Thursday, November 13, 2014

Great Day for Harvard

Not just for Computer Science at Harvard, but that too. Steve Ballmer has just challenged us to become the #1 place for computer science research and education. We have lots of loyal alums, but not many are so determined to move us forward and so ready to put their money where their mouth is. Ballmer is funding twelve faculty slots, so we will grow from 24 to 36 full time professors. That is an amazing commitment, and I am deeply grateful and deeply humbled, because it's now over to us on the faculty to make it happen. No more complaining that we need more faculty; now we just have to hire them. Speaking of which, we are running a junior search right now. Want to be in on the ground floor? We'd love to hear from you!

This is the 51st year I have been associated with Harvard. I entered as a freshman in the fall of 1964. I fell into computer science before that was the name of anything official here. The bottom of the SEAS web site that was put up following today's announcement has a picture of me fall of my senior year, demonstrating my senior thesis to Applied Math 201 -- I was showing conformal mappings in the complex plane. (I am pretty sure this photo was taken by Bob Sproull, my Harvard classmate and another acolyte of Ivan Sutherland, who went on to be a Sun Fellow.)

By the time I joined the faculty, 40 years ago, Sutherland was gone. Computer Science existed at Harvard, but was not a priority. It was as though the Sutherland experiment had not paid off, and Harvard was going back into its more natural, more cautious mode. The first time I raised in a faculty meeting the idea that we should have a CS major was in about 1978, when I was a nontenured associate professor. Bernie Budiansky, a brilliant applied mathematician and mechanical engineer, snorted, "We've never had a major in automotive science, why would we have one in computer science?" I didn't raise the question again until my personal situation became a bit more secure a few years later. The major must have started in 1983, and I know the first degrees were awarded in 1984. Oren Etzioni, professor of CS at the University of Washington, swears he was the first CS major, which may well be true -- he may have been the first person to walk into my office and declare himself as a CS major in 1983.

Over the years we've produced an incredible series of graduates -- and non-graduates, such as Gates and Zuckerberg. The talent pool is the best in the world, but the "department," though it has improved steadily and has had a few people at the top, hasn't as a whole been at the top. (We have no departments in SEAS, just informal caucuses we call "areas." That is a huge plus for us -- it greatly reduces the amount of internecine warfare, and encourages collaboration in a discipline that is increasingly "outward-looking.")

What a change is happening! We already have a superb group of 24 faculty, brilliant and collegial, devoted to education, spanning the field, and branching into the life sciences, law, economics, and other disciplines. We now set about to change the landscape by hiring twelve more. I feel like the "next wave" just washed over me, because over the past three days I have signed more than 100 sophomores up to be CS majors (the deadline was yesterday). I am engaged in the process of planning our new building in Allston, which will be the center of an innovation hub and the promised land, not just for CS and engineering, but for other (as yet undetermined) Harvard departments that will be moving also, and for an enterprise zone that will grow up around us. CS will be at the heart of it, as it will be in so much else that lies ahead.

We are going to be #1. And the competition is going to make every other department better while we're getting there. And that will be good for Boston, for the US, and for the world.

Look at the slide show at the bottom of the "Catch the Wave" page about the future of CS -- there are a couple more that relate to me, as well as a couple featuring Henry Leitner, and one of Al Spector as an undergrad too. Bonus links: Steve Ballmer hilariously advertising CS50, the way he once advertised Windows  1.0; and Ballmer's CS50 lecture yesterday, with a whole set of good life lessons. Anyone who complains that Harvard students spend too much time on extracurriculars and not enough time in the classroom should watch that class, and then, if they dare, call Steve and tell him that he wasted his time here! And watch the video of the dedicatory program at the i-Lab -- to see Ballmer's inspirational fight-song about Harvard CS, and also to hear the spectacular speech by Harvard CS undergrad Ana-Maria Constantin, who reminds us how important it is to have a program worthy of our students.