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Jim Waldo on Distributed Computing
A Conversation with Jini's Chief Architect, Jim Waldo
by Frank Sommers with Bill Venners
First Published in JavaWorld, November 2001

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Building a Team

Frank Sommers: I'd like to ask you about something rather different. What your team at Sun has been able to do is quite remarkable. You're really defining a new paradigm of computing. I would like to ask you about the concept of leadership. As the Jini team leader, you have clearly assembled some very remarkable people.

Jim Waldo: God help any manager who has to deal with a team like the Jini team. Our manager, Mark Hodapp, fortunately takes management as seriously as I take technology, and he's exceptionally good at it. I don't know how he puts up with us most of the time.

I spend a lot more time thinking about this than I generally would admit -- on how you build a team, and how we got the Jini team. Part of it is being careful about hiring at all levels, and making sure you get exceptional people. We had a lot of discussions where we said, "Well, this person seems to be good enough," but we weren't staggered by them. We finally got to the point of saying, "If we are not staggered by them, we don't hire them." I also try to hire people who are a lot smarter than I am. I think I've succeeded in most cases.

Much of it is just finding people who have the right sense of aesthetic -- a lot has to do with taste, and a desire to keep things simple and elegant. Finding those people is very hard. When you find them, you try to keep them at all cost.

The Jini team has been an exceptionally stable team. Very few people have left the team, and much of the team's core predates Jini by a lot. Bob Scheifler was working on X Windows, so, of course, we knew his work. But he was the last member of the group to join. Prior to that, Ann Wollrath and I worked together for nine years. Ken Arnold and I had worked together for 15 years, on the first CORBA implementation and earlier projects. So, finding good people, keeping them happy and interested, and having a manager who gives engineers the freedom and time to do the work were the keys to putting our team together.

My previous manager had an epiphany one day. He came by my office, and said, "You know, I finally got it figured out. There are two kinds of managers. There are managers who are in control, and know what's going on, and lead the team, and they are the ones who make the decisions. I am not that kind of manager. Not with this team." By the way, that was not the current Jini team, but was an equally good group of people. He continued, "Then there are managers like rock group managers: To make sure the equipment is set up, the bus arrives on time, and everybody gets out of the way, so the band can play. That's the kind of manager I've got to be." Being the sensitive guy that I am, I told him, "And make sure the brown M&Ms are out, too."

He had it right, if you have a top-notch group of engineers, the manager's job is to get people out of their way, and let them do their work. And you're not going to understand it, or figure out what they're doing. But you've got to have faith that what they're doing is top-notch work, because they've done it before. At Sun, we were lucky; it's more fun than you can imagine, working with people like that.

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