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September 2004

Making contact with the spirit of experience

NewsWire Editorial

I sat in a room which felt like it brimmed with spirits. Champagne bottles rested in a bin behind us, cool bubbly liquid so rarely a part of any computer conference. Over 20 years I’ve seen that they’ll serve wine or beer at these events, sometimes even hard liquor on a show floor. But the spirits uncapped in an HP trade show’s session rooms do not commonly include champagne. No matter. We celebrated an uncommon collection of people: Pioneers in the computing experience which we once called minicomputers. Your HP 3000s stand as the state of that art. About two dozen of us sat in chairs to play a game whose prize, industry intelligence, was already confirmed.

At HP World in Chicago, the 3000 community on hand did not want for chairs. Standing was not required in many rooms that I entered, listening for news related to your computer as I have done since 1984. This Interex conference was the first one during those two decades with an official lounge for the 3000 community, as if we had earned the right to sit. So the plush chairs beckoned at Booth 821. “Stop moving for awhile,” the Community Networking booth organized by Alan Yeo and donated by Interex seemed to say. “You’ve arrived. See, there’s someone like you, sitting in front of a nice glass table, or connected on the floor’s fastest wireless access point, looking for someone with whom they can network.”

When some of us began in this market, network was something that connected those minicomputers — not a word used as a verb to describe conversation. There have been many changes like that, because life is mostly change at its essence. People traveled to Chicago to track those changes in the 3000 experience. Like carpenters, many of them arrived searching for solutions which fit their challenges, the nails that matched their hammers. We’re migrating, they said, and we need to know how to do it, what to expect.

But in that room where I sat with those champagne bottles, perched on my less-plush chair with a long table behind me crammed with cubed cheeses, cocktail snacks and orange juice offered after 5 PM, nobody was migrating. Not yet, with more than 60 questions to answer in the HP 3000 Trivia Contest, organized by Jeanette Nutsford in her last hour as chair of the COBOL Special Interest Group. No, in those chairs it might have been 1984 again, with so many of those trivial questions wrapped around a version of the 3000, MPE V, which few had even seen during the last decade, let alone used.

That didn’t matter, either. For almost every question, someone in that room knew the answer, even after the champagne had been flowing an hour. At times it felt like those playing were summoning spirits of elders. Although there were many 3000 community members missing from this conference, their names were invoked.

“That has to be a Stan question,” someone said, and most of the people in the room knew which Stan: Seiler, not present, but who’d drafted many of those 62 tests years ago.

Others had less choice about being absent. Ill fortune had kept a leading community spirit out of the room, as HP’s Jeff Vance had to skip HP World because of a serious mountain bike accident. Curator of the Command Interface, that most MPE-ish part of the 3000, Vance was missed. Most of the 3000 meetings I covered included a mention of Jeff, a wish for his speedy recovery, a longing for his energy and optimism and patience. (He’s on the mend, faster than might be reasonably expected for a man who was virtually paralyzed for a little while after his crash. When you bike, eventually everyone crashes. Jeff is rebooting this month.)

Had he been there, he might have been part of the HP crew seated at the rear of that room — the spot where HP tends to hover these days, watching and listening. In the Trivia room, though, the HP coterie was vocal, bubbling with the wisecracks of men like Mike Paivinen, the engineer now on point to figure out what your 3000’s future might look like when HP will no longer guide it.

“What was the full name of the A-MIT operating system,” Nutsford rang out, doing her best imitation of the host of The Weakest Link quiz show.

“Hey, I supported the A-MIT when I first came to HP,” Paivinen said. Several heads around the room nodded in community. They had felt supported, and now they felt confirmed, as if the answers to these old questions had not lost all of their value.

“Oh, I know that one!” Lendy Sanford-Cooke scribbled it quickly onto her answer sheet. She had described herself to me as someone who’s “only” worked on the 3000 since 1987. The networking lounge was the best feature of this HP World, she had told me before the contest began.

“It was what made the show for me,” she’d said. “The first day I was here, I didn’t know anybody.”

Ron Wuerth, another 3000 member, affirmed that power of connection. “I was surprised to find myself going to the 3000 sessions anyway,” he said, “given our migration situation.”

Community contact can entice like that. In Chicago it felt almost intoxicating. “Be sure to get some champagne,” we heard during that Trivia contest. “We’ve got to drink it up.” The mantra had been picked up several times throughout the contest. The 3000 community had engineered another fail-safe system with the bubbly, as Neil Harvey and his partner Jens von Bülow had ordered something close to a bottle for each person in the room. The two third-party vendors had traveled farther than anyone, all the way from South Africa, so they had to leave earlier to get home.

“We must go now,” Neil said, beaming a smile that Jens matched beside him. “That’s because I’m afraid all your faces have gotten too fuzzy.”

The laughter at that line then wrapped itself around us like a comforter. We had worked together in the community long enough to savor such contact. Your community has been, as Birket Foster likes to say, a marketplace of names — first names. Neil’s quip, tossed off on his exit, reflected the essential good humor of the 3000’s legacy. You could often smile through the years, we all believed, because you had fewer technical troubles using MPE.

Transition has brought troubles to assail that good cheer, however. Those like Seiler, Vance, Nutsford and others consider them challenges; even Paivinen, with much of the trouble at his feet, reached for humor with a reference to the 50th birthday he’d recently celebrated. He got kidded about that age, another confirmation of experience brimming from this HP World. In a conference with enough time for long talks and plenty of bubbly, we looked at a future of change and did not blink back fear. In our embrace of community, facing the spirit of contact, we could feel brave about meeting our tomorrows.

— Ron Seybold

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