Who is Keith Lang’s hero?

[This post is part of a series on Mentors and Heroes]


Keith Lang is a co-founder and interaction designer at plasq.com, makers of the award-winning Comic Life and Skitch — one of my all-time favorite apps. Follow him on Twitter @songcarver.


Keith Lang’s hero is…

Doug Engelbart, Computer Pioneer

How long have you known of your hero and have you ever met?
About 3 years, I think. I’ve never had the opportunity to meet Doug. I’ve met someone who spent some time with him, and earlier this year I was overjoyed to see in person the original mouse made by Doug’s team at the Computer History Museum. :-)

The first mouse

How has your hero had such a profound impact on your life?
I fell into the UI field sideways, and as a response scrambled to catch up on the history. I followed links, watched Youtube clips and generally read everything.

I think it was the seminal Doing with Images Makes Symbols video by Alan Kay where I first saw The Mother of All Demos. I was shocked to realized that so much of what defines modern computing — the concept and practical design of the mouse, ubiquitous graphical interface, text editing, hypertext documents, collaborative documents, screen-sharing, video conferencing and much more — had been achieved by 1968. And this was a real, workable solution which Doug’s team used to write manuals for other departments. It was not a mockup.

Here’s how his story has impacted me:

  1. Doug had used his background in RADAR, and inspired by Bush’s article As We May Think to imagine a future office worker’s challenges. He, and many talented people around him, worked hard to to bring this idea to fruition, and were DECADES ahead of anything else. Lesson: It is possible to imagine and build the future, if it’s clear in your mind.
  2. Doug and his team believed in Bootstrapping — leveraging what they had to build the systems they needed, then using the improved system to get to the next level. Repeat as necessary. Lesson: Leverage what you have.
  3. The Mother of All Demos changed the computing world forever, but ultimately Doug’s system never was implemented widely. In fact, the patent on the mouse expired before it was ever mass-produced. Lesson: Just because it’s great doesn’t mean people will ‘get it’ or want to buy it.
  4. In the end, most of the talent in Doug’s team was poached by Xerox for PARC. Apparently, Doug had some unusual, ultimately unsuccessful ways of managing people at SRI. So they left. Lesson: A team needs to be happy to last.
  5. The impact of the brilliant 1968 demo echoed for decades. Lesson: Demo well.

How do you gain knowledge and inspiration from your hero?
I probably account for 100 of the views on the Youtube copy of the 1968 demo. There’s honestly so much in there to draw from. Thierry Bardini’s Bootstrapping biography is great, What the Dormouse Said by John Markoff gives wonderful context to the time and place.

What is one piece of wisdom your hero has been quoted as saying that has stuck with you the most?
Doug Engelbart says in the 1968 demo: “If in your office, you as an intellectual worker, were supplied with a computer display, backed up by a computer that was alive for you all day, and instantly responsive to every action you had, how much value could you derive from that?”

That question nailed the future to the wall and pointed to it.

Keep in mind, that at the time, computers of this caliber were massive, only in a few select military-funded installations and available to select few. Getting them to do *anything* was rocket-science hard. Here was Engelbart not only proposing, but *realizing* a future dream where everyone had one of these machines on their desk.

It’s not even so much the question, but the vision and clarity of it.

In fact, it was 2 decades before this became reality, via a direct lineage from SRI to Xerox PARC to Apple. I like to think this prescience survives in Steve Jobs’ oft-used “Wouldn’t it be great…?” phrase.

What else do you want the world to know about your hero?
I have to give credit to my girlfriend for inspiring the following realization.

Despite the huge impact that SRI’s 1968 demo had on the world, Doug Engelbart’s work was never taken further. His team left him for Xerox PARC, and the US Government never leveraged the work he had done.

What went wrong?

Only this month did I meet with a friend who had spent some time with Doug, and explained that Doug Engelbart was still adamant that people should want to learn the ‘lexicon’ of the computing system before they use it. That they should invest, and *want* to invest a significant amount of time learning to use a system before they get something of value out of it.

The realization I had was this: The people who Doug envisioned using his system wanted to do the VERY SAME THING that Doug’s team had done: Bootstrap! People didn’t want to invest a lot of time learning a system — they wanted to jump right in, with the smidgest of knowledge, and get doing something productive. The users wanted to leverage what they knew already in the real world, and once inside the machine, learn as they went. The system needed to allow and encourage bootstrapping of *knowledge*.

I don’t know if this would have changed the outcome. And the work done by the fresh mix in Xerox PARC and Apple was certainly revolutionary and perhaps unrepeatable. But perhaps, if Doug’s system was a little easier to use, then it would have attracted more internal users, grown a cult following, adapted to become a government and then commercial platform. And maybe today the name Doug Engelbart would be as well-known as the name Bill Gates or Thomas Edison.

Doug Engelbart lead a team to invent what we take for granted today. And he, and others like him, created some paths that never led to fruition. Knowing these paths allows us to avoid making the same mistakes, or perhaps, start from where he left off with new context and zeal.

Thank you Keith for sharing your hero with us!

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  1. […] UX expert and blogger Whitney Hess has just published the latest in her ‘Who is My Hero’ series, featuring yours truly. It’s my take on a personal inspiration to me, Douglas Engelbart, […]

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