Remembering Howard

by Brinda Thomas

On March 11th, 2008, Howard Gobioff succumbed to a five-year battle with lymphoma and died at age 36.  His death came as a shock to many of his family and friends, as he had kept his diagnosis a secret until 2008.  Among the grieving were members of his high school class of 1989 at Montgomery Blair.

Howard Gobioff in the 1989 Yearbook
Howard Gobioff thrived during his years at the Montgomery Blair High School Magnet Program, discovering a passion for computer science that would remain with him for the rest of his life.  With fellow students,  Maneesh Agrawala (’90), Sven Khatri (’89), and Dan Mall (’89), and sponsored by former Blair computer science teacher, Mary Ellen Verona, he formed a team to compete with 1480 high schools in the first national 'SuperQuest - The High School Supercomputing Challenge' contest sponsored by ETA Systems in 1988.  During a seven-week intensive workshop at ETA’s headquarters in St. Paul, MN, Howard and his team gained access to a supercomputer to develop and run a computer program to solve real-world problems with advice from computing experts. As a result of the Blair team’s finish among the top four schools in the country, each team member won a personal computer, software, and $3000 scholarship, and Blair received a Cyber 910 workstation valued at $50,000-$100,000 and its first direct connection to the Internet.  The SuperQuest competition left a strong impression on Howard, as he majored in computer science and mathematics at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he graduated Magna Cum Laude.

In 1993, he joined one of the leading computer science departments in the country at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to start a Masters/Ph.D. program.  At CMU, advised by Professors Garth Gibson and Doug Tygar, he studied computer security protocols for Network Attached Secure Disks (NASD), a method of distributed data storage using cheap, commodity-grade hardware in common use in the vast parallel computing “clouds” in use by many commercial businesses today.  According to Erik Riedel, a long-time friend from graduate school, “his work led to a new Small Computer System Interface (SCSI) command set called OSD (Object-based Storage Devices) that was ratified as an American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard in September 2004, with much of Howard’s design for the security protocols intact.”  In 1999, his expertise in parallel computing led him to a job at Google, when it was still a 40-person start-up company.  At Google, he helped to implement the company’s advertising system and was one of the key architects of the proprietary Google File System for the distributed processing and storage of large files, which enabled the vast explosion of online applications developed by Google.

Outside his research interests, Howard devoted much of his energy to learning Japanese, and interned at NTT Data in Tokyo in the summer of 1996 while in graduate school.  However, as he strived to finish his dissertation, he had to stop taking language courses.  He later expressed some regret at having to stop taking Japanese classes.  However, in 2004, a year after he was diagnosed with lymphoma, he fulfilled his graduate school dream to return to and work in Japan, when he led Google’s initiative to build a technology research and development center in Tokyo, as part of the company’s efforts to build a presence in many major geographic language centers.

Howard raises a toast
Howard Gobioff was an idealistic, fiercely creative individual, with a strong interest in free speech and political freedom, perhaps inspired by the role of the internet as a tool for political activism and personal expression.  Never married, he took to driving motorcycles, dressing in black, and keeping his hair in a long mullet-like style.  As best man at his friend’s wedding, he showed up dressed in a ruffled tuxedo top and black leather pants, one of the most memorable of guests.  He was proud of his eclectic taste in music, arts, and literature, favoring industrial rock artists such as Nine Inch Nails and the works of science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein.  His personal musings, which are still posted online at http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~hgobioff/, include a collection of quotes by scientists, poets, and novelists supporting free speech, religious diversity, privacy on the internet and amusingly faulty visions of the computing future, such as Thomas Watson’s quip that “there is a world market for maybe five computers,” while chairman of IBM in 1943. 

While in graduate school, he also became an avid dancer, out of his interest in “how to use movement … to be expressive,” and enjoyed the club scene in Pittsburgh, San Francisco, New York, and Tokyo during his years living in these various cities.  His graduate school friend, Joseph O’Sullivan, joked that, “when [Howard] was trying to decide between [Carnegie Mellon University in] Pittsburgh and his many other top tier grad school choices[, f]oolishly, those other choices tried to tempt him with their labs, their academic credentials, etc.  I brought Howard to the Attic/Upstage/Metropol in Pittsburgh which made CMU the obvious choice for him.” 

Howard Gobioff was first diagnosed with a non-aggressive form of lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphocytes of the immune system, in 2003.  He underwent medical surveillance and treatment privately, and chose not to inform his family of his condition.  The disease appeared to be in remission.  However on January 31st, 2008, when he was admitted to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City with pneumonia, he learned that his lymphoma had transformed into a more aggressive variety.  He revealed his condition to his family soon after and battled with the cancer until his weakened body succumbed to an infection on March 11th, 2008.  His funeral was held in Hollywood, Florida with a memorial service in New York City, which drew many former high school and college classmates, as well as colleagues from Google.  At his memorial service, donations were collected for the Lymphoma and Leukemia Society, American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, and Planned Parenthood Federation of America.  One friend, Devon Brady, even ran the November 2008 New York City Marathon in Howard’s memory to raise money for the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.  His family and friends have also created a website and blog in memory of Howard: http://rememberinghoward.com

As a Blair high school student, computer scientist, and technology leader at Google, Howard’s impact on his family, friends, and broader community has been enduring.  In the words of those he left behind, “he will be greatly missed as we are left behind to puzzle out the reasons [why] such a life could be so tragically cut short.
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