Interview with Dr. James Morris

Dr. James Morris

Dr. James Morris, Professor CSD and Dean of SCS 1999 - 2004 talks about the new website, computer science today, and his life as Dean. Plus a sneak-peak into his personal side


---on the new website---

What made you want to re-design the entire SCS website?

The website represents lots of things about the school, both for people inside and outside--it’s the public face for the School of Computer Science. So I actually wanted it to be as exciting as possible to reflect everything that’s going on here and to attract other people who aren’t even at Carnegie Mellon to be interested in us. I keep trying to figure out new ways to make it exciting. The old website was OK, but it wasn’t really exciting or hadn’t been drawing huge amounts of attention from the outside world as far as I know, or even getting people inside Carnegie Mellon excited. So that is sort of what I’m looking for.

Why did you feel that a team from within SCS would be better than outside help?

Well it was partly based on the example of the Women@SCS website, which was nice and exciting and seemed to attract lots of positive comments and interest from people outside. If for example, Ford Motor Company is doing a website, their whole purpose is to get people to buy Ford cars. There might be some other issues, but fundamentally it is to make you like their automobiles. In our case, what we’re trying to do is to attract bright people to come here, both students and faculty. But those people aren’t just buying a commodity from us. They are actually thinking of coming here to share their lives with us. So the thing we're trying to sell if we think of our website as a marketing tool, is our community and what we’re about. It's very based upon who we are, and so telling others about the people who are here right now is the most important thing. So, it’s natural to have the inner community producing it instead of an outside consultant—in some sense, the outside consultant wouldn’t even not know enough about us or be able to truly represent us. The amount of work an outside web designer would have to do to just learn about us would be too much.

Why did you choose SCS students rather than design or art students etc. who do a lot of website design?


I’d be happy to have design students work on it, but really it’s the same issue as outside/inside. If you look at our website the same way you look at a magazine, 90% of the magazine’s value is based on the content. Only about 10% of the magazine’s value is about it’s graphical presentation. I think the most popular websites are probably not ones that have great graphics or fancy banners on them, but the ones that have content that people are really interested in. So as time goes by, the technical parts of producing the website are the least important. The important thing is to get lots of people involved, who have lots of ideas, and lots of information about what’s going on here. It’s the content I’m after. Having students who are already here be involved with the website represents the content of what we do better.

What do you like best about the new site?

I like the bright red and white colors, and it seems to be better organized—finding people is much easier.

What do you like least about the new site?

I don’t know. Well, I haven’t really studied this carefully, but it probably doesn’t have anything or enough things that are attracting people from the outside world to come and look at it. In the sense that once a person is interested in computer science at Carnegie Mellon, then they’ll come and look at it, and it’s great for that because it will tell people exactly what’s going on. But part of our job is to get people who are not interested in computer science or Carnegie Mellon to come and look at this thing. For example, the new puzzle section by Alan Frieze and Danny Sleator—that’s something that might be attracting students just for fun, so if that creates a buzz amongst students across the country—then suddenly they start coming to this website and when they think of graduate school, they think ‘oh gee, maybe I’ll try this Carnegie Mellon place—I was going their website anyway’. It’s sort of to suck people in and try and get them interested in us, even if they aren’t initially interested in computer science, or Carnegie Mellon.

That’s a very challenging thing I’m asking, obviously, to make a website that’s so attractive that they hear about the website first and the university second. But it would be great if we could make it that attractive.

What kinds of things would you like to see on the website?

Partly, I have great faith in you students to come up with ideas, because in some sense you’re the ones who will have ideas that will appeal to your fellow students! So I wouldn’t even try and guess what they will be. When I see them, I’ll know that they are great things, but I don’t know what they’ll be.

I would like to see stories that are about people who used to be students here and are students here. That’s a great way of making Carnegie Mellon attractive—to tell the story about somebody who went here to school and now has an interesting job somewhere else, or is doing something interesting in the world. That sort of shows to everybody that if you come here you learn a lot of cool stuff and then go on to do cool things.

My theory is that when you come here as a freshman, you create a web page about what you’re doing, which your parents and friends could look. You would keep adding to it, and then when you’re graduating we’d flash your web page on a big screen when you walk across the stage. The web page should essentially live with you the entire time you’re here, be shown at graduation, and then years from now it still lives with you as you keep updating it with what you’re doing.

---on the past, present, and future---

After being involved with SCS for so long and having been involved in so many practical projects, what are a few things you think students should take from their Carnegie Mellon experience/education for the real world?

People basically come here to get a deep technical knowledge about computing. Being a real expert in something is valuable because people are expecting you to really know something that can be applied. But the second thing that people should also learn here is how to work with other experts on cooperative projects.

It’s a complicated question, and you can actually come here and become another John Nash, and we want people who are capable of getting so incredibly deep about something and get a Nobel Prize. But the truth is that 90% of us are going to have a more average, balanced approach to everything and in fact can be very valuable members of society. To be effective at that, there are a lot of other things you have to learn—and one of the best ways to learn them is from your fellow students who are also becoming experts at other things. So you should join student organizations, and should go and do other things that will bring you into contact with other people who think differently.

I was an undergraduate many years ago, 40 years ago, and I belonged to a fraternity, and the most valuable thing was I met lots of peoplewho were architects and industrial designers—and 30 years later I actually started a business with one of those guys who was an industrial designer. And although I know nothing about industrial design, I came to appreciate what they do, and how they think and how people like that make valuable contributions. And so we were able to do something together just because we knew each other.

Why did you decide to come to Carnegie Mellon?

