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.
Now, can you get up and be actively audacious every day? Nobody can, not even the Greats. So we take a portfolio approach at all levels: lots of universities, lots of research grants, lots of individual faculty and students, and—for some individuals—lots of different career phases to see where your changing interests and skills fit best. It’s good to move around. But all the while, you have to respect the portfolio, Matt. It’s been working fabulously over the long term. And it’s done so on a tiny fraction of the budget of corporate America, a tiny fraction of the tax base.
The funny thing about your timing here is that the short-term view is actually really rosy right now—times are great for academic/industrial fluidity in computing. Companies and VCs and pundits are flocking to academic leaders for ideas and guidance. Academics are more aware than ever about what’s going on in industry, and some of the really good ones have taken the plunge into companies to do the tech transfer. Times are really good, even on the small timescale.
Can things get better? Sure they can. Is the university research model perfect? Of course not. We should have a portfolio of experiments there too, including new models for tech transfer and collaboration between academia, industry, and venture funding. (I blogged about one of my experiments recently). So by all means go back to your post and distill down some of the constructive parts. Spend time on some of them. You’re not alone in wanting to experiment with these models and improve the pipeline, and there’s a good constructive conversation to have.
Meanwhile, stay positive! Life is good. Research is good! You have a big platform there (and I don’t mean all those computers you can log into). Use it for good. Remember your heroes. Emulate and inspire.