Dr. Clarence Ellis: A Legacy of Collaboration

Dr. Clarence “Skip” Ellis, born in Chicago in 1943, was an American computer scientist. In fact, he was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in Computer Science in 1969, and eventually Emeritus Professor of Computer Science and Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

One could say that collaboration was held as one of Clarence’s core values throughout his life. He pioneered Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) - also known as groupware - a framework outlining “how collaborative activities and their coordination can be supported by means of computer systems.” An early definition of groupware explained it as “intentional group processes plus software to support them.” Sound familiar?

After leaving an assistant professor position at MIT, Clarence Ellis joined Xerox PARC (now Palo Alto Research Center, a division of Xerox). PARC was responsible in large part for such developments as laser printing, Ethernet, modern PCs, graphical user interface (GUIs), and so much more. Ellis remained at PARC for nearly a decade and focused his efforts on icon-based GUI, object-oriented programming languages, and groupware systems. At PARC, Clarence was part of a team of sociologists, psychologists, and computer scientists that worked on Alto, the personal computer that served as the precursor to more widely commercialized PCs, such as Apple’s Lisa computer. Ellis also headed the Office Research Group, which developed the first office system using icons and Ethernet for collaborating at distance. (Do you see where we’re heading yet??)

Throughout his career, Clarence led efforts in Real-time Collaborative Editing and pioneered Officetalk, a collaborative office work system that presaged today’s frequently-used apps, like Google Docs!

It’s hard to imagine what our daily work lives would be like without shared collaborative workspaces, available to us anywhere at any time of day. At Shamrock, we use Google Suite and all of its associated apps to keep our teams connected. Without the innovation, leadership, and groundwork laid by Mr. Ellis, our jobs surely wouldn’t function as seamlessly as they do today.

Clarence Ellis sadly passed away in 2014, but his legacy remains with us in a very real and tangible way today. The next time you pull up a Google Doc, recall Dr. Ellis's work and the difference it’s making in your work life at that moment. Through his work and life-long dedication to collaboration, Dr. Ellis serves as a profound source of inspiration for us all!


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