Actually I’m a native Pittsburgher. But I was working at Xerox in the Palo Alto Research Center (which is like the most wonderful research center in the world), and I had a sabbatical and could go anywhere in the world. My wife convinced me to come back here [Pittsburgh] because her mother was still living here and she wanted our kids to get to know their grandmother. So I was just here on a sabbatical, and then this thing now called the “Andrew Project” was started and I thought ‘here’s a chance to apply some of the new research ideas---to get those ideas out of the research lab and into a place like Carnegie Mellon’, which also had a lot of exciting ideas at the time. So I said, ok, I’ll come here. And I’ve always liked Carnegie Mellon and so I was happy to come back.

What’s a day in the life of a Dean like?

Lots of meetings where the subject keeps changing. Sometimes we’re talking about finance and sometimes I’m talking to a group of people from a foreign country and am just trying to communicate with them about what’s happening with computing. Sometimes I try to teach classes, and sometimes I try to go to classes when I have time—this semester I’m trying to go to a biology class and another class. I try to put those things on my schedule but then things sometimes intervene and I have to miss the classes.

A typical day might be spent outside Pittsburgh. Last Monday and Tuesday I listened to people from IBM describing their research projects, which are actually very interesting. It’s constantly changing. But here’s a fact about the lives of not just Deans, but all sorts of people who are managers, which somebody went out and studied: They get interrupted every 15 minutes, and if nobody interrupts them after 15 minutes, they change what they are doing anyway. This was a study of executives working in businesses. The basic message is that because they are being interrupted all the time they get used to doing things in 15 minutes chunks.

Do you still get to do research?

A little bit, not very much. I would like to do more, but we’ve studied the problem with electronic mail and how to make it more effective. The biggest problem is that now days everybody is getting too much junk mail. So in the most recent time I’ve done any research we were studying the question of whether if you charged people postage it would make email more effective because they had to pay postage for it, they might send less junk mail. And then when you received email, you know at least someone paid for it and it might be worth reading.

What’s the best part of being the SCS Dean?

Getting very smart people to answer my emails quickly! If I have a question about anything, and am willing to admit that I don’t know the answer, I get a reply very quickly…probably partly because I am the Dean.

What’s the worst part of being the SCS Dean?

Sort of cleaning up messes—in a University, everyone is encouraged to follow their whims and instincts—but there are a certain small number of people in the University: the department heads, maintenance people, Deans, who have to take care of things when they go wrong. That’s the hard part of being the Department Head—that’s what you’re expected to do for the privilege of being Department Head or Dean. If things are screwed up or someone is misbehaving, or whatever it is, you’ve got to worry about: the equivalent of if the plumbing breaks, someone has to fix it. Only people who are devoted to the organization are willing to do those things—sometimes it’s like being a parent. In the normal world, everyone has to act like an adult, but in a University, only some people do.

How has being a Dean changed your personal life? How does it change the way you see things?

One problem is I’m getting fatter because I get a lot of free meals and lots of free things. I suppose many people have this problem, but it’s something I’m struggling with.

Do you teach any classes?

I taught one class last semester, it had 6 freshmen in it, it was about web surfing, and we just talked about the power of the web and such. But I haven’t taught any serious classes since I became Dean. I used to teach 15-211 when I was Department Head. It’s fun to do, but it takes a lot of time, and it’s not fair to the students for me to be trying to teach a class and going out of town half the time. Although you’ll notice that a lot of the classes are being taught by two professors and we have to do that because almost everyone here is being called out of town to do something for the government, or some computer conference or something.

How have things changed in SCS since you’ve become Dean?

The past three years have actually been very good for us. Our research funding has gone up by 28%. The school has gone from being rated number three in the world to number one in the world—tied with a bunch of other schools, but at least three years ago we were rated number three and now we’re rated number one again (by US News and World Report). In the past three or five years, we’ve had this great increase in the number of enrolling students—which is a good thing.
We got a couple of awards and ratings—our HCI department was rated as “One of the Great Organizations of the 90’s” by Jakob Nielsen, a pundit on user interfaces. Lots of cool things have happened. Manuel Blum has done a great job of having interesting world speakers come through the university.

What do you think the students at SCS think of you?

[Laughs]. I suspect that most of them don’t know who I am, and they just say that ‘well, it’s just a person in the hallway’. They probably don’t think much about me at all. It doesn’t bother me, I think I’m doing a good job for them, but what I’m doing for them isn’t particularly obvious. So I think I’m probably invisible to most of the students.

What roles/attitudes do you feel women bring in to the SCS community?

They ask much more important questions about what computers are for—in my opinion, that’s the important future for computer science. Computers have now gotten incredibly fast, so the problems of making computers faster and more reliable are well understood, even though we haven’t completely conquered those problems—but the problem of making computers more useful or actually changing the way people live because of computers is an unsolved problem. There’s a huge gap between how fast computers are getting better and how fast human productivity is getting better—so the challenge is how do we use the incredible speed and power of computers to actually improve anything you can measure about the human condition. And on the average, I think women are more interested in that than men.

---a little bit from the hidden side---

Are you married and do you have children?
Yes, I’m married, and I have two daughters. I’m married to a person who was once the Homecoming Queen here in 1962. My one daughter is studying at the Media Lab at MIT, and the other is looking for a job in New York City right now, working in the film area.
So while we’re waiting for them to produce grandchildren, I might buy a dog—but dogs are a lot of trouble so I think I probably won’t.

What would you have done in another life if you didn’t go into technology/academic life/Business?

I would love to have been a stand up comedian. I think a lot of people have that fantasy!

What’s your favorite color?

Green

What’s your favorite quote?

Well, the one I’ve been thinking about most recently is a quote by Samuel Johnson, which I think goes something like, “It is insufficiently appreciated that men need to be reminded much more often than they need to be instructed”

What motto/philosophy do you live life by?

One thing I certainly feel is good advice for Department heads and Deans is: “Permission is difficult, forgiveness is easy”