Summer 1997

aej When Allan E. Johannesen '68 got to WPI in 1964, the only computer he'd ever seen was in the movies. But when he took a mandatory ROTC course - a one-week introduction to computers - he came face-to-face with an IBM 1620. It changed his life.

"It was low to the ground and had a large, slanting console with a dial on it," he recalls.

"It had a lot of lights." It also had 20,000 digits (10,000 characters) of memory, with punch-card input and output. He still remembers the instructions to add (type in 21), subtract (12), multiply (13) and divide (19).

That first contact occurred in the basement of Stratton Hall (the computer was then the property of the Mathematical Sciences Department). For Johannesen, it proved the beginning of a lifelong fascination with computers, as well as a more than 30-year career at WPI.

The first undergraduate employee in the university's computer center, Johannesen was a mechanical engineering major (the Computer Science Department would not be established until a year after his graduation). Soon after he was hired in 1965, he began exploring the 1620's operating system disk and was amazed by the number of data errors he found. He knew it would crash someday, and, sure enough, it did. Reloading the programs could take up to three days using punch cards, so Johannesen suggested the center run an evaluation program he'd written and already run on the system (in test mode, he was quick to add). Three days' work shrunk to the three minutes needed to identify the problem, and his boss knew he'd made the right decision.

Today, Johannesen is managing senior UNIX systems administrator, but for many years he was the manager of academic time-sharing, a title he insists still describes his job quite well. With the university's network of UNIX computers, he says, "we're still time-sharing."

"WPI is nearly unique in that we don't place restrictions on students' use of the system," says Jim Jackson, director of the College Computer Center (CCC). "It's a shared network for all. If you need more space, you go see Al."

On the flip side, if you abuse the system, Johannesen is its policeman, sifting through aliases, breaking through encryption to find memory-wasting perpetrators. "We have three to four thousand users on our system," notes Jackson, "all at varying levels of competence and devilishness, trying to see what they can sneak by."

And if they're caught, they have to go see Al. "Students line up at his doorway as if it's a confessional," Jackson says.

"Please, Sir, I Want Some More..."

The experience of facing Johannesen hasn't changed much in 25 years, although the spare but modern office he works in today in Fuller Laboratories is a pleasant change from the pale green (and later, bright orange) cinder-block-walled space he occupied for nearly two decades in the basement of Gordon Library.

Al Johannesen had only seen computers in the movies before he encountered the Mathematics Department's IBM 1620, right, as a WPI student.

Students who want more "quota," or disk space, have to make their case in person. Over the years, the memory allocated to students has risen exponentially, keeping pace with the growth in the capacity of the university's computer resources, but students still find the need for more. Each day, several stand before Johannesen's desk, some visibly shaking, as he takes up to half an hour to scrutinize their files for games or spurious memory use.

"You could tell by their footsteps that [the students] wanted more disk space. It was a personal thing, and a pretty traumatic experience."

"You could tell by their footsteps that they wanted more disk space," says Eric Hahn '80, now a senior vice president for Netscape Communications Corp., who worked at the desk next to Johannesen's while he was an undergraduate. "It was a personal thing, and a pretty traumatic experience."

"He was universally feared," says Greg Scott '77, now president of his own software company, Scott Software Systems Inc., who was once a student employee in the computer center. "You wouldn't want to cross him." Or cross the street in front of him. Some students would even move to the opposite sidewalk to avoid crossing his path, Scott recalls.

When he returned to WPI after service in the Army, he found that the college had upgraded to the IBM 360 (in center of photo at right), which had 64K of RAM. He joined the staff of WPI's computer center and began a career managing WPI's academic computers that has now lasted more than three decades.

Despite Johannesen's gruff reputation, Hahn says, "there was a twinkle in his heart. He'd go to the ends of the earth for people if they really needed that disk space or other help." Notes Scott, "I recall him once spending an entire day at a whiteboard helping a student with his MQP."

"He really enjoys helping people solve their problems through his programming," says Helen Shuster, head of Gordon Library, where Johannesen enabled the distribution of the electronic card catalog over the campus network in 1989, making it available through desktop terminals across WPI's campus.

