moving moment, and he received a standing ovation from an audience which loves and appreciates him.