Operating system expertise moves outward as programmers job-hop

By Andy Oram
November 2, 2009

I just came back from a really fun gathering--a reunion of people who worked together about twenty years ago at a Massachusetts-based company called MASSCOMP. In the 1980s, MASSCOMP was famous for producing real-time and data acquisition systems. O'Reilly's famous books on the X Window System were started at MASSCOMP. I enjoyed working there for about three years, finding it one of the computer companies most committed to good documentation.

Naturally, one of the big topics at the reunion (which drew fifteen to twenty people) was the kind of work we had now. The first thing I noticed is that everybody (or as many people as I could talk to) had jobs. In this economy, to gather together fifteen people based just on a connection they had twenty years earlier and find that not one of them is unemployed is noteworthy. Perhaps the unemployed stayed away; perhaps people who lost jobs have left Massachusetts by now (it's a small state, easy to leave); perhaps people who worked for MASSCOMP were hot stuff dripping with skills. I'll make my own guess at the reason--you can make yours.

But what's more interesting to readers of this blog is the common thread that ran through people's current jobs. MASSCOMP was an exemplar of an extinct species: a self-contained computer company that made nearly all its own hardware and software and integrated them efficiently in a way that we could do only through tight coordination. Everybody was basically an operating systems expert.

Naturally, we've drifted into different fields over twenty years. A few people, amazingly enough, still hold on to places among that small set of programmers who work on operating systems. A few have found companies that use their hardware skills.

But a big chunk of former MASSCOMPERs work on virtualization, particularly for storage systems. That, I think is where operating system expertise has evolved to.

Perhaps if you polled software developers anywhere, you'd find a high percentage of people working in virtualization and storage, because companies are always in need of more computing power and data, and these are areas of growth for vendors. But I think there's a special reason MASSCOMP employees ended up there. It's a natural upgrade path for the skills they honed to get data in and out of MASSCOMP computers as fast as possible.

Where are these skills useful now? Where can customers play around with their computers to improve their speed and response time? Chips, boards, and buses are the province of a small priesthood. On the other end of the scale--the Web and wide-area networking--the control you have is limited. But your own site is yours to optimize, and you can do a lot to stream data through your organization more efficiently.

How about me? Coincidentally, it's exactly 17 years ago today that I had my first day at O'Reilly & Associates.

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