Women@SCS conducted an interview with Andrew Moore, the Dean of the School of Computer Science.
Featuring photos of Andrew Moore and Niki Maheshwari (SCS '16 & W@SCS member) from the SweetPix Photo Booth during SCS Day 2015. Used with the express (and enthusiastic!) permission of Andrew himself :).
Most students don't know what a dean does - what kind of responsibilities do you have?
One of the ways I look at my job is, even something which is incredibly successful like the School of Computer Science needs to have someone accountable for always standing back and looking at the whole thing and asking, "What are the opportunities that we may have been missing? What can we do better?" And pretty much everyone, from students to faculty to staff could do that, but I'm the one who's actually accountable for making sure that we as an organization do do that. So I think the main part of my job is to make sure that we don't all get caught up with the day-to-day action of running things, but we are prepared to ask what things our school can do, which could be radically different, or are there problems which are sort of creeping up on us over the years that we forgot to address.
What part of your job is the most challenging? Is it the accountability or trying to identify what may be coming up?
For me right now, I think something which the faculty and the students were both talking about is we all know that Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science is really the top place for education and for technology on the planet. There's one other place which I'm not going to name which I think may be equal to us. But, we are really on top. But, we are not doing some of the things that we could do, to do with being thought leaders for the planet in computer science. So, we don't have the same kind of voice that several other places have in terms of helping, in the case of the United States, the United States government or industry, or on the international platform, what the next 5, 10, 25, and 50 years are going to be like as artificial intelligence and robotics grows and changes the world. And the feedback I got from the faculty and what I believe in myself is, we actually have to get systematic about having that level of voice where we're helping the world understand what's unfolding, rather than sitting quietly in a corner and building the technology.
Have you encountered any barriers to that?
In terms of our visibility and communication, here's an interesting dilemma: if there's something that's controversial, should CMU get involved, or should we steer clear of it? And I'll give you an excellent example. We're proud of the fact that our students were first place in some international hacking competitions (for more detail see this story) for actually finding vulnerabilities in existing systems and I think we should celebrate that and we should talk about the pros and the cons. But one of the barriers is that if you're cautious in your strategy for how you're communicating with the rest of the world, you might say, "This is a sensitive question. Some people think it's a bad idea to have students involved in practicing hacking. Other people think it's a really important thing. And my preference is that even if across the campus we've got different viewpoints on that issue, we still publicly talk about it and even publicly argue among ourselves about it, rather than quietly saying, "Yep, this is controversial. Let's not talk about it." So that was one of the barriers I hit early on and I think we're making good progress in that direction.
What are the biggest differences between when you were a professor here and now as dean - what changes have you seen in these past 10 years?
One of the things which has really happened is ideas which came out of Carnegie Mellon over the 1990's and early 2000's have become incorporated in products and business around the world. And I think when I joined CMU - I joined CMU in the early 90's - at that point CMU was very famous for having the best computer scientists and coming up with some of the best research. But, at that time, it was only emerging that CMU was also building things which the rest of the world hadn't even thought about.There was one team who built the early stages of self-driving cars, and as an academic exercise, that was very successful. Another team build the large scale distributed file systems, which turned into AFS, which is very successful. But, while I was here before, CMU was proud of itself because it had introduced these big ideas to the academic world. Now CMU is a powerhouse that produces the ideas which get out into the rest of the world too. Self-driving cars are now a major part of the disruptive industry in this century, and AFS has turned into things like Dropbox, and other places where the whole world is just getting used to storing stuff in the cloud. So I think my own understanding and I think the public understanding of CMU is that it's not just that it's fantastic at academic computer science research, but the stuff that we do here is changing the way people live.
Recently, there have been lot of stories in the news about women leaving tech. So from your perspective, having worked in the heart of the tech industry, do you have any insights into making the tech industry more inclusive?
