Lib Gibson

At our age, conversations often start with medical updates. So how delightful tonight to remember old times — when we were young, vigorous, and slimmer. Working with bright, dedicated, quirky people to colonize the world with SHARP APL. Tonight is about reconnecting with old friends and sharing stories — many of them true! Let’s go on a stroll down my memory lane.

Remember the 80s? When our line to Europe was 9600 baud? I have 2000 times that bandwidth to my house. The 80s. When Joey saved 9 years of email in 82 megabytes. Now we get that in a day.

But I.P. Sharp was not just about technology. At IPSA, I met many of my best friends to this day, including some now gone — Brian Daly, Frank Arthur, Ken Iverson, Mark Seltzer, Helene Falardeau, and Lael Kirk being just a few I was close to.

Oh, the times we had with our friends.

  • I remember parties: late, late nights at Conferences arranged by the incredible Rosanne, Toronto Island picnics, a Sydney harbor cruise, Audrey’s kids’ Christmas parties.
  • I remember Raj inducting me into the joys of the corporate pub.
  • I remember a trip to Syracuse with David Keith. I got on the plane in Ottawa. David was to join in Montreal. I was agitated when the plane left without him. Then the plane slowly rolled to a stop, the door opened, and — David nonchalantly walked on.
  • I remember getting hopelessly lost in Holland with Allison Atkey going to see Tony de Lucovich. Allison protesting all the while “But I have a GREAT sense of direction!”
  • I remember when Jane and I had a business meeting in Winnipeg. IPSA’s famous frugality dictated we share a hotel room. Jane arrived after me, unlocked the door and called out, “I’m coming to get you!” It was the wrong room. A man wearing only a towel took one look at this willowy redhead and responded, “I certainly hope so!”
  • I remember a stressful evening in Tokyo with Brian Traquair. Under our hosts’ eagle eyes we struggled to eat unfamiliar raw fish and to drink tea that looked and tasted like a stagnant pond. Back at the hotel Traq RAN for a hamburger.
  • I remember asking Arthur Whitney to wear clean, ironed pants and shirt for an important demo. Arthur blew them away. When I thanked him for dressing properly someone said, “Didn’t you notice he had NO SHOES?” You have to be VERY explicit with programmers.

I remember being pushed out of my comfort zone:

  • Waking up in terror my first morning as head of the Zoo.
  • Quivering like jelly on a Swiss mountain with Gottfried jumping up and down on his skis, urging me down what HE considered a gentle slope.
  • I remember arguments with Eric that he consistently won — even though I was consistently RIGHT!

And I remember Roger.

  • His office with six feet of printouts — totally redundant, because Roger with his photographic memory knew Every. Single. Line. Of code. There’s the legend of Roger in a Regina bar realizing he’d forgotten his house key, and drawing it for a locksmith to cut a replacement. It worked.
  • Sharp’s brilliant developers produced magnificent code, but not always on deadline. I used to multiply delivery estimates by a variable factor. Hugh Hyndman, pretty close to 1. Leslie Goldsmith, a little closer to 2 [note]. David Allen, pretty close to 3. But Roger claimed, twirling his mustache, “There’s only one factor: 2. What changes is how many times you apply it.”
  • I remember Roger advising a customer to connect pins 4 and 7 on their 3705. The uneasy customer called the IBM development team. “Who told you to do a stupid thing like that?” “Roger Moore”. “Oh well that’s OK, Roger knows more about this device than we do.”

There was a reason Ian called Roger the brains of the organization.

And then there’s Ian. The heart of the company.

A 21st century company waaay back in the last century. Relatively flat and widely dispersed, I.P.Sharp was held together by electronics and camaraderie. And Ian.

The company was blind on race, creed, colour, nationality, sexual orientation, and eccentricity. And gender. I left IPSA with a suspicion that discrimination against women was a myth. Yeah. Right.

  • I remember one night a customer phoned the London office for APL help, was given a quick solution, and asked, “Who is this? I want to mention you to the boss.”
    “My name is Ian Sharp.”
    “Wow, must be handy to have a name like that.”
    “It is,” Ian replied without further elaboration.
    Fred Perkins got a laugh the next morning.
  • I remember Ian visiting Ottawa my very first week. Having sensed that knowing APL could be handy, I asked when the next APL course was. Next week. Great, can I take it? Uh, you’re giving it! I wolfed down Paul Berry’s book and gave my best course ever. I didn’t know enough to confuse anyone!!
  • I remember Ian’s ability to deliver a speech — a captivating witty speech — TO THE MINUTE despite never wearing a watch!
  • I remember people urging Ian to dump a painful, overdue Morgan Stanley project. There was no contractual penalty. But we gave our word said Ian. That was the end of that.

Although Ian has a steel-trap analytic mind, he often flew on instinct, and empowered us to do the same. At one branch manager conference Lee Bettes and Chris Sanderson described similar banking apps. At coffee break Ian pulled me aside, to ask me to build a generalized system. No business case. Just like that. So began the highly successful and profitable Global Limits System. The next week in London I mentioned it casually and a salesperson remarkably arranged meetings with 3 big banks. I knew NOTHING about Global Limits and we hadn’t even pulled together a team! When asked whether the Sharp system worked this way or that way, I would respond, truthfully and with a straight face, “It’s unbiased in that regard!”

Ian didn’t punish failures. Which freed people to take risks. My MBA course teaches how the treatment of failure can impact innovation. I.P.Sharp is the case study.

Ian didn’t stand on policy; he operated on trust. When I applied to Sharp, I asked about sick leave. Ian looked perplexed. “When you’re sick, you stay home.” I persisted. “How LONG can I stay home?” Even more perplexed, Ian said, “Until you’re better.”

So there you have it. Ian Sharp. Smart. Witty. Unprejudiced. Intuitive. Modest. Honorable. Supportive. A man you could admire. A man you could trust. A man you could love.

I think I speak for everybody when I say thank you Ian for inviting us to build a company together.

Note: In later years, Leslie and Affinity (started by Leslie and Hugh Hyndman) did many projects for me as consultants and consistently delivered on time.

Presented to the IPSA50 gathering on 2014-10-04.

created:  2014-10-05 18:00
updated:2014-10-07 11:05