Remembering The Search For Jim Gray, A Year Later

Microsoft researcher Jim Gray went missing at sea more than a year ago. Co-worker Tom Barclay describes how the tech industry rallied to help the search efforts.
"The next day, Dave arranged for a flight out of LA by I. K. Curtis from Mexico to San Luis Obispo. You can see that after four days, we had made the assumption that Jim either drifted or sailed into one of the zillions of little coves along our coast. Our goal was to double check that, even though we knew the Coast Guard had probably done this already. Later we discovered that we had re-flown some areas previously flown by the Coast Guard two, three, and even four times.

"Starting at 3 p.m. Feb. 1, neither myself or the other FofJ [Friends of Jim Gray] folks ever planned or flew a Search and Rescue operation. Twenty-seven hours later, we had three flights under our belt. And 50 hours later we had flown seven.

"We discovered several things: 1) The Coast Guard was doing a wonderful and thorough search. They changed their mind after the Wednesday press conference and extended the search through Thursday. Each of our pilots comment on how the 'Coast Guard is out in FORCE looking for Jim.' We passed by numerous cutters and one of our pilots had to wait while two Coast Guard copters refueled before he could refuel. 2) It is not enough to be willing and have money to do a search. You actually have to have equipment and expertise. I knew nothing about how to plan where to search. We went looking for an expert after this and found one."

Barclay continued: "In between all of this, I was receiving 500+ e-mails a day about how people could help, you should do this, you should do that. Thankfully, FofJ put up the Tenacious Search Web and blog site ... We had lots of offers of planes, boats, and support from casual friends of Jim, Microsoft employees, competitors, competitors' employees, academics, students, etc. Jim touched a lot of people and everyone wanted to help! There were some negative things that happened during this time. But, by and large, my experience was unbelievably positive. I learned a couple of key things: "1) The Coast Guard is a phenomenal group. They work hard. They are helpful. They are willing to take advice (when it makes sense). And they are quick to spot an error and correct it, if it is their mistake. It is not possible to overstate how highly we think of Capt. David Swatland and Lt. Commander Jon Copley and their team. This became painfully evident when we tried to duplicate and expand on what they had already done. And they are fairly ego-less about it ... surprising, considering how much we pestered them along the way.

"2) The commercial flyers are a 'stand up bunch of guys.' I was stunned that I could manage to get six or eight professional flights flown, each within less than 23 hours, without a purchase order, a credit card number, nothing. They just went and flew the flight on verbal request. They didn't know me from Adam. In some cases, they got in the air because of a request by Dave and called me for the first time after they were already flying. Unbelievable. And they are not a 'rich' industry. ... Unfortunately, the one flight I was due to be on got scratched due to weather."

The Friends of Jim Gray were cautious about sending planes out to sea in bad weather, and they followed an old dictum that a plane beyond gliding distance from shore needs two engines in order to survive an engine failure.

Two weeks after Tenacious Search discontinued its effort, Microsoft held its annual TechFest event at its Redmond, Wash., headquarters. Barclay recounts that many acquaintances approached him to console him on the unsuccessful search.

"I had developed a common patter -- 'It is actually easier for me than it is for you. I have been heavily involved in the search and been able to actually able to do something, whereas you have only been able to hear news reports and read the blog.' Almost everyone said, 'Oh, no, I got on that Mechanical Turk site till the wee hours of the morning looking for anything that might be a sailboat.' I was really surprised how many people accessed the site. Non-Microsoft people would tell me the same thing."

Barclay continued with a reminiscence of Gray's impact on the computer industry. "He had reached a stage in his career where he was interested and able to give back to others inside and outside of Microsoft and Microsoft was happy he was doing it. ... Jim was interested in helping anyone solve problems and advance the domain. I really don't know how to explain it. It's like asking, what did [Richard] Feynman mean to CalTech or the physics community or what does Alan Greenspan mean to the financial community. The answers are surprisingly similar."

Barclay recounted how he would say, "Yesterday we were competitors, tomorrow we will compete again, but today we are partners," when the press asked him why so many Microsoft competitors were helping with the search.

"I thought that was pretty good," he recounted, then a member of the FofJ group offered a better answer. "The friend told me, 'It is really more than that. Jim belongs to the industry and not to any one company, regardless of the company name that happens to be on his badge.' I think that sums it up better than anything we could possibly say or write. We [Microsoft] were privileged to have Jim Gray wearing our badge, but he didn't belong to us exclusively. He belonged to all of us in our industry."

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