most significant bits
newsletter of uw computer science & engineering
volume 24, number 1, spring 2014

university of washington
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Big Data, Enormous Oppportunity Oceanography Astronomy Alumni awards Alum achievement Diamond winner Fitzpatrick Chair’s message Alumni entrepreneur profiles WibiData Usermind Two rising stars join CSE faculty Faculty awards and honors Student awards and honors News and events Bay Area alum meetup CSE annual luncheon Ben Taskar Datagrams
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About MSB

MSB is a twice-yearly publication of UW CSE supported by the Industrial Affiliates Program.

Editor: Kay Beck-Benton.
Contributors: Sandra Kaplan, Ed Lazowska, Hank Levy, Sandy Marvinney, S. Morris Rose
Photo credits: Bruce Hemingway, Rod Prieto, Kay Beck-Benton

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Fifth Annual CSE Alumni Achievement Awards

CSE honored two extraordinarily accomplished alumni — Jeff Dean and Gail Murphy — during its June 14th graduation ceremony. UW CSE’s Alumni Achievement Awards have two purposes: to celebrate alums such as Jeff and Gail, and to affirm to new graduates that they are joining a community of UW CSE alums who have changed the world.

Jeff Dean

Jeff Dean (PhD ’96)

Google Senior Fellow, and software engineer extraordinaire

In an Internet giant with more than 50,000 employees in more than 70 offices around the world, Jeff Dean holds special status. He joined Google in mid-1999, less than a year after its founding. The staff of 20 were crammed into a second-floor office above a store on University Avenue in Palo Alto.

“When we needed to leave, we had to discuss who would stand up and roll their chair back first,” Dean recalls. After the store below closed for the night, they amused themselves by projecting scrolling images of Google query words on the sidewalk below, to the puzzlement of passers-by and patrolling police officers.

Among his early assignments were design and implementation of Google’s first advertising serving system and Google News. He also co-designed and implemented the early generations of Google’s crawling indexing and query retrieval systems. His reputation as a blazingly fast coder and developer of highly efficient systems made him the “go to” engineer to develop scale-up systems to handle exponentially larger data sets as traffic to the site boomed.

UW CSE Alumni Achievement Awards

Several years ago, we established the tradition of honoring two outstanding UW Computer Science & Engineering alumni each year as part of our graduation ceremony. In doing this, we have three objectives:

  • To honor some of our most distinguished alumni by recognizing their extraordinary achievements.
  • To ensure that graduating students know that they are part of a long tradition of excellence and accomplishment.
  • To inspire current members of the UW CSE graduating class.

Information on previous honorees may be viewed here.

Along with his close colleague Sanjay Ghemawat, he designed and built MapReduce, which quickly became an industry standard and the basis for the open-source framework Hadoop. It also allowed other Google programmers to be more experimental and productive. Other key innovations were Big Table and Spanner, large-scale storage systems.

Internal April Fool’s Day jokes are a tradition at Google, and Dean, reportedly Google’s “most popular engineer ever,” was the unwitting target of a 2007 mass internal email of at least two dozen Chuck Norris style exploit zingers titled “Jeff Dean Facts,” among them: “The speed of light in a vacuum used to be about 35 mph. Then Jeff spent a weekend optimizing physics.” and “Compilers don’t warn Jeff Dean. Jeff Dean warns compilers.”

The blazing speed reputation dates back to high school in Atlanta when he did an internship at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He wrote a program that analyzed epidemiological data faster than anything in use. CDC adopted it and translated it into 13 languages. That led to summer internships at the World Health Organization in Geneva while he was earning his BS in computer science and economics at the University of Minnesota.

At UW CSE, Dean took the first class taught by then-new faculty member Craig Chambers, an expert in parallel computing. “It was a great class, and he became my doctoral advisor,” Dean says. “We’ve remained friends, and ironically, in 2007 I hosted him for lunch on the day he interviewed at Google for the position he now holds in Google’s Seattle office.”

