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Daniel Teichroew: father of software engineering — and more

Famous as a software engineering innovator, his students revere him as a great mentor.| Medium Read

Not everything of value that a teacher imparts to his students can be captured on a test. But a fine teacher is invaluable, especially at that pivot point between college and the leap into the real world. Daniel Teichroew was that kind of teacher, providing his students with tools, skills and opportunities – and lavish encouragement to pursue them all.

“I would not be where I am, or who I am today, without Dr. Teichroew.”

“I would not be where I am, or who I am today, without Dr. Teichroew,” says industrial engineering alumnus Jay Nunamaker, 79, director and founder of the Center for the Management of Information Systems at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “He was the most influential teacher of my life.”

Daniel Teichroew (pronounced “Tike-row”) was born January 5, 1925, in Manitoba, Canada. Before finishing high school, at age 17, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and served for three years. He received his BA (1948) and MA (1949) from the University of Toronto and his PhD from North Carolina State College (1953). For a few years Teichroew worked at the National Cash Register Company before turning to college life as a professor of management at Stanford University in 1957.

EnlargePortrait of Daniel Teichrow
IMAGE:  Daniel Teichroew – PhD, University of North Carolina (1953)

In 1964, Teichroew accepted a position as professor and head of the Division of Organizational Sciences at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. There, he founded Information Systems Design and Optimization Systems (ISDOS), which he brought to Michigan Engineering in 1968 when he became professor and chair of the Industrial Engineering department (now Industrial and Operations Engineering (IOE)).

The Thrust and Reach of ISDOS
Teichroew’s main concern in the late 1960s, according to his students and ISDOS team members, was information systems’ lack of coherent construction plans.

“He used to say we have nothing in information systems that is the equivalent of blueprinting in manufacturing. He wanted to develop a mechanism for blueprinting information,” says Hasan Suyani, who was one of his PhD students in both the ISDOS lab and at the company at that time.

“He used to say we have nothing in information systems that is the equivalent of blueprinting in manufacturing. He wanted to develop a mechanism for blueprinting information.”

The initial thrust of the ISDOS project was to develop a mechanism for describing an information system and its requirements, explains Geoffrey Darnton, another one of Teichroew’s students whose life was profoundly affected by Teichroew’s influence. Darnton is currently Head of Knowledge Transfer in the Institute of Business and Law at Bournemouth University.

The blueprint modeling mechanism developed by the ISDOS team was called the Problem Statement Language (PSL). PSL statements describing an information system and its requirements were presented to a research repository managed by the Problem Statement Analyzer (PSA) software.

“Students knew they were working at the edge of the subject as it was at the time, from undergraduate courses right through to PhDs,” says Darnton. “(Teichroew’s ISDOS lab) was an exciting, vibrant learning community, where faculty and students knew their learning was up-to-date and they may even be helping to take things forward when they do their assignments.”

EnlargeThe ISDOS/PRISE Computer Room in the IOE Building
IMAGE:  The ISDOS/PRISE Computer Room in the IOE Building (1984)

ISDOS became a company on the New York Stock Exchange in 1983, and the department’s ISDOS project was renamed the Program for Research in Information Systems Engineering (PRISE). Teichroew was not only ahead of his time but he also was ahead of the General Counsel’s office at the University of Michigan, which did not yet have a clear policy on how to divide funds between the University’s PRISE lab and ISDOS, Inc. without creating a conflict of interest for Teichroew. At the same time, computer science departments were growing in other parts of the University as well as at other academic institutions, and the high-level program languages research were shifting away from the Industrial Engineering department.

While eventually the ISDOS (PRISE) lab closed in the 1990s, it was still a success, and invaluable for the team. Nunamaker, who worked on an early version of PSA, became dean of the College of Business and Public Administration at the University of Arizona. Suyani, a 1973 IOE PhD graduate, formed “ISDOS East” at the University of Maryland. Many other IOE PhD graduates and students, guided and supported by Daniel Teichroew, would assume prominent positions in information technology.

Teichroew’s goal was getting people to think.

The Teacher, The Man, The Legacy

Teichroew’s goal was getting people to think.

According to Sayani, Teichroew wasn’t a true academic in that he wasn’t always publishing papers or applying for and obtaining research grants. He funded his ISDOS project by asking corporations and certain government agencies (including the U.S. Department of Defense and the Social Security Administration) for $20,000 annually to attend his conferences (to hear what he and his team had produced), obtain free products (whatever software he and his team had developed that) and receive technical software support. The “techies” were Teichroew’s students, who got invaluable practical on-the-job experience while they were still in school.

EnlargeThe IOE Building in 1983
IMAGE:  The IOE Building in 1983. The open field in the foreground is now occupied by the IOE wing that houses the Center for Ergonomics offices, shops, IOE lecture rooms and a reflecting pool.

“He gave away software as a result of the sponsorships. That was unprecedented for academia,” says Sayani. “If they had any problems with the software, he would have his guys (students) fix it. (It was all guys back then.) He would send people like me to teach them how to use it.”

“His whole knowledge transfer approach was driven by his belief that merely proposing new ways to do system development would not attract much attention, but offering to provide software to try out while the research was being done, was far more attractive. Of course, he was right,” wrote Darnton.

Teichroew’s students admired the sort of quiet, cool integrity this shy man embodied. And above all, he wanted his students to succeed.

“He didn’t tolerate mediocrity,” says Suyani. “He expected people to perform.”

And most of his students came to understand what to expect from their teacher as well. He always wore the same suit (though he had several of them), seemed perpetually on the phone and was unfailingly polite, no matter his real thoughts on a matter.

His students say Teichroew’s approach to learning, and to life – looking at a problem in the largest sense possible, taking a systems view – became theirs as well. And it helped them throughout their lives.

“Dan was a remarkable man who had a great impact on the discipline of software engineering and the automation of the software life cycle,” says then-IOE chair Dan Seiford.

“Dan was a remarkable man who had a great impact on the discipline of software engineering and the automation of the software life cycle,” says then-IOE chair Dan Seiford.

What Teichroew and Michigan Engineering delivered was the kind of education that would “open our minds to systems of all kinds.”

In 1991, Teichroew was awarded the Warnier Prize for Excellence in Information Systems, and was formally recognized as the “Father of CASE” (Computer Aided Software Engineering). But Teichroew, a pioneer who successfully integrated academia and business, and taught his students to do the same, was much more than that.

Portrait of Daniel Teichrow
The ISDOS/PRISE Computer Room in the IOE Building
The IOE Building in 1983
Portrait of Brad Whitehouse


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