In October, I went to a Startup Grind at Google’s new DC space to hear Google’s VP and Internet Evangelist, Vint G. Cerf, riff about life as a “Founding Father” of the Internet, net neutrality, smart cities, the IPv4 address shortage and other topics, including his 15 minutes of fun fame on the Colbert Report. I’d jumped at the opportunity to hear the Internet back story from the man who invented TCP/IP, the protocol behind the Internet’s fundamental architecture.
How big a deal was his invention?
TCP/IP used Ethernet, LANs, 3G/4G etc to glue many networks to each other. It supported FTP, email, HTTP and thus the World Wide Web.
Holy cow! as Vint would say. And, several times that night, he did. It’s no wonder Vint Cerf has been inducted into The Internet Society’s (ISOC) Internet Hall of Fame. Sure, he co-founded ISOC, but somebody had to do it. Among his many awards, he’s also snagged a Presidential Medal of Freedom. In fact, Vint has got enough laurels to stuff a mattress, but he doesn’t seem to rest on any of them. He’s the perfect Internet Evangelist for Google.
A little background
The Internet blossomed in 1973 , a time when students, like me, typed papers on manual and electric typewriters and communicated on the run by finding a working pay phone. Back then, wireless, like hairless, meant you simply had none. A couple of years before, Vint and communications specialist Robert Kahn, had figured out what the software should look like to connect fixed-location computers as part of ARPANET (the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), which he calls a “national-scale packet switching experiment.” “As a net result of that, no pun intended,” he notes, “email was invented in 1971.” By then, Robert Kahn had gone to work for the U.S. Military’s DARPA program. By the Spring of ’73 he showed up at Stanford where Vint was teaching to enlist his help in solving the problem of how the Military could use computers in command and control.
The rest really is history at blazing fast speed.
The following is just a taste of the experience from Vint’s talk. He recommends checking out the exquisitely detailed essay from the Internet Society written by Barry Leitner called: “Brief History of the Internet.” Google it later.
Here’s a sample of the story in midstream that Vint told at Startup Grind:
“All we had at that point were dedicated telephone lines connecting fixed computers,” Vint said, and then he warmed up to full storytelling mode. “We can’t have wires trailing from the planes, they’d never get off the ground, the tanks would run over the wires and break them, the ships get all tangled up so we had to use ground mobile radio and satellite networks so even if we built packet switch networks using ground mobile radio and satellite, how were we going to hook all these things together because they don’t work the same way…”
The problem and solution idea, he said, were simple:
We didn’t want each computer at the edge of some ‘net over here to know how many ‘nets it has to go through to get to a destination. We didn’t want each computer to have to figure out how do we route this thing through this network. Oh, and we weren’t allowed to change the networks to know they were part of the Internet. So none of those packet switch networks had any idea they were part of the Internet.
Now, that seems like a pretty tough problem to me, but according to Vint, “You can see the design jumping out at you as a result.”
He added that encapsulation and decapsulation were how they hopped the Internet protocol packets through all of the different networks. It was like sending postcards in envelopes to each network, which it opens blindly, exclaims, “Holy cow, a postcard!” and puts it into another envelope bound for the next network. Because the networks didn’t know they were connected, the team put a box between them that knew how to talk to both nets.
“It’s as simple as that,” he concluded, after a more complete explanation that’s worth hearing him deliver on the available Startup Grind podcast. “The only problem was designing all the details.”
Simple was the new brilliant:
“The cool thing,” Vint adds, “is that the only party that needs to know what the payload in the packets means is the one on the edge. So, if you want to create a new surface on the Internet, you don’t have to change the network, you just change the way the bits get entered and reviewed by the target machines. So people invented all kinds of new applications on the net and the network just quietly grew its ability to move packets around, that’s all it knew and that’s all it has to know. That’s why you have a cornucopia of applications on the net.”
Why call it the Internet? “We talked about internetworking, but it took too long to say that over and over again,” Vint explains. In December 1974 he and two graduate students wrote the details of TCP/IP in a paper called “A protocol for packet network intercommunication” in which they referred to it as the Internet. “It was the first use of Internet in a publication, and it stuck.”
Vint, though born in New Haven, CT, in 1943 at the end of the war, promptly moved with his parents to California’s San Fernando Valley.
I asked Vint: Did your dad’s career in the Aerospace industry have any impact on your taste for innovation?
“My dad was part of the personnel management and development team at North American Aviation and I had the opportunity to compete for scholarships and summer jobs at various NAA divisions. While my father’s training was primarily in the liberal arts and public administration, he was a competitive Phi Beta Kappa scholar in college and excelled academically in high school. He was always encouraging me to excel in academic work, regardless of the field.”
More joy, less ego
It was Vint’s open and generous nature that struck Conrad Daly, the first-time Startup Grind attendee sitting in the second row, just behind me in this intimate setting. He’d moved to DC about three years ago.
“I was surprised that he was able to speak so modestly, as if he were a teacher,” he said. Conrad retains way more of his Irish accent than that of Tennessee, where he moved from London at age 6. When asked about his background he says, “I like to say where the Beverly Hillbillies moved from, is where we moved to. You, know, as the drunken crow flies.” So where exactly does his accent hail from? “Mum’s Irish to the hilt, with all of her family being from Galway area; Dad’s more complicated. He was born in Egypt to French and Scottish parents who ended up over there through missionary work.”