These days Dean has the freedom to set his own agenda and pull together Google teams to work on whatever projects spark his interest. In recent years he has branched into “deep learning,” a form of machine learning. His team is developing large-scale computing systems to train large neural networks that are being applied to speech recognition, object detection, text understanding, and user prediction tasks.

Dean’s achievements have earned high recognition through election to the National Academy of Engineering and fellowship in the Association for Computing Machinery, both in 2009. In 2012 he won the ACM-Infosys Foundation Award. UW Engineering honored him with the Early Career Diamond Award in 2006, and this June he receives the CSE Alumni Achievement Award.

“It’s quite an honor and tribute,” Dean says. “I loved CSE, especially because grad students were not separated by discipline. In my office in the Chateau, a long trailer outside crammed Sieg Hall, my six officemates and I had great chats about all sorts of subjects.”

He appreciates a similar cross-disciplinary atmosphere at Google, and the chance to see his work implemented rapidly and used daily by hundreds of millions of people, which he simply sums up as “lots of fun.”

Gail Murphy

Gail Murphy (PhD ’96)

Software innovator, researcher, educator, administrator

As a software innovator, Gail Murphy’s focus is “people first.” The tools come second, whether she is developing complex but easy-to-use software systems for the business world or more efficient tools for developers with a goal to decrease the tedium and increase the fun component in their work.

Her people-centric focus also infuses her classes at the University of British Columbia, where she has taught since 1996 and built a world-class software engineering science program from the ground up. She wins plaudits like “best prof ever,” “spends tons of effort helping students,” and “really cool… one of the nicest profs.” She also serves UBC as associate dean for research and graduate studies. Plus, she is an entrepreneur and co-founder (2003) and chief scientist at Tasktop Technologies, headquartered in Vancouver.

Murphy has accrued a long list of honors since her UW graduate student days. Recent ones include the 2013 International Conference on Software Engineering award for “Most Influential Paper 10 Years Later,” the 2011 ACM SIGSOFT Retrospective Impact Paper Award, and a 2010 double header with the ACM Distinguished Scientist and ISCE Distinguished Paper awards. UW Engineering recognized her early career achievements with a 2008 Diamond Award. Now she is receiving CSE’s highest honor, the Alumni Achievement Award.

“It’s a special honor for me when so many alumni are deserving,” Murphy says. “CSE is a truly amazing place and made such a lasting impression.”

She especially appreciates the department for providing students with “huge exposure to wide-ranging issues” and feels lucky that David Notkin was her advisor — someone who was “always there and incredibly good at instilling confidence and guiding students to be successful.”

CSE’s open culture also inspired her. “It really was a home, and I’ve tried to bring a bit of that to UBC. We even have several other CSE graduates on the faculty,” she says.

A native of Edmonton, Murphy earned her CS degree at the University of Alberta, then worked as a software developer for five years. She loved creating products but felt frustrated doing the same tedious tasks over and over. Her next mission: make computers do the routine tasks and give people more time to do the creative work by structuring efficient development tools.

“A big challenge today is connecting the people involved in large software developments,” Murphy says. “When people are not connected, software development lags and problems get introduced into the software.”

From a research project in the lab, Murphy and her then PhD student Mik Kersten, founded Tasktop Technologies. Tasktop, which today has about 70 employees, meets this mission by integrating the many different kinds of application lifecycle management products used in large organizations. Tasktop is defining a new category of practice called software lifecycle integration. As a hybrid academic researcher and entrepreneur, Murphy likes understanding where industry is going and producing products.

“We’ve bootstrapped Tasktop for seven years, and our ambition is to continue to grow one step at a time,” Murphy says. “Customers are interested in how we are solving problems and connecting people.”

Human centric is the key, from Murphy’s teaching to research to the business world.

2014 Diamond Early Career Award honors open source wizard Brad Fitzpatrick

Brad Fitzpatrick

After Brad Fitzpatrick (BS ’02) received word of UW Engineering Diamond Award recognition, he joked with friends that Early Career must mean “I can’t retire yet.” He could rest on his laurels if he wished, because since graduating from the UW he has accomplished more than many software engineers do over four decades.

