Thank Fred Brooks that your emails don’t shout in all caps. In the process of helping to create the landmark System 360 mainframe computer, at IBM, he changed the standard character size from six bits to eight, thus enabling lowercase letters.
Many of the major accomplishments on Fred’s resume begin with seemingly small steps that turn big. Small step: He convinced IBM that his team should develop the hardware and software separately for the general purpose computer. Big yield: That opened the door for software to be a separate industry. Think Microsoft, Adobe, Norton.
Small step: Fred and his team replaced computer tapes with disks. Big yield: Vastly increasing the processing speed and power.
Small step: In the early 1960s, although IBM certainly was not in the habit of locating its plants on the advice of one person, Fred persuaded the company to open what would become its largest research and manufacturing location in the nascent Research Triangle Park. Big yield: That IBM anchor gave other technology companies and R&D operations the confidence to follow suit, and RTP took off.
Small step: In 1964, Fred accepted UNC’s invitation to start a computer science department. Big yield: Graduate students over nearly a half century have advanced the industry with products and ideas that have changed the world as we know it.
Those IBM S/360s cost $10 million apiece, Fred said. Today, he said, “My iPhone has a faster processor, more memory and as many input-output devices, and it cost $600.”
While growing up in Greenville, Fred fell in love with computers at age 13, when he saw an article in Time magazine about the first American computer, created by Howard Aiken. Fred went on to study computer science under Aiken at Harvard, getting a PhD in applied mathematics because Harvard had no computer science department. Over the years, Fred has received dozens of awards and accolades for his advances in the field of computer science. Among the most important are the National Medal of Technology, which he and two of his IBM colleagues received from President Ronald Reagan for their work on the S/360; and the Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery, the highest honor in the computing field. In 2008, UNC named its newest computer sciences building in his honor.
“The guy’s a giant,” said Gary Bishop ’84, who studied under Fred and now teaches in UNC’s computer science department. “He has the servant-leader ethic down. He’s an adviser to presidents, revered by IBM bigwigs and breaking new ground in the field, yet he never thinks of himself as too busy or too important to stop and answer questions.” Bishop invites blind children to a Maze Day every year for fun educational activities, and there’s Fred, scooping out ice cream. “Whatever needs to be done, he’s happy to do it,” Gary said.
Grounded in his Christian faith, Fred chooses research projects that help people do important jobs. Over the years, he has worked with some 40 teams to solve practical problems in such varied disciplines as defense, medicine, biochemistry and atomic energy. Most recently, Fred has focused on virtual environments, an important training tool that enables people to interact and react as if they’re someplace they’re not.
Fred turned down the high salary and perks of IBM stardom in favor of teaching future generations and handling the committee work and administrative duties of founding and leading a department. At age 81, he still teaches and advises doctoral candidates. “I can’t think of anything that’s more fun to do,” he said. “Carolina has been a great place to work, and Chapel Hill is a great place to live, so I haven’t listened to any other offers.”
Twenty-seven years ago, Fred received the Thomas Jefferson Award that recognizes a Carolina faculty member who, through personal influence and performance of teaching duty, writing and scholarship, best exemplifies Jefferson’s ideals. His 1975 book, The Mythical Man-Month: Essays in Software Engineering, is a computer science standard. He has served on the National Science Board and on the Defense Science Board; he has received the top awards from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the Association for Computing Machinery; and an honorary Doctor of Technical Science from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.
Mary Whitton, who teaches with Fred, said he has built a remarkably collegial department. “That ‘do unto others’ is how he lives his life,” she said. When IBM awarded him a $100,000 grant, he divided it evenly among UNC, N.C. State and Duke. His attitude: We’ll all rise together.
When Fred was in the fifth grade, he bragged to his favorite teacher about his performance on a standardized test; he had done better than everyone else in his class. His teacher said, “Frederick, it doesn’t matter how you compare to the other children; the only thing that matters is how you did compared to the best you could do.” The lesson made a permanent impression on him.
“With occasional lapses, the desire to surpass others was not again significant in my education or career,” he said. “That has been very liberating.”
The Faculty Service Award is presented by the GAA Board of Directors.