"Since that time," she adds, "he has continued to work with the library and has created a whole menu of electronic services of great value to the entire WPI community. Most recently, he assisted the library in implementing a completely new library system."

An Accidental Career

Johannesen describes his career as a series of accidents, starting back in high school. While at Daniel Hand High in Madison, Conn., he ended up in a typing course when he couldn't get into another course he wanted to take. It turned out to be one of his best courses in high school, which astonished him. But, he says, "it's what I rely on most days."

From its early IBM machines, WPI moved on to an RCA Spectra before getting its first Digital Equipment system (that's Jim Jackson, now director of the College Computer Center).

His arrival at WPI's computer center was somewhat accidental, as well. After graduating in 1968, Johannesen had a job lined up with IBM to work on the operating system for the company's 360 computer. But a month before graduation, he got a draft notice from the U.S. Army. He spent the next two months in basic training and then 20 months at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, where they were replacing their IBM 1620 with the newer 360. Johannesen helped with the conversion, reprogramming and staff training. Private Johannesen became a Specialist 5, the technical equivalent of a sergeant, he says, only he was "a commander of machines, not men."

By 1970, the country was in recession, and the IBM job was gone. Johannesen's WPI roommate, Larry Johnson '68, had tried the IBM career track himself and landed back at WPI's computer center. He suggested they recruit Al. Johannesen decided to return to WPI for a computer science degree, and then face the real world. "I still haven't done it," he says with a wry grin. He lasted a year in the master's program and found he enjoyed working more than studying. For him, "a resume was better than a degree."

"From day one, we knew we had two gems with Al and Larry," says Jackson, who was manager of operations at the time. "We kept giving Al more and more, and he took on more and more."

A constant through Johannesen's career has been a stream of students driven to learn all they could about WPI's computers. For many years, their haunt-night and day-was the lower level of Gordon Library where the computers and terminals resided.

During Johannesen's senior year, in 1967, WPI had established the Worcester Area College Computation Center (WACCC, pronounced "whack"), to provide computer services to a number of colleges in Worcester, including Clark University. Thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation, the center was able to purchase an IBM 360/30, which had a whopping 64K of RAM (random access memory), about the same amount personal computers would have 15 years later.

"It was immensely expensive," says Johannesen, "and it looked like a locomotive." Ten feet long, six feet high and about three feet wide, it would fill one side of his current office. People from area schools would bring their punch cards to WPI to run them through the IBM. Clark later obtained a remote card reader and printer, which enabled them to communicate with the computer over the phone lines.

In nine months, WACCC outgrew the 360. For its next machine, it chose the UNIVAC (RCA) Spectra 70/46G, just as RCA was poised to become a giant in the computer industry. Two years later, RCA pulled out of the computer business, and WPI bought its first Digital Equipment Corp. machine, the PDP-10. Its successor, the DECsystem-10, "became Al's machine," says Jackson. "Al got to make so many modifications to the operating software, we were accused of making it the WPI-DEC-10.

And then came the WPI-DEC-20, a computer that served up to 50 users at a time with a processor slower than the Intel 286, the chip that drove IBM-compatible computers a decade ago. "With limited resources, we modified everything," says Scott, who worked at WACCC when WPI's computer network consisted of the DEC-10 and three disk drives (which together had about 80 megabytes of space). "We were on constant patrol for disk space."

Adds Johannesen, the machine's main memory topped out at 163,840 words. "And that was core memory, prior to the invention of chips. Every bit of memory was a pinhead-sized doughnut of magnetic material with two wires threaded through the hole. With 163,840 words of memory, each with 38 bits (36 data bits and two parity bits), that's 6.2 million doughnuts. No wonder that thing was so big and used so much power!"

Life in the Romper Room

The hub of WACCC activities was the basement of Gordon Library - "the Romper Room," Jackson calls it. "For almost 20 years, it was really home for us."

The 1970s was "a good era," Johannesen says with characteristic understatement. He and a number of student employees (and hangers-on) worked to modify the center's Digital computers to suit WPI's needs (see related story, page 20). The WACCC staff soon discovered they could make needed changes faster and more effectively than could Digital, itself.

So they began to edit the software. They found they could do some of their work while the computer was running. "It was a scary time," recalls Johannesen. "That was the system we all relied on."

