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My Life with Unix

Around 1982 or 1983, I was walking out of work at Concurrent Computer Corporation on a Friday and I noticed a gang of my peers huddled around a workstation about fifty feet away. I asked a friend next to me what they were doing and he said "They're installing Unix." And it wasn't what he said that grabbed me. It was how he said it. It was with a reverence. A reverence reserved for something magical.

Come Monday, I asked more about this Unix thing. And that's when it all started. My obsession with Unix.

I was used to OS/32, a proprietary operating system written in assembler. It was not unlike VMS from Digital Equipment Corporation. It was command-line driven and had a very complex underlying architecture. But I was used to it. And so were other people. Unix was weird. For starters, the command line was case sensitive. Then there was the file system. It was hierarchical. Then there was the "shell," which was how you interacted with it. Many of my peers (I was a computer technician at the time) gave up on it. It was just too strange. But I kept going. It was tough to get my head around some of the concepts. Eventually, however, the breakthrough came. And when that came, I saw that Unix was, indeed, magic. It felt like I now had a secret power.

The version of Unix I was first exposed to was the seventh edition. The reason it ran (at all) on the Concurrent Computer Corporation hardware (then called Interdata) was because a few students at Wollongong University had done a port (it was also ported internally at Bell Labsóbut never released). To my knowledge, Unix was the first "portable operating system." This was the game changer from a market perspective. What I felt then, and has since been proven, is that the hardware would become a commodity.

From a career perspective, I thought that if I invested the hours and the midnights getting intimate with virtually every nook and cranny of Unix, then I would become more valuable in the industry. And that's what happened. I can still hop onto a Unix or Linux system today and be comfortable. It's never left me.

While I supported Concurrent Computer's first Unix customers in Canada, I occasionally needed support myself (from head office in New Jersey). This is when a support person told me that I'd be able to hop onto Concurrent's source code license for the miserly sum of $1,000. So I lobbied my boss and he agreed to do it.

From a techie point of view, looking at the source code of Unix for the first time could just about bring tears to your eyes. It was that beautiful. When the source code to the other operating system I supported (OS/32) was printed out on fan folded computer paper, it would stand about as high as your hips. When the Unix "C" source code was printed out, it was about 8 inches high. When the Unix scheduler (the scheduler is the heartbeat of any operating system) was printed out, it was two pages long. The OS/32 scheduler, if printed out, was hundreds of pages long.

One of my favourite customers to support was David Sherman at the Law Society of Upper Canada. He also had a source code license. Nobody could edit code as fast as he could. You didn't have time to say "no, don't touch that part of the code" before he had edited that code, saved it, and was recompiling the operating system. He challenged me, which drove me to go deeper.

I was so smitten with Unix that I began to have these career aspirations to go work for AT&T Canada. I sent my resume in. I phoned. But there was no interest. Then one day a head hunter called, seeking someone with Unix expertise, and he began to describe the company. I stopped him. I told him the only other company I wanted to work for is AT&T. He said that's who he represented. Bingo. I went for the interview and landed a job at AT&T Canada.


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Email Patrick Lannigan at lannigan at gmail dot com for more information

This page was created and/or refreshed on March 09, 2016 @ 11:47:56
by Patrick Lannigan (or one of his cronies) in Markham, Ontario, Canada
The page subject is: Unix