I am so thrilled to see Whit Diffie honored with the Turing Prize, sometimes called the Nobel Prize of computer science. I had the distinct, wonderful and often times quirky pleasure of working with Whit at Sun Microsystems, where our paths intersected three or four times a year: at the bi-annual CTO nerd fests and at a research computing or privacy event where his wisdom was always shared with a smile, a story and subtlety. He is one of the most approachable people you will ever meet, and despite the fact that he is half of the reason you can safely transmit information over public networks, he has advocated tirelessly for us to continually rethink and reconsider our notions and mechanisms for privacy.
My favorite Whit story seems to have disappeared with my former Sun blog, so I can use the occasion of his fete to re-share: Every year the Sun Analyst’s Conference would feature a “CTO Panel” where each divisional CTO would join corporate CTO Greg Papadopoulos for some direction, big challenge, and market sensing banter. Seating order was never decided in advance, and after throwing out tenure, age, and alphabetical ordering, I quipped during walk-on that we should order ourselves by Erdos number. Without missing a beat or step, Whit said, with perhaps the most excitement I’d heard from him, “Great, mine’s 3, so I’m sitting first.”
He is one of the best people at marrying deep mathematical theory and practical applications, as they relate to real people, whether it’s nerd seating charts or worrying about how we balance security, privacy and risk. I found him to be a stanch advocate of diversity in all views, from what defines “good engineering” to how to recognize valuable work.
This is an award presentation worth sharing.