A Tribute to Bill Shannon – A Giant of the Java Ecosystem

Know you not that a good man does nothing for appearance sake, but for the sake of having done right?

Epictetus

Bill Shannon passed away a few days ago after a long, valiant battle with cancer. The reality is Bill had a very long standing, selfless and profound impact on the entire Java ecosystem if not IT at large. It is also reality that far too few people understand this truth. In this blog post, I am going to attempt to do my part in closing this gap and honor a very good man that will be missed greatly.

Bill started his storied career with DEC and UNIX. He was the 11th employee of Sun Microsystems, alongside luminaries like Bill Joy. When J2EE was being formed, Bill was recruited to help lead the effort and remained in that role through the technology’s transition to Java EE and now Jakarta EE under the Eclipse Foundation. Bill is listed as lead or co-lead on all of Java EE platform releases. He played an instrumental role in the historic transfer of the technology from the JCP to the Eclipse Foundation. Bill was also the principal developer for Java Mail, now Jakarta Mail.

The following excerpt from his farewell note to his colleagues represents his accomplishments well:

I started at Sun (as employee #11) by bringing SunOS to life. Just as wild success was within reach, we stretched a little too far and signed a deal with AT&T. That set us back almost 5 years, but at least I have the “black edition” of Solaris signed by Eric Schmidt – “I’m Sorry”. Next it was time to move on to learn about window systems, desktop applications, and industry consortiums in the form of CDE. CDE was moving much too slowly and in 1996 a new opportunity presented itself – Java. We tried a Java machine, a JavaOS, and a Java desktop environment – Hotjava Views. None of that really panned out until Java found its home as an application server environment, first named J2EE and then named Java EE. I was recruited as leader of this new effort, which has subsequently been given a new name and new leadership – Jakarta EE at the Eclipse Foundation.

His contributions to Java, Java EE and Jakarta EE truly cannot be overstated. He left his mark on the technology set in a way few other people have. His interactions with me, while anecdotal, perhaps is a good reflection of who he really was, what he did and why he will be missed.

I first encountered Bill when I began contributing to Java EE 5 as an independent consultant, on my own time. Bill made sure I felt welcome, behind the scenes gave me background technical information that I needed and encouraged me to be outspoken. He valued my contributions and understood they came at the cost of significant personal sacrifices. I believe he also implicitly understood the challenges of being an immigrant, a person of color, someone with obvious Islamic heritage, at heart a non-conformist and a non-vendor in a forum and industry that lacked diversity and still does. Without that early support from Bill, I am not sure I would have continued on with Java EE. I still vividly remember what he once told me:

Don’t underestimate your impact. I appreciate your passion. You can make a difference in a way I don’t think you understand. There will be resistance, but don’t give up.

Bill was equally welcoming and supportive when I joined Oracle as Java EE evangelist. He made sure my ideas were voiced, heard and considered, even if we did not always agree. He was happy to empower me to fulfill my community facing role even at JavaOne while shunning the limelight himself. I now also know how many good fights he tirelessly fought behind the scenes so that the effort we both cared about kept moving forward.

Beyond Oracle, Bill was always quietly supportive of community efforts like the Java EE Guardians and the Jakarta EE Ambassadors after it. He remained supportive until the end of his days – taking the time to help draft the Guide to Helping Deliver Jakarta EE 9.

Bill is included in the Usenix association 25th anniversary of Unix, card deck (1994)

Bill passed at home with his family and close friends. He is succeeded by his wife and two daughters. Rest in peace Bill. Bill and his family were private people. With the blessings of his family, I hope to hold a virtual tribute event to honor Bill together publicly as a community. If this materializes, I will keep folks posted.

Bill Shannon with Anil Gaur (then Oracle Group VP responsible for Java EE), celebrating Java’s 20th anniversary

I believe the best way to truly honor Bill is to carry forward his life’s work embodied in Jakarta EE. I hope you will take a moment to consider the long service of this good man on all our behalf and also consider being a part of the Jakarta EE journey.

Please note these views are my own and do not reflect the views of Microsoft as a company.

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