The University of Washington’s fingerprints were all over last night’s GeekWire Awards.
Two of the Deal of the Year finalists, Impinj’s IPO and Turi’s $200 million acquisition by Apple, have ties to UW. Ed Lazowska, the longtime UW computer science professor who is spearheading the campaign for a second computer science building that will double the capacity of the program, took home this year’s Geek of the Year award. And one of his fellow nominees was Connie Bourassa-Shaw, who spent nearly two decades building UW’s entrepreneurship programs and announced plans earlier this year to step down.
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Lazowska came up again later in the show, when Microsoft’s Project Catapult took home the award for Innovation of the Year. Andrew Putnam, principal research hardware design engineer at Microsoft Research, called out Lazowska for being “one of many reasons why I came to the University of Washington computer science program.”
“We kept it around UW and kept it local,” Putnam said of his project. “Now we are changing the world. I hope you guys can use our AI and cloud platform for your next innovations.”
Lazowska has been with UW since 1977, and he has been instrumental in the rise of the university’s computer science program, transforming it into a top-tier destination for aspiring computer science students.
Computer science is now the most in-demand major at UW, surpassing business. In addition to the new building, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen recently made a $40 million contribution, combined with an additional $10 million from Microsoft in Allen’s honor, to create a $50 million endowment for a new Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the UW.
In addition to his win at the GeekWire Awards, Lazowska was honored today at the Technology Alliance luncheon in downtown Seattle. He received a standing ovation after he was introduced by UW President Ana Mari Cauce.
He has been a “tireless, selfless champion” for technology and computer science in Washington state for the past 40 years, Cauce said.
Lazowska has on the Tech Alliance board for the past 20 years — “uniting business, research and education leaders around the importance of computer science to our very much innovation-driven economy,” she said, touting his new status as Geek of the Year.
Lazowska spoke to GeekWire at the awards last night — just before hopping on his bicycle to head to his Ballard home — and talked about the growth of the school over the years, how he stays connected to the Seattle tech scene and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. The conversation has been edited for style, length and clarity.
GeekWire: How important has this year been for computer science at UW?
Ed Lazowska: I’ve been here 40 years, and every year has been better than the one that came before. I say to people when I moved here, technology was Boeing making planes, and Fluke making voltmeters, and Physio-Control making defibrillators. Microsoft was 13 people in Albuquerque. Now you guys talk about 86 engineering offices of companies headquartered elsewhere that are here, in addition to all our great homegrown companies.
What I love is graduating more fantastic students every year and seeing them out there, doing great. Obviously this year getting our new building under way was really important, and then the Paul G. Allen School is super important. Those are both the biggies for me, because they are the future. The new building doubles our capacity, and the Allen School is just monumentally important. Partly, it’s just being associated in perpetuity with Paul, one of the greats, somebody who is a real visionary – an ‘Idea Man,’ as the book says. To be joined at the hip with him for the future is important, and the program being a school at UW is important. It elevates our status.
GW: How do you continue to foster relationships with the Seattle tech scene as new companies come to town and homegrown companies grow?
EL: Part of it is just personal, individuals working with individuals. UW has been very liberal in allowing relationships with companies. We have two faculty members who are essentially half-time at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, in addition to Oren Etzioni, who has left our faculty to run it. Why do we do that? If Paul Allen can do for artificial intelligence what he did for brain science, this is going to be transformational for Seattle and for us, so for gosh sakes go do it. We have a faculty member at Facebook now, doing face type stuff.
The students create these relationships for us. We stay in very close touch with the students here and in the Bay Area. We have this Industry Affiliates meeting once a year, it’s sort of a small company and startup recruitment day, then a research day, then a major company recruiting day. Long ago, 20 years ago, we elected to set the price of membership incredibly low, and the reason is, we decided it was more important to focus on friend-raising than fundraising. Here we were in Seattle, with this incredible wealth of small companies headquartered here, and we decided that getting them in and connected was the important thing. I think connection to the community has always been really important to us.
