Bill LeFebvre: Unix, Open Source, and the World Wide Web

Rice CS alumnus William "Bill" LeFebvre is the chief architect at If/Then.

Rice CS alumnus William "Bill" LeFebvre is the chief architect at If/Then.

At age 12, he was a bit of a bookworm with a nondiscriminatory palate. So when William LeFebvre found a text about computers on his dad’s bookshelf, he naturally began reading it.

“That was about 1973, and it was primarily about FORTRAN, but also included the basic concepts of how computers worked, like compilers and assembly language,” said the Rice University Computer Science alumnus (B.A. ’83, M.S. ‘87).

“I was fascinated by it, even though I had no access to computers at the time. It would be another two years before I had access to a real computer, and that was a teletype terminal in my high school --connected to the server in a science center on the other side of the county. It was intended for general education use, but a few of us who were interested could also use it in our own time.”

He arrived at Rice in 1979 as a music major and was looking into a class called the Introduction to Computer Science and Engineering. His student advisors attempted to dissuade him, saying it would be too challenging for a freshman. LeFebvre replied he’d already been working with computers for four years and signed up.

“That was ELEC 220, taught by Prof. Dan Hirshberg. We had to write on punch cards, batch processing in the ICSA lab on an IBM 370 clone made by Itel. I was fascinated by computers after that and sensed it was what I really wanted to do. Then Ken Kennedy drove the establishment of a new degree program for Computer Science, and I switched my major," he said.

The field was still relatively new and demand for programmers was not yet high when LeFebvre entered his senior year. When his job prospects seemed sparse, LeFebvre was tapped for graduate study.

He said, “I was encouraged by Ken, Corky, and Keith to apply to the new PhD program. They accepted me, and I was one of the first 10-12 graduate students in Computer Science. After completing my master’s, I spent time in additional research then went off in another direction.”

LeFebvre first used UNIX when Rice brought in VAX 11/750s for use in undergraduate curriculum as well as for research tools for graduate students and faculty members. Then the department got SUN workstations.

“After years working with the IBM Multiple Virtual Store (MVS) system and with Digital's VMS system, UNIX was refreshingly simple. It was so easy to do anything on the system; compared to everything else this was very easy to use. But UNIX was missing good real time monitoring. VMS had a tool for that and I wondered why UNIX didn’t. So I wrote it.

“There was (and still is) a network of servers called USENET which exchanged information and data on a wide variety of topics via newsgroups. One of the groups was set up for distributing software. I packed up my real time monitoring tool called "Top", sent it to the group, and said anyone who wanted it could download it and compile it. That is how open source was working at the time. Over three decades later, top is still being used on many Unix-like systems.”

The Internet rolled out for public use when LeFebvre was working in Northwestern University’s Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) department. When he came across his first website, LeFebvre said he pulled back the curtain to see what HTML looked like.

“I thought, ‘that will never fly,’ because it looked too complex. Boy was I wrong. Now, it is obvious how much of a game changer the Web was. It changed how everyone used the Internet and it changed the direction of my career, because I went to work for one of the biggest websites. I ended up at Turner as part of the team that ran”

At the time, was simply another avenue for getting news out. It was considered an alternative to the cable channel. The network realized that their high traffic points for the site were on weekdays. When people were at work and had no access to television, they turned to the Internet to get news off the CNN website.

LeFebvre said, “The website was an easy outlet for getting the news, and became a vital tool for keeping people informed. That became extremely important on September 11. So many people tried to access our site that the stampede swamped our servers.

“Everyone in the department was on a conference call, batting ideas back and forth. How could we get our site back online and responding? So many people were making requests for the page, the typical user was getting no response at all. We didn’t have the caching techniques that are commonly used today. It was harder to keep up with high fluctuations in traffic.

“We put more machines behind the site and also reduced the displayed content to get the critical news out to as many people as possible. We eventually got things working again, and our people felt wrung out. The whole week was like that, traffic stayed extremely high.”

Several years later, LeFebvre and two of his former colleagues from CNN launched a startup, offering their web experience to other brands seeking to build Internet-based business models. Their customers included brands like AT&T, Comcast, Coca Cola, National Geographic, and NBC Sports, and their success caught the attention of larger agencies.

The startup was acquired in its third year and three years after that, the parent company spun off the digital division. LeFebvre rode out the changes in order to stay with his clients and the work he loved. Today, he is the chief architect at if/Then.

He said, “We help clients bring their ideas to the Internet, primarily in the form of a website. We also offer complete solutions from UX and design to development and deployment of the production website. Some of our client relationships came out of CNN contacts, but our reputation is what primarily built our success.

“As the chief architect, I design and help implement networks of computer systems to make our clients’ websites work. We are deep in CI/CD (continuous integration and continuous deployment), so I help engineer solutions for that. I work closely with our developers, to ensure what they create will work at scale, and I also help the dev teams automate their processes -- to make it easier and faster to get their jobs done.”

He enjoys the variety of challenges that come across his desk, and untangling issues is satisfying for LeFebvre. He said, “When I can solve a difficult problem and make a client happy, that’s a good day.”