Larry Tesler has died – Also, a great story of mentoring

Larry Tesler, maybe best known as a researcher at Xerox PARC and one of the great thinkers behind Apple’s original GUI, as in the Lisa and Mac (and maybe not so well known as the creator of copy & paste for the Gipsy editor at PARC), has died. (Larry Tesler received the SIGCHI Lifetime Practice Award in 2011.) While the news broke yesterday, there’s still no obituary, I’d know of. However, it’s the top story at Hacker News, and there are some great comments. Especially interesting is the top rated comment, which is a great story of mentoring:

Larry kindly traded letters with me when I was a young man attempting to learn programming via Object Pascal. Eventually, my mom made me write him a check for all the postage he had spent. In addition to sending me at least two letters a week for just around a decade, he shipped me dozens of books and manuals. One year for the holidays, someone sent me 4 large FedEx boxes filled with networking gear I desperately needed for a “M”MORPG game I was building. The return label read “53414e544120414e442048495320574f524b53484f50”. In the game, players were elves scrambling to defeat a corrupted workshop. The final boss was S̶a̶t̶a̶n̶ Santa himself.

It was only when I was older that I appreciated that he had probably sent me thousands of dollars worth of gear (and not in 2020 dollars!) in addition to the invaluable advice he provided, sometimes (frankly, often) unsolicited but always direct and always thought provoking.

While I never did become an extremely competent commercial developer, to this day I enjoy programming for programming’s own sake. Larry’s push for me to fix my own headaches, rather than simply giving me a metaphorical aspirin, resulted in my development of solutions for small hobby problems that it appeared often only myself and perhaps a few others shared.

As it turns out, in spite of (or thanks to) my niche interests, my curiosity and the method of targeted problem solving Larry fostered set me on a path I remain on today. Frankly, his contributions helped mold me as a man more than those of any other mentor of mine; that is absolutely meant as a compliment to his prescient pedagogy, rather than a slight at my life’s many other wonderful influences.

I’ve sold a few businesses thanks to Larry’s problem solving approach. The rest I founded are running profitably - and somehow I’ve never lost an investor money. My customers have always, above all else, been happy because they had their problems fixed. (Or, perhaps thanks to his influence, their happiness stemmed from my teams simply providing them with the tools they needed to solve their own problems!)

And because I followed Larry’s personal advice, I have been able to spend every day for nearly two decades doing what he encouraged and what has consistently engaged me: finding, isolating and destroying problems.

Thank you for everything.

(user atdrummond @ HN)

Here’s a video of Larry Tesler giving a Talk on the Apple Human Interface and PARC:


The NY Times now has an obituary on Larry Tesler.

IEEE Spectrum also highlights this 2005 profile of Tesler, appropriately titled “Of Modes and Men”.


Larry Tesler showing ‘copy/paste’ running Gypsy in a Xerox Alto: