As far as I can remember I must have met Ken for the first time in the late 1970s. I was working at Yourdon Inc. and really fascinated with software design methods. Ken was one half of the Warnier/Orr design methodology, and I needed to understand it. Little did I know then that some 35+ years later, I would remember only the basics about Warnier/Orr, but I remember all sorts of things about my friend, Ken.
I am from the Northeast of the US, so the best way I can describe Ken is he was the Will Rogers of IT, a simple easygoing country fellow as sharp as a tack, and as kind and gentle as a lamb. Will once said, “ I never met a man that I didn’t like,” same with Ken. He gave everyone he met for the first time the benefit of the doubt. He truly wanted to meet you. Only once he got to really know you did the benefit of the doubt disappear.
Ken never got old intellectually. Learning was his nutrition. He was a fearless technologist.
Ken was one half of a wonderful marriage. My wife Wendy and I really got to know Ken and Marlene when their daughter Paige was in acting school in New York, our home city. We had Paige over for dinner several times to help out the starving actress, and Wendy wanted to be sure that Paige knew she had local support whenever needed. Ken and Marlene would come to visit Paige, and we would get together. They were literally a couple. Wendy said they should be called, “KenandMarlene.” Partners.
Ken was at his finest in groups. He never tried to control them, but he was always a valuable contributor. His energy was contagious. He was one of the finest panelists I ever had the pleasure of listening to. Now that is a rare talent
The last time I talked to Ken was a phone call we had about two weeks before he died. He was in fine fettle, and really didn’t want to talk much about his condition. He wanted to talk about his family, and to hear all about mine. He had moved into an assisted living place, and Marlene had moved into a condo nearby. I asked him if he could walk over to Marlene’s place, and he answered, “Hell, I could crawl over if I have to.”
Ken, it was a delight to know you.
There are lots of wonderful and grand things to say about Ken Orr. What I have to say is not grand, but to me it is wonderful. What I have to to tell you about is a modest, almost insignificant incident, and it reveals a side of Ken that I hold as my best memory.
Ken and I had been to dinner in Topeka, and afterwards walked off the effects of too much steak by strolling around his neighborhood while he showed me the architecture and the front porch swings. After a pleasant while we fetched up at his place for a nightcap. The conversation flowed, as it always did with Ken. He was, as you know, the most interesting person to spend a few hours with, taking about things in general, technical things, and all the other things that were of mutual interest. At one point — I have no recollection of what it was we were discussing — Ken reached back, picked up a book that was germane to the conversation, and handed it to me.
“That’s the book I am handing about at the moment.”
“What do you mean ‘handing about’?”
“I read a lot of books, and every so often one strikes me as particularly interesting and relevant. I buy a batch of them and give them to people who would also be interested.”
This for me, is the essence of Ken Orr — he was generous of spirit; he wasn’t one to keep information to himself when it could be useful to others. He was thoughtful enough to understand what people might want to know, and kind enough to buy books on the chance that others might also find them interesting.
There is much more to say about Ken Orr; I shall leave that to others. I am content with this small yet important memory of Ken.
Farewell, Ken. I will miss your generosity of spirit.
I first met Ken Orr in — this is more than a little scary — 1978 when I followed him as speaker at software design conference. I was too dumb to realize at the time that following Ken is always hazardous because he didn’t just warm up an audience, he sated it. By the time I stood up to speak, eyes were unfocused as people pondered what Ken had been saying, and I felt more like a distraction than anything else.
I sent a Unix email to my colleagues that evening that Ken was a “dangerous influence” in the software world, dangerous because the approaches he was advocating were tinged with the evil of being slightly different from the ones we were advocating. I begin my tribute to Ken with this early negative assessment because the Ken Orr I came to know so well over the succeeding years would have been utterly charmed that anybody ever considered him “dangerous.” It’s something he would have added to his resume under the heading Honors Received.
We had only minutes to chat privately at that first meeting, and I came away with no real sense of the person behind his design philosophy. But in the next few years we met often and became friends. Dinner with Ken was a frequent highlight of the conference circuit in those days. We would offer fiercely competing perspectives in the session conferences and then seek out common ground over dinner. In those same years, William F. Buckley and the socialist, Norman Thomas were traveling together around the country giving debate performances at college campuses and then going out to dinner together after each debate for the pure pleasure of each other’s company. Ken and I were charmed to think of ourselves as Buckley and Thomas.
Ken quickly dispensed with the idea that he and I were competitors. He said instead that we offered slight variations of a common theme, that the design of a piece of software was something that could be perfected, that some designs were better than others, and each design could be made better and better by refinement. The methods of refinement, theirs and ours, he told me, were arrows that needed to be in the quiver of anyone who cared about design. Our competitors, he asserted, were the Mugwumps, those who believed that design was for sissies. The structure of a software product, they held, was whatever occurred to the developer as he was coding. There were some charming examples of this, software programs that seemed like allegories of something or other, complete with data names and labels that came from Genesis or from “Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” or from The Godfather.
It’s tempting to suggest that Ken’s lasting influence comes from the growing and evolving set of ideas he articulated (so beautifully) about technology and people who made it. But from my very personal perspective, this simply won’t do. Ken was about the kindest person I ever got to know. What he needs to be remembered for is kindness, a sweet smile, and irrepressible humor.
Ken Orr had the sort of good humour that is very rare. When I first met him I knew he was an exceptionally good listener. His way of communicating maintained a lightness that encouraged further exploration. I often corresponded with Ken - he was always ready to have a chat and to dive into some technical topic of the moment. I will miss him being there in Topeka.
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