Fascinated as I was by Vint, Conrad has a nice story of his own. Following law school at Cornell Law School, where he got his J.D., and then at the Sorbonne, where he got a Master 1 and Master 2, Conrad has been mostly doing anti-corruption and justice reform work, both at the World Bank and with private clients. He first got an idea for the app he wanted to create when he was on a project and frustrated by being unable to locate an English-speaking solo practitioner in Eastern Europe to turn to in the long-term. “I thought, this is ridiculous,” he explains: “I was looking for a partner and had to revert to a more limited service provider.” He tapped LinkedIn, he tried his network, he asked his friends to search their networks. Nothing. “This doesn’t make sense. A region such as Eastern Europe must have many more small and solo practitioners than the U.S. does, and the U.S. has 63 percent. I thought, ‘they’re out there; why are they so invisible?'”
Later, doing work for the World Bank, he couldn’t accept that businesses in developing nations trying to work with businesses in other developing nations were by-and-large forced to operate through the medium and limited networks of western entities rather than networking directly with colleagues in that other country. This practice raises costs and inhibits competition. “For example, if you’re a Chinese entity you tend to go with one of the larger law firms in Hong Kong, not because they’re the best option or only option, but because they are the most visible and recognizable option,” he says. “While there will always be a place for Big Law and Big Finance, that place is not ubiquitous.” It doesn’t make sense for enterprises to pay top-tier firm rates just to get a small question answered or test the water rather than launch a full-out project.
The result was an idea for a new startup: mApptus, a networking exchange to locate practitioners with specific skills in the legal, financial, international, governmental and, where applicable, education sectors. “Moreover, as an app for mapping aptitudes, mApptus will offer users a nuanced means of searching for practitioners, especially those who straddle professional columns, thereby hopefully breaking out of siloed mentalities, while also catering to the personal aptitudes and interests of individual practitioners.” He hadn’t come to pitch it that night. He’d come because he wanted to see the man who helped create the Internet. But, when he realized Vint was giving honest, helpful feedback he found himself on his feet describing mApptus. He was glad he did.
“Immediately, he gave me two different names to look up and then, thereafter, he chatted about the general idea with me and it was positive feedback,” he said. “He’s a fantastically interesting character. Clearly intelligent but also very humble about it. He treats [his accomplishments] like anybody else’s everyday work. I’d heard that he was engaging, and wanted to have the experience of hearing him in person, but I hadn’t expected either such humility, or such individualized attention.”
I asked Vint: The aspiring entrepreneur, Conrad Daly, was struck by your modesty — would you say your openness to dialog in such a forum was honed in the classroom in your four years teaching at Stanford?
“Not so much there as in the research program at UCLA where, in Len Kleinrock’s laboratory and Gerry Estrin’s laboratory, we were given fairly free rein. We had great respect for each other’s perspectives and our debates always assumed that all of us were working towards a common goal. We understood that teamwork was important and so was mutual respect, especially when we were exploring differences of opinion.”
Reflecting further on the evening, Conrad said, “It is encouraging to see a tech person with that sort of outlook who has decided that California is not the place to be for him, and that Washington, DC and the East Coast is. ”
Vint has his own thoughts on the matter:
“I had many opportunities to move back to the West Coast but I didn’t because we have more fun in this town than we ever had anywhere else,” said Vint who has dealt with every U.S. Administration since and including Carter’s. “You never know who you’re going to work with next. You never know who you’re going to bump into at some casual event who later turns out to be a really helpful connection. And in this town, believe me, the ‘who you know’ counts a lot for getting things to happen. We just had an absolute blast in this place.”
Perhaps what makes Vint so interesting is how interested and down-to-earth he is about innovation. It’s as if you crossed an accomplished computer scientist with Doctor Seuss — “Oh the places you’ll go!” And, the people who’ll follow you there. Like the folks he convinced to let MCI Mail go online “just for a year” to break the no commercial use barrier on the Internet?
I asked Vint: …Would you say your people skills helped you progress?
“I think a significant part of leadership must be enthusiasm for the work at hand and the objective at which that work is aimed. How can you possibly follow someone or work with someone who doesn’t share your passion? I recognize that big things only happen when a lot of people are committed to them. Hence, my continued enthusiasm for pretty much anything I get involved in doing.”
If he could do one thing differently, it would have been to make the Internet more secure with very strong authentication mechanisms…and to have had a crystal ball that warned him they’d need waaaay more IP addresses. He explains, “I thought at the time that [the Internet] was an experiment and I thought that if it worked we would then develop a production version of it. The problem is the experiment got loose into the general public in 1989 and we couldn’t stop it from taking off.”
I asked Vint: Have you told your stories over and over at A-list events but found meaning in sharing the living history moment with your fellow guests? Like a rock star, you want to play new songs but understand a few classics need to be played?
“I learn a great deal about history when meeting with those who shared it (and saw it from their unique perspectives). And I find it even more interesting to meet young people with new ideas (or even old ones that might work now even if they did not work in the past). It is fun to work with people who are too young to know ‘you can’t do that!'”
For me, this Start up Grind was personal. I came of age in the “before and after” of the connected world. It changed what I did, how I did it, who I did it with and launched my continuing quest for the next-new possible. It enabled me to work steadily, part-time from home for over 20 years and amass a tremendous variety of experience while raising three kids, helping my community and continuously learning to remain relevant in a changing workplace.
Thank you, Vint Cerf. You’re one of my heroes.
You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So…get on your way! — Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering what you can do for Vint Cerf and the rest of the world? Ask your ISP in no uncertain terms to give you the date and time when you can get IPv6 addresses from your service. We should be doing v6 to support the internet of things…