[TUHS] Dennis Ritchie's Dissertation [ really PhD's at BTL ]

Jon Steinhart jon at fourwinds.com
Sun Aug 2 08:00:42 AEST 2020

Norman Wilson writes:
> John Gilmore:
>   Yes -- but [Bell Labs'] administration was anything but egalitarian or
>   meritocratic.  I know someone who had immense trouble getting inside the
>   door at the Labs because "all" he had was a bachelor's degree.  Let
>   their character be judged by how they treated a stranger.
>   Sign me proud to have succeeded in life with no degrees at all,
> ====
> That was where local management came in.
> I have no degrees at all.  I haven't been nearly as
> successful in many ways as John, but I was recruited
> and hired by 1127.  That I had no degree meant I was
> initially hired as a `special technical assistant'
> rather than a `member of technical staff,' but my
> department head and director and executive director
> (the last was the legendary Vic Vyssotsky) worked
> tirelessly on my behalf, without my pushing them at
> all, to get me upgraded, and succeeded after I'd been
> there about a year.  It was only later that I realized
> just how much work they'd done on my behalf.
> The upgrade gave me a big raise in pay, but I was
> young enough and nerdy enough not to notice.
> Within the 1127 culture there was no perceptible
> difference; it was very much an egalitarian culture.
> I felt respected as an equal from the start (really
> from the day and a half I spent interviewing there).
> Not every part of the Labs, let alone AT&T, was like
> that, especially outside of the Research area.  I
> didn't realize it initially but that was one of the
> ways I benefited from the success of UNIX (that 1127's
> and 112's management could push past such bureaucratic
> barriers).
> After all, Ken never had more than an MS.

Having spend time in both areas 10 and 20, there were more advanced degrees
in area 10.  But, it was really low key.  You wouldn't know unless you asked.

One of the nice benefits at BTL is that they had a program for employees to
get advanced degrees.  I was told that if I decided to work there post college
that I would need to plan on going for an advanced degree.

There are many different definitions of success.  I agree that John was successful
at making money, and as being part of a team that made free software what it is
today.  But that's not the definition for pre-divestiture BTL.  They were a research
and development lab.  Success meant blazing new trails and inventing.  I don't
think that BTL was specifically looking for people with PhDs, they were looking for
people who had a history of doing good research.  During most of BTLs history one
found those people by reading dissertations.  People who had no degree, much less
an advanced degree, were researcher-wannabees, not proven researchers.  They didn't
hire Shannon because they liked his name, I'd guess that his master's theses opened
the door.

Another way to look at it is that one could certainly become financially successful
by reimplementing tar as free software, but the invention of tar is successful

The only way that I got my foot in the door was because Heinz and Carl knew me through
the Explorer Scout post.  My unscientific survey of summer students was that they either
came from scouts, or were people working on advanced degrees in college.


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