Remembering Ken Traub

Just over a week ago Ken Traub, my friend and colleague, suddenly passed away. Lots of people have shared their memories of Ken, and have captured what a wonderful person he was, his intellect, and his breadth of interests and skills. To say that Ken was exceptional was an understatement, but I wanted to highlight three specific aspects of Ken that stand out for me.

The first was Ken’s ability to organize complex very systems. To the average person this might not sound that “sexy”, and they’d be mostly right, but the foundations of our digital world depend on a small number of people with this unique ability.

An example is the system of numbers that show up in bar codes and RFID tags and are a foundation for our entire system of commerce. Over the years Ken made major contributions to these standards and technology. Creating a system like this that can work reliability on a global scale requires the synthesis of information from a wide range of topics, including physics (the ability to read a code accurately), to computer science, to business standards and processes. Knowledge of all of these need to be synthesized into a coherent design, and then combined with the ability to write down the design in a clear and complete matter.

This last point is particularly important. A key artifact of these projects are lengthy, detailed, precise documents that specify everything about the system. Most of us (and I definitely include myself) will get the basics right, then lose momentum when it comes time to work through all of the edge cases and exceptions that occur in the real world.

Successful projects in this space produce systems, like the bar code and RFID systems, that are so good, so reliable, that you forget they exist. Ken was among the world’s elite at creating and defining systems like this. (Side note: the other person who was amazing at this that I’ve had the privilege of working with was Guy Steele, who also happens to live in the same town as Ken’s family).

The second thing I’ll always remember about Ken was his intellectual honesty. When you design things in groups, lots of interesting dynamics appear. Individuals might get attached to their own idea and defend it even after it has been shown to be flawed. Or engineers defend idea A because it links to idea B, which they are really excited about. Or someone dismisses key information because it comes from someone they don’t consider to be as smart as they are. Or you’ll get competitive types who view the design process as a contest where there are winners and losers depending on who’s ideas get built.

These behaviors are so common, so widespread, that over time you listen to people with the assumption that there are hidden agendas at work. Quickly I learned this was not the case with Ken. Whether we agreed or disagreed, he was always driven towards an underlying beauty or truth, the belief that there is a “right” answer to any design challenge, and a willingness to incorporate new ideas or information that might help lead to that result. It was fanstastically refreshing to design things with Ken - you just knew you were going to end up with a better design, and the journey was going to be as rewarding as the destination.

Finally, my lasting image of Ken is mentoring a junior engineer. The act of mentoring embodies so much about Ken’s character: his modesty, his approachability, his teaching skills and his amazing thought process. Ken didn’t just help other engineers solve problems - he taught them to be better engineers.

And that was Ken in a nutshell. You thought you were sitting down to improve a design, but you got improved in the process.

God bless Ken, and give his family strength during this challenging time.