In case you didn’t know the 7th April marks the 50th anniversary of something important. Something that changed the world. Something that most people won’t have realised even happened.
When I think about 1969, one thing stands out. I recall being woken up in the middle of the night by my parents aged 5. I was a little disoriented as they plonked me down in front of a black and white TV in the early hours of 20th July. It’s one of my very early memories and for people around at the time, it’s one of those things that everyone remembers. Coming down a ladder dressed in a white suit, with a back pack on was a person wearing a round helmet on their head. As they took the final step on to the surface of the moon they uttered the immortal words
“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”
Well I beg to differ with Neil Armstrong. A bold statement you may say. Yes the space programme has given us many things including velcro, but 50 years on has it really delivered that giant leap for mankind that was hoped for? Maybe in 100 or 200 years when historians come to judge things in a different context the picture will be different.
However at this point in time, 50 years on, where I’d prefer to look for that giant leap is three months before that, to the 7th April 1969 where a group of researchers were working on a ARPANET project. One researcher in particular was Steve Crocker, who on the 7th April 1969 published a type written paper entitled “Host Software” that was the first RFC or RFC 1.
The process that was created has allowed and facilitated the development of the internet. It quickly went from a few contributors, to tens, hundreds and then thousands. It allowed the sharing of ideas and established open standards.
The history of the internet is well documented elsewhere and the impact it has had must be far beyond even the most forward thinking computer pioneer of the late 60s. By 1995 the internet had roughly 16 million users, and in December 2018 the number was 4,313 millions or just over 55% of the worlds population. It’s difficult to know how many devices are now connected — perhaps 50 billion. Marshall McLuhan’s vision of a global village is well and truly here. I can communicate with friends in Australia whilst walking in North Yorkshire. It happens in an instant and it’s transformed the world.
In tech I believe that there are lessons that we can learn from our history and that the techniques developed by the pioneers are equally as applicable today as they’ve ever been. Reading through the RFC archive gives perspective on where we have come from.
Many lessons are not just technological, they also relate to how we operate. Where I work in comparethemarket.com we have introduced a number of techniques to allow us to scale and grow. For example internal open sourcing of our code base means that any team has the ability to work on any other teams code. This is important in a business where the tech department operates from three locations and we have a large number of developers. It helps us to unbundle complex changes and facilitate many parallel work streams.
However what ever we talk about underpinning all of this is the simple topic of standards. Without standards internal open sourcing becomes difficult. Every team has to understand every other team and projects become incredibly difficult as we step on each others toes.
We use the RFC process to ensure that we have a distributed way of contributing to and curating our standards. It means that anyone who has an idea or sees something that needs changing has a voice. It’s not top down and imposed. It improves buy-in across our engineering community. It’s simple easy to understand. Put simply, it works. It greases the wheels and allows us to innovate.
So I say long live Steve Crocker, long live standards and long live the RFC.