GW: What changes do you see in computer science education going forward?
EL: It’s the recognition of computer science as central to everything, and that’s really important. It’s not just software, it’s biology, you name it, computer science is at the center of it. We spent 50 years making things smaller and faster and less expensive, and now we are going to spend 50 years attacking societal challenges. Whether it’s healthcare or transportation or energy efficiency or education, whatever you care about, you better care about computer science because we are central to tackling all of those things, and that’s a really important change in the nature of the field.
There’s plenty of stuff still making things smaller and faster and cheaper, but it’s now really affecting people’s lives in ways that go far beyond a word processor or printing your paycheck. You look at what is happening in AI these days, and you look at the potential of deep learning, autonomous vehicles, and things like that. It’s utterly mind-boggling.
GW: What does UW have to do to maintain its presence in the tech community as more companies come here?
EL: We are a community here. It is astonishing the amount of support we get. What we have to do as a university, as a computer science department, is stay connected to that community. That’s really the strength. I am working hard to transition to others a certain amount of that connectivity that has traditionally been me. And I am a control freak, so I am not very good at bringing others along to take on my responsibilities, and that’s terrible.
You should be judged on the succession plan you put into place, less by what you did and more by how things continue afterwards, so I am trying to be really serious about that now, partly because of lectures from friends. Those relationships need to belong to UW Computer Science and Engineering, the Paul G. Allen School, not to Ed. That’s the challenge: Making sure I cement the relationships between all these people and institutions and companies in the community to the Paul G. Allen School, so that it doesn’t matter if I am there or not.
GW: What do you see as the biggest challenges for your programs in the coming years?
EL: We all know that universities do research, but fundamentally we are in the education business, and we are in the education business for Washington state’s kids. And scaling is very difficult, because when we get funded for enrollment expansion we take students right away, and it takes forever to hire the faculty. That’s because it is a dog-eat-dog world for the best people. And we are fighting with Stanford and Berkeley and MIT and Carnegie Mellon and basically nobody else, so it is pretty fast company.
The rate at which we can grow the faculty is far less than the rate at which we can grow the student body, and now the question is, how do you keep the educational quality up when class sizes are large? This quarter we have 200 undergraduate teaching assistants in our program, so astonishingly, a significant portion of our undergraduate student body is involved in teaching other undergrads. It’s how we are making up for the lack of faculty. So the challenge is keeping the quality up so that Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Facebook and the startups want to hire these students, and doing that in this period when we are not in steady state.
The students are coming in, and the faculty is coming in much more slowly. It’s a nationwide problem. Two years ago there was a graduate machine learning-course at Stanford with 760 students in it. You don’t go to Stanford to sit in a classroom with 760 graduate students – give me a break!
GW: What is a piece of tech you can’t live without, and not just something simple like a smartphone or email?
EL: I am completely infatuated with my Echo. We use it for all sorts of stuff, and it’s great. I think it’s phenomenal how right Amazon got this, by having it do a limited set of tasks in a way it could perform with 100 percent accuracy. Two years ago, it was so great to be able to say “Alexa, turn on Christmas,” and suddenly all the outdoor lights go on. It’s like the greatest stupid pet trick in the world.
I’ve told people at Amazon that their mistake was selling Echos so cheaply and not investing in the companies that make Z-Wave switches and outlets, because I probably spent $2,000 refitting all my outlets and switches in my home, and I didn’t spend anything on my Echo because somebody gave it to me. Had I bought it, it would have been at 10 percent of what I spent on Z-Wave switches.
We also are like the last people on earth to have bought a Roomba. We don’t have kids at home anymore. We don’t have pets. But still, it’s amazing how much crap this thing picks up. The first few times we ran it, my wife and I would spend an hour following the damn thing around the house watching what it was doing. It’s incredibly cool. It’s not like this is AI rocket science, but it’s a very sophisticated device that does a great job. These things that are part of your daily life are what’s really going on now, and it’s super exciting.