That's an extremely important question. One thing which we just cannot let go of is how important it is to help the pipelines starting from middle school to get people from all kinds of backgrounds excited about computer science and keep that going on. So one of the things I want to do has to do with the fact that - this is going to sound like I'm pandering to you guys - the School of Computer Science undergraduates is the most sought after program out of all undergraduate programs in the country at the moment. It is so hard to get into our program, and it is so strong. I want to grow the size of the program as the years go by. The main reason I want to grow the size of the program is not just because it's fun to teach more people, but because I want us to be reaching out to students, especially in middle school, to show them that CMU wants you - CMU wants you to study hard, come to CMU, and understand the fact that by studying computer science, you're not just becoming good at coding, but you're helping the world, by pointing out the things that CMU has done to help the world. Number one for me is reaching into middle schools and then holding onto people who are already showing talent, and helping them get through all the barriers which seem to crop up for people to stay in the program and stick around with CS throughout their whole careers.
That's one of the things we were curious about - we were reading an article about how women who have been in the tech industry for decades are just leaving it because they just didn't want to deal with it anymore or weren't comfortable in the industry. Do you have any insight into that situation?
I can believe it, and there are some things that I'd like to do about that. In my previous company, we all started to talk about the problem of unconscious bias that might be driving folks out. Internally, we started training on unconscious bias and realized that even though we are such a modern and forward-thinking company, even there, we had all sorts of extra biases and assumptions that we were making internally. We had to really work hard to change our views in some ways to make sure it stayed as an inclusive and interesting place for folks to stick around. So I think it is true that we can no longer congratulate ourselves that bringing people into the industry is enough, we have to keep them there and excited as time goes on. I'll give you an example of a simple mistake that I feel like I made during my time at Google, and I know it's not going to answer the whole big question because your big question is so big, but it's an interesting example - we found it really fun while we were in that small building over there starting up, someone just brought in a couple of nerf guns, and a few of our kids just started playing with the nerf guns, and it was cool - and before we know it, we had this culture where everyone from both genders, from all kinds of backgrounds, would engage in nerf gun battles all the time. And that was fun, and it got sort of more incorporated as something we did, that every time a new person arrived, we'd give them a nerf gun. And that was good right? It was part of our culture, and it seemed like a cool thing. And then a few years later, we had lots of programs for middle school students to tour the office, and we started to get feedback from some of the middle school students, especially some of the girls' schools, that the way that there were weapons all around the office made it feel like it was welcoming a certain kind of person. We realized that you have to think through the messages that even apparently simple things are sending when you're setting up an office culture.
I guess leading off the unconscious bias thing, you were there at the first Women@SCS meeting when we were talking about gender bias, and it seems like from your past experience at Google, they were doing a lot to change that by having those workshops, So what steps is SCS taking to address gender bias?
One of the things that struck me when I was talking to all the different kinds of groups that I met with when I first arrived here was there's a general sort of desire for folks to learn, to learn psychology research about unconscious bias, and there's a big appetite here, and I found that appetite among the faculty and the staff, and among the students, so now many people are coming to me about how we can try to incorporate training, and I hope that within the next few months, we can get some training in place.
So going off to another side. Students at CMU are constantly stressed out about their schoolwork. We were wondering - what stresses you out, and what do you do to de-stress? What do you do in your free time?
Good questions. So I'm very much a believer that there's good stress and bad stress, and it's okay to have good stress in your life if it makes you excited. I try to judge my own, the way things are going for me, on whether I'm excited to get out of bed in the morning. So even if there's something really difficult coming out of the day, it's okay if I'm excited to get out of my bed. So my metric is, am I excited to get out of bed? Usually I am these days, so it's a good sign. Here's something that is hard for me to adjust to. While I was at Google, I think I never heard the phrase "let's not be hasty." I come back to the university, and I hear the phrase "let's not be hasty" a lot. That just takes some getting used to, and I'm not saying that's a bad phrase, because it actually is a mistake, certainly in software development, if you start coding immediately when someone gives you a problem. You should plan it out. So I don't hate that phrase, but it is hard for me sometimes to manage a sort of impatience. The other thing that stresses me out is if I feel like I'm not accomplishing stuff. The way I deal with that is I always write down that I hope to achieve in 3 months and 6 months and 12 months so that I can at least measure myself on that. By the way, based on that metric, I'm doing pretty miserably. I have a whole lot of things I wanted to get done this year. I'm actually pretty happy with how things are going on in total but it's clear that my eyes were much bigger than my head in what I was hoping to get done in the first half of this year.
