In Memoriam: Steve Roth


In late 2003, one of Steve's largest projects was going to end in a month. His company, MAYA Viz, was small and a major project ending without followup work would put a strain on the whole organization.
Prior to that time, Steve and his team at MAYA Viz had spent five years, on their own, and in the DARPA Command Post of the Future (CPOF) program building a research prototype of a distributed workspace called CoMotion. This prototype enabled people to share information, understand each other's views, and establish a common ground.
One month before CPOF's scheduled end, the team demonstrated a prototype to Major General Pete Chiarelli, commander Army's 1st Calvary Division, in a series of wargaming exercises. The results were astounding – a huge decrease in the time users spent on gathering data freeing time to do analysis, decision-making, and sharing information throughout the team. General Chiarelli successfully argued to the Army leadership that they should fund an experiment where the CPOF software would be fielded to his new command, scheduled for deployment to Baghdad in early 2004.
Steve and his small team now had a tight budget and only five months to transform their laboratory prototype to a functional product that could work with real users on tactical military networks. The stakes were high – mistakes could cost soldiers' lives.
With the support of the team of CPOF companies, they met their deadlines. The system is being used 24/7 by a number of large military units in combat. It is revolutionizing military command and control. Soldiers in different locations can collaborate simultaneously without the risk of traveling through dangerous environments in order to be physically together.
All of Steve's achievements were the result of his fundamental belief in the unique value of people in the decision making process. To him, computers existed to empower human decisionmaking, rather than replace it. Steve, a dreamer and visionary, started his career as a graduate student in cognitive psychology. Upon graduating, he continued to research the use of computers in the learning process. He then moved to the Robotics Institute at CMU. His project SAGE, developed at CMU, allowed complex data to be represented visually in a way that humans could better see, use, and manipulate it. SAGE was later commissioned by the DARPA to help the military better manage their logistical operations on the battlefield.
Convinced that their software could drastically change the way humans interact with computers, Steve and his colleague, Jake Kolojejchick, launched MAYA Viz to “change the world, have fun doing it, and make money (in that order)”.
The alignment of the stars that brought General Chiarelli to the CPOF exercise was never lost on Steve and Jake. The path from laboratory exercise of a research prototype to the adoption by the Army was a treacherous one. Only by having first-hand perspective on problems and opportunities would they be able to keep from making a critical misstep that might keep the software from being adopted. Both went to Iraq to support the fielding of the software, understand how it was being used, and to expand user's concepts for what they could do with the system.
Steve cherished diversity and the gestalt that came from many different points of view. He enjoyed sharing his vision and giving his team the freedom to expand it from their own perspective. That a varied crew of designers, engineers who had joined a research company volunteered to go into a war zone to ensure the successful fielding of the system they created was a constant amazement to him. At all hours of day and night Steve was on IM with the team – both development and forward – trying to short-circuit misunderstandings and draw attention to potential problems – all to facilitate the delicate transition from research to deployment.
Steve believed that the potential applications of the CoMotion technology were in no way limited to the military. Steve's vision was that future customers would primarily be from the private sector. But in spite of his success in fielding a working application, Steve dreamed that one day he would go back to research. Steve relished the challenge of the design problem. He relentlessly pursued architectural purity and user interface consistency, always with a “loving disregard” for the practical difficulties of implementing the ideal on time and under budget. He refused to accept that it could not be done. He knew that compromises could become entrenched and would erode the purity that made the work unique. Steve patiently and eloquently described his vision to everyone who worked with him and inspired them to think and dream and change the world along with him.

Nahum Gershon, MITRE Corp.

Jake Kolojejchick, General Dynamics MAYA Viz