Fitzpatrick’s professional career goes back much further than most. He started programming a few months short of age 6 when his father started him on a few lines in Basic. In middle school he created and sold video games to classmates and also converted a DOS program to Windows, which produced royalties for 14 years. Another youthful hit was Voting Booth, which allowed users to create opinion polling sites on anything from political candidates to jokes. From the early days of the Internet he’s been ahead of the curve in seeing potential applications and “obvious” solutions to problems before anyone else caught on to them.

Diamond award
Diamond Award

Fitzpatrick came up with the idea for LiveJournal in spring 1999 as an interactive way to keep in touch with friends after he graduated from high school — ten years before Facebook. Usage boomed in 2001 after he made the LiveJournal server code open source. While still a CSE student, he formed a company that he ran full time after graduating, thus skipping a job hunt. When he didn’t have enough servers to handle the rapidly growing site use, he developed memcached, software that speeds up access to back-end servers.

“I did a quick hack. The idea was so obvious that I knew no one would pay for it, so I made it open source,” Fitzpatrick says. Today memcached is used by all major web services including YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Wikipedia, Craigslist, Blogger, and Google Plus.

LiveJournal had reached 5 million users when he sold it and his company, Danga Interactive, to Six Apart in January 2005. LiveJournal ultimately grew to about 13 million users and is especially popular in Russia. Fitzpatrick was Chief Architect at Six Apart, where he developed OpenID, a standard authentication system that allows users to consolidate their digital identities across different sites. Some 9 million sites offer integrated OpenID user support, and enabled accounts total more than one billion.

By mid 2007 Fitzpatrick was ready to leap into a bigger company, and the door was open at Google. “I thought I’d give it a try for six months, and now it’s been six and a half years,” he says. He likes working with smart people, being able to find an expert on any topic, and Google’s culture. “I love that I can land in any city in the world with an office, walk in, and make connections,” he says.

Fitzpatrick recently took on the rare opportunity to work full time on his 20 percent special interest Google project. It’s a life-long data storage system, Camlistore, designed to be independent of any company providing the service. “All companies would have to fail for the archives to fail. Your archive should be alive for 80 years, especially if you are,” he says. For the future, he wants to continue developing open source products and do his part to keep the Internet as decentralized as possible.

Fitzpatrick is the youngest of 15 programmers profiled in the 2009 book Coders at Work by Peter Seibel. It’s also made its way around the world, and Fitzpatrick even found a copy on a bookshelf in a cabin in the Australian woods. Twice during his time at Google, Fitzpatrick has sat across the hall from another superstar programmer, Jeff Dean (page 4), also an Early Career Award winner. “Jeff is awesome,” Fitzpatrick says. “He’s an urban legend at Google.”

Brad is the 11th CSE alum to be honored with a Diamond Award since the award’s inception in 2006. Previous Diamond Award winners may be viewed at:

Faculty awards and honors

UW CSE’s Gaetano Borriello Wins UW’s 2014 Distinguished Graduate Mentor Award

Gaetano Borriello

Gaetano Borriello, the Jerre D. Noe Professor of Computer Science & Engineering, received the Marsha L. Landolt Distinguished Graduate Mentor Award at the annual UW Awards for Excellence ceremony on Thursday, June 12th.

In his letter announcing the award, UW President Michael Young said: “Your students and colleagues nominated you with the highest praise for your exemplary commitment and skill in mentoring graduate students. They strongly commend you for raising the quality of graduate programs, for recruiting some of the very best students, and for setting an outstanding example of work-life balance. I join them in their tribute to you and extend my congratulations and appreciation for your outstanding dedication and service.”

The Landolt Award — named for former Dean of the Graduate School Marsha Landolt — was introduced in 1999 and allows the UW Graduate School to honor those members of the faculty who exemplify excellence in graduate education. CSE professor David Notkin received the second award, in 2000. CSE adjunct professor Tom Daniel received the fourth award, in 2002.

