Top tech researcher leaves for Duke

The University computer pioneer popularized the phrase ‘surf the net.’

by Mike Enright

Since joining what was then called the University Computer Center as a junior programmer, Mark McCahill, assistant director of the University Technology Development Center, has been on the forefront of the information technology revolution.

And after more than three decades at the University, he’ll leave for Duke University next week.

McCahill and several colleagues developed one of the earliest e-mail programs, known as POPmail – for post office protocol – to work on personal computers in the late 1980s. This software paved the way for e-mail as we know it.

“Originally POPmail was us being kind of lazy,” McCahill said.

“We didn’t have phones back in our offices. Ö People would call and leave messages, and the receptionist out there would write them up on this little green piece of paper and stick them in your mailbox, so you would have to walk down and see if there were any messages for you.”

More importantly, he said, POPmail provided building blocks necessary for researchers to develop a networked system of information exchange called Gopher – named after Goldy.

Predecessor to the modern Internet, today’s Wolrd Wide Web operates on many of the same structures McCahill and his colleagues created.

McCahill is even credited with popularizing the phrase “surfing the Net,” which he attributes to being an avid windsurfer.

“Because I was doing a lot of windsurfing on Lake Calhoun, and because there was this catch phrase about ‘channel surfing’ on TV – it was just click, click, click – it was natural to say surf the Net, or surf the Internet,” he said.

The board still leans against the wall in his cluttered, windowless office in Shepard Laboratories.

Most recently, though, McCahill said he’s set his sights on computer networking and communication.

In addition to being part of the Croquet Project, an international consortium working to create collaborative simulations and experiential environments, he collaborated with colleagues to develop a virtual 3-D immersive language learning program.

“It’s kind of like World of Warcraft, only in Spanish,” he said.

University spokesman Dan Wolter said there is no question that McCahill will be sorely missed.

“Obviously the University is sad to see him go,” Wolter said. “He has been a true innovator in a variety of aspects of technology, particularly its application in the classroom.”

McCahill said his reasons for departing are complicated, but the opportunity at Duke was too good to pass up.

“There’s a lot of cool stuff going on (there), and Duke has significant resources and a good reputation,” he said. “I love this place, but I’m sick of the winters.”

He said he’s also sick of the trend of inadequate state funding in public higher education.

“The University tends to be at the end of the line when the legislature feels like it needs to squeeze or cut, and I’ve watched that process go on Ö since I was a student here,” McCahill said.

The lack of funding puts the school in a tough spot, he said, forcing it to prioritize certain initiatives over others. For instance, the main project that the department McCahill works in focuses on is a massive, multi-year renovation of the University’s financial administrative system, which “takes loads of attention and resources.”

McCahill expressed frustration over the University’s direction.

“It’s not that I’m unsympathetic with the direction – you do need to do something about the financial system – however, that’s coming at the expense of some other things that are really, really important.”

Wolter emphasized the necessity of the University’s internal upgrades.

“As an institution, we were at one time 30 years behind in our enterprise systems, and that reaches everything from the budgeting that the colleges and departments do to how you register for classes,” he said. “I think everybody would like to have more resources for research in this area, as well as others, but you have to make choices and those were the choices we had to make.”

Duke Computing Systems Director Klara Jelinkova experienced a similar situation.

Formerly of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Duke lured McCahill’s new boss from Badger country five months ago, offering to support her area of research.

“When you have a big school like UW-Madison Ö everything has to be done on this really huge scale, and that kind of makes it difficult to experiment on a small scale,” Jelinkova said. “That kind of narrows your options.”

Like McCahill, Jelinkova graduated from the state university she worked at, making the decision to go that much tougher.

“Madison is a great school, it’s a really wonderful place and UW was always very good to me,” she said. “UW-Madison tried to accommodate me, but it didn’t quite work out.”