Paul McKenney arrived on the Oregon State University campus 40 years ago as a freshman majoring in computer science. Computer science was so new he decided to also pursue a second degree in mechanical engineering in case computers did not pan out. Although the mechanical engineering degree came in handy over the years for computer projects that required mechanical knowledge, computer science panned out just fine as a career.
Indeed, McKenney is currently a Distinguished Engineer at IBM Linux Technology Center where he has been working for the last 16 years. His 35-year career in software development includes over 100 patents and 200 publications, including one book. He earned a Ph.D. in computer science and engineering in 2004 from the OGI School of Science and Engineering at Oregon Health & Science University while continuing to work full time. To honor his outstanding career, in 2015 he was elected to the Oregon State University Academy of Distinguished Engineers.
What McKenney remembers most about his freshman year was meeting classmates and faculty who shared his passion for computer science.
“I was lucky in having programming classes in high school, which was quite unusual in the early 1970s,” he says. “However, it was not until coming to OSU that I met people who were enthusiastic about programming — not just as a skill that might someday be useful, but something that was interesting, exciting, and fun in its own right.”
One of his class projects from those days was a computer game called SKYLARK that he wrote with a classmate using paper tape. Although it took many more hours than they anticipated, they were inspired by the thrill of making the full-motion display come alive. Unexpectedly, many years later, the Retro-Computing Society of Rhode Island, Inc. contacted him for the source and object code for the game. He still had the original tapes, and mailed them to the museum where they ran the program and posted the code and photos on their website.
“I am still amazed that the tapes read without errors after 23 years of lying around my various houses and apartments!” he says.
Some of the most valuable experiences he had at Oregon State were the opportunities to work while he was a student. He started as a teaching assistant and later worked for the OSU Computer Center.
“It is one thing to write programs for class assignments. It is quite another to have people depend on your work, to have it be more than just a grade at stake,” he says.
As one of the Linux community’s experts on parallel computing, McKenney’s responsibilities at IBM include maintaining the Linux kernel’s read-copy update (RCU). It’s work that he finds as exciting as he did 40 years ago when he embarked on his career path in computer science.
“I like finding simple solutions to difficult problems, and I like working on something that is heavily used,” he says. “Contributing to the Linux kernel ticks both of those boxes, as do any number of side projects.”