Alan Shugart (1930 - 2006)

The man who led the team at IBM that engineered the first storage devices for portable disks a half-century ago, and who later founded the corporation that secured the future of hard disk technology into the coming decades, died yesterday from complications after an earlier heart surgery. Alan Shugart was probably wearing one of his Hawaiian shirts at the time.

Taking a look at the man, you come to realize how "Seagate" got its name - not just that it emerged from Shugart Technology, which is how it was christened in 1979. He was a man of the sea - or, more accurately, the shore near the sea. San Jose was the man's home, in all respects. When asked what his great accomplishments had been, he would list at or near the top his co-founding not of the first great floppy disk manufacturer (Shugart Associates) in 1973, nor the founding of Seagate, but of the co-founding of a five-star restaurant on the Monterey Peninsula. He wrote a book about this venture in 1993, which graced his shelves along the story of his quite genuine 1996 attempt to place his own dog Ernest on the ballot for Congressman.

You might even suspect he named his dog Ernest just so he could use the title Ernest Goes to Washington (Well, Not Exactly). Later, he formed a political action committee of sorts - one devoted to getting ordinary citizens more involved in the political process. Named "Friends of Ernest (FOE)," he would indeed appoint his dog to the leadership role.

It was as if everything Shugart did in his life that wasn't connected to having invented foundation principles for the computer industry, was not nearly as important in his own mind as the act of living itself. I heard him once described as "Jimmy Buffet Meets John Malone." I met Shugart once, I believe in 1984, during the rechristening of a former Control Data manufacturing facility in Oklahoma City as a Seagate Plant; he was then the CEO. He wore a suit that day, but for only part of it; after the ribbon was cut, he changed clothes as though the suit were a straitjacket. He cracked a few jokes about loving the weather and all the people there in Tulsa, therefore ensuring he would not be quoted by the ultra-conservative Daily Oklahoman.

He knew he was important, and he frankly relished in that fact. He was extraordinarily self-effacing, but in a way that would make you think he'd be more comfortable effacing himself with a megaphone. He had absolutely no real, great, or deeply personal philosophy of success, except that he liked to brag on that very fact - that success was really a matter of getting up out of bed.

As far as aphorisms or sayings-for-the-soul were concerned, he borrowed from everyone else, as though he had them stored on his own personal, high-capacity hard drive somewhere in his head. In his autobiography - naturally entitled, Al: The Wit and Wisdom of Al Shugart, he tells a story where he was asked at one of his many public appearances the all important, "How did you get to be where you are today?" question.

So Shugart, a man of much wit and wisdom - if not all his own - cited Stephen King. "I have the heart of a small boy," he said, "which I keep in a jar on my desk."

Like so many great, eccentric CEOs, he would not be allowed to retain his hold on power. In July 1998, his own board of directors forced him to resign rather unceremoniously, citing Shugart as becoming "slow" (read: old). Slow was something Shugart never was. His Hawaiian shirt simply became the excuse for a sales slump, the way Ted Turner's generally benign tirades were blamed for AOL Time Warner's lack of cohesive strategy.

One wants to attach the word "visionary" somewhere in the man's obituary. It's an adjective he would slough off, perhaps collecting it in a glass case full of sloughed-off adjectives, which he would then hang carefully over his fireplace mantle and illuminate with a halogen spotlight.

Yet of the many gifts his work gave us, one stands out as part of the foundation of the computing industry: the idea that a protocol between computing devices attached to one another by short cables, should employ communications prerogatives.

His first rendering of this concept was called SASI - Shugart Associates Systems Interface. The first "S" always stood for "Shugart," at least in his own heart. But later, the "A" would be traded for a "C."

Alan Shugart never wanted to be seen as brilliant, or idolized, or particularly visionary. But he did appreciate being noteworthy, respected, and yes, admired. That part of his legacy did not die yesterday, nor will it die tomorrow.

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