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May 17, 2019

Alumni Spotlight: ICS ‘Trailblazer’ Jim Hobbs ’73 Helps Pave the Way for Others

Jim Hobbs ’73 is one of 22 esteemed Anteaters being honored at the 49th annual Lauds and Laurels awards gala, an event recognizing alumni whose achievements have brought distinction to UCI. Hobbs retired from Intel in 2008 after almost three decades of work in technical management positions — including strategic program manager and senior enterprise architect — and has spent much of his retirement doing volunteer work. Throughout the years, he has always maintained close ties to UCI’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS), where he not only earned his ICS degree, but also held various technical positions and bonded with the first chair of ICS, Julian Feldman. In 1998, in honor of his beloved mentor, Hobbs and his wife, Monica, established the Julian Feldman Scholarship, funded through annual donations that continue to this day. The scholarship, which became an endowed scholarship in 2006, has touched the lives of more 25 undergraduate ICS students.

Jim and Trinidad (Monica) Hobbs.

What led you to attend UCI and study information and computer science?
During high school, I took some classes about computers and computer programming from David Feign, the father of one of my classmates. He had access to an Autonetics RECOMP II at work, and we were able to write programs for it. This was done on coding sheets, and we manually translated the code to octal. David would take the code to work and enter it into the RECOMP II and bring us a memory dump so we could see how the programs and data turned out. The experience with David, and later with other teachers and mentors, made me determined to study computers, although I didn’t know of a computer science major at that time.

However, I had met UCI’s chancellor, Daniel Aldrich, at an event held at the Orange County Medical Association. He gave me a very favorable impression of what would be happening at UCI, which made me want to go there. The fact that I could save money by living at home in Garden Grove and commuting to UCI was also a factor. So when it was time to apply for college, I really only wanted to go to UCI — that was the only place I applied.

Fortunately, I was accepted, and I entered UCI in the fall of 1967. I started working at a student job within the Information and Communication Science Department — renamed Information and Computer Sciences in early 1968. When Julian Feldman, the department chair and my boss, returned from a meeting one day, he announced that ICS had been granted status as an academic department and could start accepting undergraduate majors. I said that I would be back in a few minutes and walked over to the registrar’s office and changed my major to ICS. I graduated in 1973. My mentor, David Feign, ended up receiving his Ph.D. in ICS from UCI in 1980.

What did you enjoy most about working in the tech industry?
The informal slogan at Intel was “faster, better, cheaper.” I enjoyed the pace of change, relentless growth (punctuated by periodic industry contractions), continual improvement and novelty, helping lower unit costs, and the ability to contribute to the industry.

Something that was similar when I moved from my job at UCI to the one at Intel was working with some very smart people. One of the great things about working at Intel then was having the opportunity to interact with the founders. The pace was different from UCI though. Intel was growing very quickly (a 9,450% increase in annual revenues during my time there), and the information technology infrastructure had to keep up.

I was working in IT, not product design, but because we were an IT organization inside a company selling to the IT market, we had a great opportunity to participate in strategic planning and design reviews. We also shared our experience with the world at www.intel.com/it.

Our day job, of course, was to provide faster, better, and cheaper IT services to the company. We were always adding computing power. I remember the day that I realized that I had more memory on my desk than the company had in its corporate computer centers when I arrived! We constantly increased our networking capabilities as well. After a large-scale reimplementation of our core networking capabilities, we were benchmarked by an outside consulting group as having both the best-in-class corporate network and lowest-in-class unit cost.

How did your ICS education help you throughout your career?
I worked for ICS most of the time that I was a student, and continued to work for UCI for over five years after graduating, so through both my education and work experiences, I learned quite a few things that helped me for the rest of my career. First of all, I learned that hardware is ephemeral, but software can last forever. Before ICS, my mental model was that computers were durable goods, and software was expendable. That quickly changed! Most of the computer architectures in use in 1967 are long gone, but people are still writing code in COBOL.

I learned that process is more important than a particular implementation, and bad analysis is usually harder to fix than bad coding. I learned to optimize the frequently executed code and that there is value in building a proof of concept for almost everything. I also learned to test with enough data and to test at the margins. Most programs work most of the time, and work with the expected data. It’s things like out-of-range data (or no data) that get you. I was invited to try out a “bulletproof” piece of software and crashed it with the first keystroke. It was a key that they never imagined anyone would press.

On the other hand, I learned you need to use software in the way that it is intended to be used — meaning the way that it was tested. Deviating from the defaults can cause trouble that isn’t worth the deviation. For example, a programmer at the UCI computing facility turned off multiprocessor features in a system that had only one processor to save space and processing time. Subtle errors started occurring, and it took months to figure out that we were the only people in the world who had turned off those features, and that turning them back on solved everything.

Can you share any memorable ICS moments?
People who came to UCI the year that I started found a campus in which the Ring wasn’t complete, and most of the sidewalks weren’t in. They looked for places that foot traffic had worn the groundcover down and paved that. So, in a way, in the ’60s, we were actually trailblazers.

The original ICS computer lab was in a trailer. Opening in late 1968, we called it the UCI ICS Computer Center. It had a Varian Data 620/i and several teletypes that were used to prepare programs on paper tape and provide printing. The printed zeros and letters “O” were indistinguishable, which was a problem for computer programmers. My father was a dentist with a machine shop in his garage, so I disassembled the print mechanism and took home the print drums. My father drilled a hole in each drum and inserted a peg so that we could tell a “0” from an “O.” I have other stories, like the time a student came to get me and said, “Come quick! There’s lightning in the computer room!” But space does not permit.

What motivated you to start the Julian Feldman Scholarship?
Julian influenced me as a teacher, mentor and friend. He was also my first boss at UCI. I really appreciate all that he and others at ICS and UCI did to help get me started in my professional life. The thing his students remember most is his sincere concern for them.

When Julian retired, I thought it would be nice to fund a Festschrift, but when I spoke to the department chair (this preceded ICS becoming a school), he suggested that a scholarship would be a more fitting tribute. UCI provided me an excellent education at a very modest cost. I appreciate what I learned through my study and work at UCI, so I was happy to do something that would help other students in ICS.

What was your reaction to learning you were receiving a Lauds and Laurels award?
It was a big surprise! I was both very pleased and faintly embarrassed. I read it and said, “What? There must be a mistake.” I guess I said it more than once, because my wife finally asked me to stop!

Any words of advice for ICS students?
Keep learning. The tools you use will turn over several times during your career. If you love to learn, you will not be disappointed. At the same time, realize that you are always teaching. Sometimes this is explicit, but it is usually more subtle, so don’t do anything that you don’t want people around you doing. If you are any good at what you do, people will be watching and emulating.

Shani Murray


Alumni Spotlight: ICS ‘Trailblazer’ Jim Hobbs ’73 Helps Pave the Way for Others

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Media interested in interviewing ICS faculty, students or alumni should contact Matt Miller at (949) 824-1562 or via email at matt.miller@uci.edu.

Judy and Gary Olson