Matt Welsh of Google—formerly of Harvard, Berkeley and Cornell—is a deservedly well-read blogger in the computing community. He’s also somebody I’ve admired since his early days in grad school as a smart, authentic person.
Matt’s been working through his transition from Harvard Professor to Googler in public over the last year or so, and it’s been interesting to watch what he says, and the discussion it provokes. His latest post was a little more acid than usual though, with respect to the value of academic computer science. My response got pretty long, and in the end I figured it’d be better to toss it up in my own space.
Rather than run down work you don’t like—including maybe your own prior work, as assessed on one of your dark days—think about the academic work over the last 50 years that you admire the hell out of. I know you could name a few heroes. I bet a bunch of your blog’s readers could get together and name a whole lot more. Now imagine the university system hadn’t been around and reasonably well-funded at the time, because it was considered “inefficient when it comes to producing real products that shape the world”. It’s sad to consider.
Here’s another thing you and your readers should consider: Forget efficiency. At least, forget it on the timescale you measure in your current job. Instead, aspire to do work that is as groundbreaking and important as the best work in the history of the field. And at the same time, inspire generations of brilliant students to do work that is even better—better than your very best. That’s what great universities are for, Matt. Remember? Sure you do. And yes—it’s goddamn audacious. As well it should be.