I was halfway through making the fourth peanut butter and jelly sandwich for today's kid lunch bags when my phone chirped at me. I saw the email subject "Maurice Manning". I'm not even sure what I assumed in the split-second before I read it; probably that he was going to be back in town sometime this summer, and we should all grab lunch again. It didn't occur to me to prepare for the possibility that he had died.
Coming off the high of writing a proposal for next academic year, where I felt like I could finally imagine planfully doing good things instead of throwing together anything to scrape through, I was ready for today to be a day of joyfully knocking things off my to-do list. I had the peer-review comments open on my laptop, so I could to sit down and do some revisions after the kid drop-off. I had the emails that needed answering all lined up. I had a set of moderately annoying tasks broken down into chunks I wouldn't balk at. And then this email from a former-job friend, who's been picking us up some things from the local nice grocery store every few weeks during the pandemic. But not about groceries. Or grabbing lunch.
So now I'm sitting in the living room, in the post-kid-dropoff quiet, thinking about cyberinfrastructure.
Maurice Manning and I overlapped at UC Berkeley in 2017. He was hired as a "Cyberinfrastructure Engineer", which felt worlds away from my super-generic "IT Analyst" title at the time. I dealt with people; he dealt with code. But we ended up hitting it off, maybe because we needed each other. The people I consulted with wanted to do things that required code, and neither they nor I knew where to begin with it. Maurice needed projects, especially ones that involved bringing different systems together to do useful things. At Berkeley there were so few people in central IT who were allowed to actually do things to help scholars; mostly we gave people advice, and when they inevitably said, "This sounds great, how do we get started?", we'd have to look at them sadly and say, "It's on you now." But Maurice was an exception -- he had license to do things. So I tried to connect him to people wherever I could.
Maurice was the first person to introduce me to Jupyter notebooks. I wrote the human-readable parts, he wrote for the computer. It was the perfect distribution of expertise because his prose was almost as terrible as my code. One of those projects took us to the UCLA DH Infrastructure Symposium on a same-day boomerang trip. We sat in the Oakland airport before the sun rose, waiting for the first flight south, marveling as he told me about growing up on a farm, the only boy in a family with something like nine girls. And they were still close, sharing this massive family group-text.
We did some great projects together, like OCR on HPC for law and Ancient Near Eastern projects and machine translation. I loved working with Maurice because he never once made me feel stupid or inferior for not knowing how to code, or not being an "engineer". I could translate scholars' needs into something he could code, and I could write, and at least to him that had value.
But there were fewer projects than he'd hoped for, and he left after a year or so. His new gig, working for AI Singapore, sounded perfect for him: taking on a 100 Projects initiative, among many other things. I was sad to see him go, especially since I couldn't imagine that I'd be leaving UC Berkeley before long, too.
Maurice was the first person I'd met in a role akin to the "Research Software Engineer" positions that have garnered some attention even in DH circles as a kind of professional path for people in staff roles. But his job was focusing on infrastructure, which has always been close to my heart. My library/department DH support staff role at Stanford feels very different from my former job in UC Berkeley's Research IT group -- not least because it involves a lot of actually doing things for and with people. But looking at some of the things I've managed to do in this position -- including writing Jupyter notebooks and tutorials (like with the Data-Sitters Club) to lower the barrier to entry for doing computational work -- I feel like there's echoes of inspiration from the work I did with Maurice. I wish I'd told him about the Programming Historian lesson I wrote on Jupyter Notebooks. I bet he'd have thought it was cool that it was translated into French. I think the Data-Sitters Club would've made him smile -- with a touch of puzzlement, perhaps, but always superseded by a genuine curiosity, even about things far removed from his own experiences.
But that lunch at La Note isn't going to happen now, and I'm shutting off the to-do list app because none of those things are going to happen today either. Instead, I've got a pile of notebooks that I've been meaning to comment up and write documentation for and post somewhere they might be useful. Tending to the code-garden. It's a small tribute, but maybe it can help someone the way Maurice always managed to.