Congratulations, Gaetano!!

UW CSE’s Richard Ladner Wins SIGCHI Social Impact Award

Richard Ladner

UW CSE professor Richard Ladner has been recognized many times for his extraordinary work on accessible computing — a research area he entered after working in theoretical computer science for more than 30 years.

Ladner’s most recent honor comes from the ACM Special Interest Group on Human-Computer Interaction, SIGCHI, which presented him with its Social Impact Award at CHI 2014 in Toronto in April. This award is given to individuals who promote the application of human-computer interaction research to pressing social needs. Read the citation here:

Congratulations, Richard!

UW CSE’s Shayan Oveis Gharan Receives Honorable Mention 2013 ACM Doctoral Dissertation Award

Shayan Oveis Gharan

Each year, ACM recognizes a winner and one or two honorable mentions in its Doctoral Dissertation Award Competition, from among the 2000+ PhD dissertations authored in the field each year. UW CSE professor Shayan Oveis Gharan received one of two Honorable Mentions in the most recent competition for his Stanford doctoral dissertation New Rounding Techniques for the Design and Analysis of Approximation Algorithms.

Shayan received his PhD from Stanford in 2013. He is spending the current year as a Miller Fellow at UC Berkeley and will join UW CSE during the 2014-15 academic year. His research involves the development of provably efficient algorithms for problems that seem intractable. He has worked on the classical Traveling Salesman Problem, on clustering in massive graphs using spectral methods, and on stochastic optimization. More information on Shayan’s research may be viewed in this brochure:

Student awards and honors

UW CSE’s Shiri Azenkot Wins 2014 Graduate School Medal

Shiri Azenkot

Shiri Azenkot, a UW CSE PhD student who is completing her studies with CSE professor Richard Ladner and iSchool professor (and CSE adjunct professor) Jake Wobbrock, received the 2014 University of Washington Graduate School Medal. The Graduate School awards the Medal “to recognize PhD candidates whose academic expertise and social awareness are integrated in a way that demonstrates an exemplary commitment to the University and its larger community.” Azenkot was also recognized by the College of Engineering’s 2014 Community of Innovators Awards as the Student Innovator for Research.

Azenkot’s research concerns eyes-free text input on mainstream mobile devices using gestures and speech. Her goal is to enable blind people to use mainstream mobile devices as effectively and efficiently as sighted people. As a secondary pursuit, she explores how mainstream technology can enable blind and deaf-blind people to travel more independently. Learn more about her work here:

“I work on solving meaningful problems,” says Azenkot. “I have been very fortunate to have inspiring and supportive mentors and collaborators.”

In the fall she will join the Jacobs Technion Cornell Innovation Institute at Cornell Tech as an Assistant Professor. This is a joint appointment between Cornell Information Sciences at Cornell Tech (the new campus in NYC) and Technion (Israel Institute of Technology).

Azenkot is the fourth CSE PhD student to receive the Graduate School Medal. Other CSE recipients include:

Congratulations, Shiri!

UW CSE’s Martina Unutzer: Honorable Mention in 2014 CRA Outstanding Undergrad Researcher Award

Martina Unutzer

UW CSE undergraduate Martina Unutzer has received an Honorable Mention in the 2014 Computing Research Association Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Award competition. The award recognizes undergraduate students in North American colleges and universities who show outstanding research potential in an area of computing research.

Martina’s research, with UW CSE professor Magda Balazinska and UW Astronomy research scientist Ben Williams, has completely transformed the way our astronomy colleagues handle artifacts (due to cosmic rays) in their databases of stars. Balazinska writes: “I would meet with her not to advise her on what to do but to get up to speed on what she had already done! This is a degree of autonomy that one dreams about in graduate students, and Martina is an undergraduate!”

This summer Martina will join Google Seattle/Kirkland as a software engineer.

Engagement in research is a hallmark of UW CSE’s undergraduate program. As of last year, CRA had recognized more students from UW CSE in the past decade than from any other university.

Congratulations to Martina, and to all of our outstanding undergraduates!

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