"You had to prove yourself to be a good hacker before you could work there," Scott says. A good hacker, he explains, produced a solution to a problem that was "elegantly done, with minimal load on the computer - work that others would want to study." Most of the work had to be done late on Saturday nights, when they could take down the system. Another slow period was during Intersession (the winter break between Terms B and C). "That was a time for major hacks," he says.

Scott ostensibly worked for WACCC about 10 hours a week, but typical of his group of friends, he'd be there "whenever I wasn't in class, in The Pub or sleeping."

"These were bright, hardworking, intelligent kids," says Johannesen. "They had a good time working and contributing to the redesign of the system and the result was a more productive, effective system that was better, with features we hadn't had before." They also postponed WPI's next computer purchase and secured its position as a beta test site for Digital, a distinction WPI continues to enjoy today. "Any one of them would say they got a good return," he adds. "They got their hands into that computer, learned how it worked in ways they wouldn't learn in a classroom."

Hahn agrees. "Al taught me the notion of real-world pragmatism," he says. "As an undergraduate, you learn theory, not practice. Al wanted to make sure the system ran fast, was easy to use, and had the right documentation. He's something of a perfectionist."

Johannesen also shared with Hahn the personal joy he took in developing software. "I was an apprentice to a master in the craft," Hahn says.

Parsimonious Porsche Owner

Another source of joy in Johannesen's life has been exotic cars. "Other than WPI's computers, cars have been his obsession," says Scott. Yet, as with his computers, he strives to use his vehicles in the most efficient and frugal manner. With some reluctance, Johannesen admits that two years ago, he bought a "very used" '87 Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet. He belongs to the Porsche Club of New England, "but only for the discounts." He says he often carpools or bikes the eight miles to work from his home in Rochdale to save wear and tear on his only car.

While owning a Porsche was always his dream, in the past he's had (in succession) a Volkswagen beetle, a 1973 BMW 2002tii, a 1979 red Chevy pick-up truck, a 1984 Alfa Romeo GTV6, and a 5-liter Mustang. He's also got a motorcycle "rusting away" in his garage. Almost as an aside, he mentions that he once rode it to Key West and back, and later, halfway across Canada. As warm weather approaches, "I still get that twinge and I think, îI should go to work on that bike,'" he says. "But then again, I do have a convertible."

Over the years, Johannesen has done many projects for WPI that went far beyond his job description. His work on the library card catalog is one example. Another is the Alumni Gateway, a Web-based alumni information service he built for the WPI Alumni Association. According to Sharon Davis, former director of Alumni Affairs, and now major gifts officer, his work on that project was voluntary and "incredibly responsive."

She explained to him one day the problems WPI had had with a previous system, and Johannesen just nodded and said, "Let me think about this." About a week later, he told her he had "something up on the system; take a look." He had created the prototype Web page that would let alumni post class notes, update their entries in the Alumni Directory, list job openings, and e-mail friends and colleagues through a WPI address.

"Anytime I or another user suggested other things that might be useful on the gateway," says Davis, "Al would have the same general response: 'Let me think about it,' and a few days later, 'I've got something up, see what you think.'"

The Alumni Gateway officially "opened" in May 1996 and since then has had more than 18,000 visits from alumni. Johannesen continues to add new features regularly that expand its usefulness. A stack of e-mail generated by alumni through the gateway stands at least two feet high in the Alumni Office, representing more written alumni contacts than Davis had received in all of her previous seven years on the job.

"It's the most dynamic communications vehicle we've ever had," she says. "Al has made it as easy as humanly possible. He's a very sophisticated, savvy systems guy."

And WPI is fortunate to have kept him so long. Why has he stayed? For the simple reason that he likes what he does, he says.

"I knew I could make more in the private sector, but I like the job," says Johannesen. Over the years, a number of WPI alumni who've gone on to become senior managers - or founders - of successful companies from New York to California have tried to lure him away, but they've always heard the same response.

"I'm pretty happy where I am," he says. "There's not a whole lot I would change."

Chisolm is a freelance writer living in Worcester, whose articles appear frequently in the Journal.

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Last Modified: Thu June 10 11:52:02 EDT 1999