Do you do anything else on the side, outside your responsibilities as Dean?
I have two kids, 10 and 15, and pretty much all my free time I spend goofing off with them. I try not to work on Sundays and so usually on Sundays we're doing something stupid in some way. For example, (and by the way, don't do this) we have a lot of fun stuffing dry ice into bottles of liquids and seeing what happens when you screw on the cap. Another thing we did a couple of times is going off into the woods to search for old abandoned bits of mining infrastructure. That's pretty much it. I'm actually proud to say in my biographical description I often add this little tag at the end: "I have no hobbies or interests other than my work or my family." I don't have time.
Are you pushing your kids to do CS?
I would say no, I'm letting them choose what they want to do, but if they were in the room they might not say the same thing. My daughter and I got really excited playing with Python recently, so that was a good sign. My son is doing AP computer science so that's probably shows you how he's being influenced.
Can you also tell us a little bit about your research interests? We were also wondering, as Dean, do you still do any research?
In terms of the technical end of research, what I'm most interested in these days are the systems levels and algorithm level things you can do to make large scale statistics work efficiently. So taking tricks for doing something that people used to do with a hundred data points and making them work when you've got a hundred billion data points. Both dealing with removing algorithmic complexity or dealing with the operating system angles of processing that sort of thing with tens of thousands of compute nodes efficiently. That is what I find most exciting.
And at the moment on my business card I've written "Andrew Moore, Dean." It does not say "Andrew Moore, Dean and Professor." And I will allow myself to put "Dean and Professor" on my business card again when I do find the time to either start teaching, or start doing research.
Do you see that happening anytime in the future or are you mostly focused on being Dean right now?
When my to-do list of the big things I think need to get done starts to get more manageable, I will make that move. I am currently optimistic that will happen in two years, but ask me in two years.
We'll ask you for your business card.
Our final question is pretty general. What is your vision for SCS? Where do you see it going? What do you plan?
It's interesting that a really really important part of my job is to not be the person who decides what areas of research the school of computer science works on. I trust the faculty and the students and the post-docs here to be the ones to figure out what are the most important areas of computer science. I wouldn't have the time to make a really informed decision about that. On the other hand, I am someone who always thinks it is important that the leader of an organisation is able to talk about strategy. Because if you don't have that then you're running rudderless and you just move randomly. So it's a very interesting problem for me actually since I'm in this position to reconcile the fact that I'm determined not to be the person who decides the research direction and I'm determined that I'm not rudderless. So, having said that, I'll tell you the high meta-level goals that I have, and this is what I told the dean search committee, so I don't feel like I'm giving anyone any bad surprises here. So the high-level goals, the reason I'm taking this job and what I want to know is valued before taking this job, is I think that the way the planet will be in 2040 depends heavily on what CMU and about 9 or 10 other computer science centres in the world do right now. We are hitting the place where we are getting this switch of artificial intelligence being a curiosity to artificial intelligence actually running the world. We're getting the switch where robots are realistic for making a lot safer, dealing with a lot of the human emergencies that the planet seems to create itself and dealing with the natural emergencies that are coming up in the middle of the century. I feel that for us, as students, faculty and staff, it kind of makes our job interesting but it also feels like a deep sense of responsibility not to waste the fact that we're here but to actually do what's necessary to build the leaders that are going to be running the world in the middle of the century, and the technology that is going to be running the world in the middle of the century. So when I have to make a strategic decision, I'm not going to make it based on which area of research is most interesting or not, that's really up to the faculty and students to decide. But it is based on are we going to be helping the people who will be living in the middle of the century.