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Alumni Spotlight: ‘Magic’ of Computer Science Still Excites Greg Hopwood, Ph.D. ’78

Greg Hoppwood

On May 21, 2020, Greg Hopwood should have been at UCI’s 50th annual Lauds and Laurels awards gala as one of 14 recipients of the Distinguished Alumni Award. The event was postponed because of the global pandemic, but his long career as a leader in computer technology is still recognized and applauded. Hopwood transferred to UCI when it first opened in 1965, one of just 400 juniors in the 1,500 student body on a campus with more wide-open space than buildings. And while there was no Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) back then, there were faculty and classes available to satisfy Hopwood’s already strong interest in computing. While earning his B.S. in math, he was able to work in the new UCI Computer Facility, and after graduating in 1967, he programmed missile flight simulations at a local aerospace firm. However, he didn’t stay away from UCI for long!

When ICS became its own department in 1968, Hopwood returned as one of the first students to join the Ph.D. program. He earned his degree in 1978 and spent the next few decades in the computer industry as a software programmer, system architect, program manager, webmaster and executive. He also co-founded a cloud-based software company with his brother in 2004, where he served as chief technology officer until they closed the company in 2015. That same year, he was inducted into the ICS Hall of Fame as an inaugural member. Now, five years into retirement, Hopwood admits he is still hooked on computing. Here, he talks about the early days of UCI and his motivation for helping future ICS students.

What first sparked your interest in computers?
In 1964, I learned how to program a DEC PDP-1 computer in assembler language. I input the program on a Teletype machine and kept a copy on paper tape. It was fascinating to coax a machine to perform a task I dreamed up. Being a general-purpose (as opposed to a special-purpose) computer, it could produce answers to problems it had never seen before. Magic! What excitement everyday (sometimes through the night) in the lab trying new coding sequences. Better than teaching your pet a new trick! Soon I learned how to program a Burroughs B5000 in the ALGOL language. More magic. I was hooked on computing before my 20th birthday. Now, more than 50 years later, the excitement is still there.

What were UCI and ICS like in the early days?
In the fall of 1965, the campus opened to students for the first time. The inner ring consisted of six buildings [and] there was neither landscaping nor paved walkways between them. When it started raining, the facilities team put down plywood sheets so we could stay out of the mud on our trek between buildings.

ICS was not yet a department but early faculty pioneers like Julian Feldman and Fred Tonge taught beginning courses for the new students. Computing resources consisted of an IBM 1410/1440 and an IBM 1401. Students would interact with them via a dozen IBM Selectric-based terminals programming with an early advanced time-sharing system language called JOSSI [JOSS Irvine] (similar to BASIC). This was very remarkable in an age of paper tape and punch cards. I can still remember my password on that system. I helped out in the labs, assisting other students to use the system. Later, I would operate the computer at night running batch jobs for professors and staff. The input would be via punched cards and magnetic tapes. The computer had an early version of removable disc drives (10 megabytes each) with hydraulic head actuators. A rag in the drive innards was useful for collecting small oil leaks.

My work for the Computer Facility was very instrumental in helping to build my experience base outside of the classroom. I came to understand what was going on at the other end of the wire connected to the terminals. Very exciting.

What has been your key to success in such a rapidly changing field?
The simple key to success is to have a strong and wide base of knowledge about a lot of subjects so that when a new opportunity presents itself, you can confidently take on the challenge. To keep up with the fast pace of computing technology, constant learning is required. Reading, conferences, academic courses and online resources can keep your knowledge fresh and relevant.

How did your ICS education help along the way?
My UCI/ICS education, combined with work experience in the Computer Facility and with research projects, provided many opportunities to explore a wide range of interests: not only mathematics and computer sciences but also fine arts, history, social impacts of computing and physics. For example, I did a project for the UCI Auto Pool to keep track of the mileage of each car in the pool. I decided to learn FORTRAN. I read the FORTRAN manuals and programmed the task. Later after graduation with a bachelor’s degree in math (there was no ICS degree program in 1967), my first job at an aerospace firm involved programming in FORTRAN and simulating the physics of missile flight. There had been no course in physical simulation of rockets at UCI, but my education allowed me to adapt to the new challenge when I was tasked to work on such a simulation.

This scenario happened again and again over the next 50 years as I moved into many new ventures. At UCI in my undergrad and graduate programs, I worked with seven different models of computers, four networking models, the new (at that time) semi-conductors, hardware maintenance and repair, logic board design and 10 different programming languages. UCI provided the opportunity for this breadth of experience, which proved to be extremely useful in later life.

Can you share any memorable ICS moments or tell us about a favorite or influential professor?
Julian Feldman with his wife, Rita, generously opened their home to frequent gatherings of students, faculty, staff and visiting professors. These occasions fostered a sense of common purpose and comradery in the early ICS years. Julian also got me interested in studying the economics of computing: how to value computing resources in teaching, research and commercial environments. Thinking about these ideas early in my career helped me make grounded decisions in my business relations as a developer, salesperson, marketer or customer. I also am very grateful for Julian’s support as my dissertation adviser.

Fred Tonge was an excellent instructor in the programming languages and systems area. He brought enthusiasm and expertise to the subject matter that transferred to his many students. Fred also served on my dissertation committee. I valued his counsel.

Dave Farber and I shared many hours carpooling from/to Santa Monica. I learned a lot about computer architecture and networking from Dave, and he was a big influence on my future career.

The ICS Innovation Endowed Fellowship, established to support graduate students producing socially relevant, innovative work, was initially set up through a generous gift from you and your wife. What motivated you to set up this fund?
I feel very fortunate to have received financial assistance during my time at UCI. From teaching assistant stipends, part-time programming jobs, NSF assistance and working on research grants, I was able to graduate without any debt and begin working in industry well prepared to take on a new life outside of UCI. For this I am grateful. As others had helped me, I want to help future ICS students to learn, create and contribute to our society.

What was your reaction to learning you would be recognized as one of the Distinguished Alumni at the 2020 Lauds and Laurels event?
I was surprised and certainly do not feel very distinguished. I am pleased to be able to reiterate my gratitude to the founders of the UC system and especially the pioneers who started the UCI campus on the rolling hills of the Irvine ranch.

Any words of advice for ICS students?
Learn as much about as many aspects of computer science (and other subjects) as you can. You never know when a piece of knowledge you have may become key to your future success. Constant learning will keep your skills relevant in this fast-changing area.

Many worthwhile tasks are difficult. Be excited about your work. Enjoy the challenge. Relish your victories and learn from your missteps.

An individual can make a big difference in the outcome of many projects but big projects require teamwork and structure to succeed. Learn to lead and follow. Project-oriented academic courses will help you prepare. UCI is full of smart people. Get to know them. Find a mentor. Be a mentor.

— Shani Murray