Originally published in the Xerox PARC newsletter, December, 1989.
Mark is not easy to interview at first because somehow he feels "old PARC," but is not. "Remember the time when that big shot came from Corporate"-- "No, must have been before my time." "You remind some people of Peter Deutsch. And don't you think you have something in common with Alan, even sound like him a bit?" "I have never met Alan Kay," says Mark, his sharp blue eyes twinkling, while he nonchalantly offers a list of similarities: jazz musician (drums), self taught, cosmic range of interest leaning towards the visual arts and extending to unorthodox skills such as juggling. Mark talks about his work with passion; rather than a mosaic of labs and at times conflicting personalities, he sees PARC as one--a living, breathing organism.
Weiser is a Midwesterner, from a little college town in Illinois called Mount Carroll; his father taught chemistry there at Shimer College, but then moved the family to Ithaca for post at Cornell. Like other computer scientists of his generation, Mark cut his teeth on an IBM 1620: he had his first computer job one summer during high school, but only because he liked a young lady in computer class. He was initially self-taught, and opted for a philosophy and math major in a small place called New College, with no computers in sight. Independent, self-directed study was the norm there for students who could persuade two faculty members to put them "on contract" each semester. Having concentrated on Kant and ontologist Heidegger, Mark left after a year and a half, bachelorless. He worked as a programmer in Ann Arbor, MI, to make ends meet, but his soul belonged to a video art group called Cerberus, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities to set up interactive shows for campus audiences. Changing rooms into interactive spaces was fun, and for a while Mark was busy hanging cameras from auditorium ceilings.
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When Cerberus moved to San Francisco in 1975, though, he stayed behind, and started attending regulation computer classes at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. A year of bravura performance, and he was admitted to the graduate school of Computer and Communications honoris causa, acquiring with all available speed a Master's and Ph.D ('79). JSB's [John Seely Brown's] doctorate is of the same kind, also from Michigan. Mark's dissertation on program slicing was well received. (Asked for a definition suitable for lay persons, he gestures like a conductor on the podium, and describes complex programs as tapestries held together by threads or slices, which any good programmer would be able to recognize.)
After the slicing success came an assistant professorship at the University of Maryland, one of the first recipients of Xerox University grants, and from then on Mark's fate was sealed. He was on Randy Trigg's cheering team while Randy was doing his dissertation on hypertext, kept close to the DSBU when his University of Maryland team first ported XNS to UNIX, spent time at PARC--and fell in love with the people, the concept, the building. It was fortunate that when he was offered a CSL position his wife--met in high school, married in Michigan, while they were both graduate students--was interviewing at the same time for a job as Director of Serials at the Stanford Libraries. They were both hired, and happy to move to California.
As a husband and father, Mark is an egalitarian who handles morning chores with the children, two girls aged 11 and 7, plus his share of afternoon duties. His well known energy level allows him to work almost around the clock, and some of his best technical work happens at night, on the Sun machine hardwired from his Palo Alto home to his desk at PARC. He comes to work rather early nevertheless, and looks awake at all times, taking in the environment with eyes which light up whenever an idea passes by. There is steel under that smile, folks.