Charles and Lisa Simonyi are the latest high-profile donors to make big contributions for a second computer science building at the University of Washington in Seattle.
The couple’s $5 million donation — on top of multimillion-dollar gifts from Microsoft, Amazon, Zillow, and Google — will help fund the construction of the 135,000-square-foot building, to help the UW double the number of computer science students admitted annually.
The donation comes from a charitable fund for the arts and sciences established after Charles Simonyi left his career at Microsoft. Simonyi was the head Microsoft’s application software group during the creation of some of the company’s most lucrative and widely-used products, and is sometimes called the father of Microsoft Word and Excel.
“Every center of high technology must have an excellent university in its midst,” said Simonyi. “People, of course, point out Stanford as a primary example in Silicon Valley and MIT in the Boston corridor, University of Waterloo in the Toronto-area. It’s a key part of a high-tech city, like Seattle, to have this center of excellence and to extend that excellence.”
After Microsoft, Simonyi went on to co-found Intentional Software, an evolution of Simonyi’s Intentional Programming project at Microsoft Research. The Bellevue, Wash. company develops workplace productivity tools and aims to streamline the process of building programs.
Simonyi also happens to be the only person to visit space as a tourist twice. He has donated millions to Seattle’s Museum of Flight, which named its Space Gallery after him.
Some of the UW funds will go toward a study and collaboration space called the Charles & Lisa Simonyi Undergraduate Commons in the new building. The facility will also house a 250-seat Amazon Auditorium, an event space called the Zillow Commons, and a Microsoft Café.
Interest in computer science and engineering degrees has sharply increased in the past few years, driven by job opportunities and the Seattle-area’s vibrant tech scene. Last year, CSE became the top choice of major for incoming UW freshmen, surpassing business.
Right now, UW is turning down two-thirds of qualified students who want to pursue computer science or engineering because it lacks the space to support the rising interest in the field. The tech community has contributed big sums of cash to fix that problem quickly and increase the pipeline of tech talent entering the workforce.
UW is raising $110 million for the project from public and private sources. The Simonyi donation brings the total commitments to about $90 million. Construction is under way, and the new building is expected to open by the end of 2018.
“It benefits everyone in the community, either directly or indirectly,” Simonyi said. “It’s a very natural thing to do, to do direct one’s philanthropic efforts to where there’s this clear need … we are really extending the excellence that already exists and we are satisfying a very real need.”