Interview with Mark Stehlik

Mark Stehlik

Mark Stehlik is the Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Education, a Teaching Professor, and the academic advisor for much of Carnegie Mellon's Computer Science Department. When we conducted this interview, sitting in beanbag chairs surrounded by stacks of books in his office, we were interrupted every so often by exuberant students stopping by to say “hi” to their much-beloved adviser.

Interview by Alissa Briggs (junior, CSD) and Linda Cai (sophomore, CSD).

Tell us a little about yourself—where are you from?

I grew up in New York City, and it has never left me. I’m really a pseudo-Pittsburgher—my parents still own the house I grew up in. I grew up with a brother who was three years younger than me. I was the student and he was the engineer, so it balanced out. He liked to fix things, while I was the problem solver. We had a good time growing up.

What is your educational background?
I applied to Carnegie Mellon as an undergrad, and got accepted, but it cost too much even back then. So I went to Pace on a full academic scholarship, where I studied math.

I’d known I wanted to be a professor since second grade. Most of my education was less about figuring out what career I wanted and more about which subject I would like to teach. I’d always been good at math in elementary and high school, and then in college I took a course in discrete math, which was like 15-251 but less on steroids. I thought this was “cool math” and really saw the connection between math and computer science (CS), so I decided I wanted to study CS. I realized that I needed a Ph.D. to be a university professor, so I applied to graduate school, and ended up getting accepted by Carnegie Mellon. When my undergrad adviser heard, he was so excited that he said, “CMU accepted you—you’ll have to go there!” So I did. Also, when I was still deciding what grad school to go to, I visited Stanford in December and was weirded out watching people in shorts in 75 degree weather. Carnegie Mellon was about as far west as I could’ve gone.

It turned out that Carnegie Mellon’s focus on research and my focus on teaching weren’t exactly compatible, though. Also, at one point my adviser left Carnegie Mellon to go to Bell Labs, which made me less happy with what I was doing. Then a teaching position opened for a programming class. I applied and got it, expecting that it would just be a short-term position, but when I blew away the FCEs for the CS department, they said, “Hey, you might actually be very good at this!” and let me stay here.

Any thoughts on getting a Ph.D?

I’m one of the few professors at Carnegie Mellon without an advanced degree. This used to make me sad, but now makes me kind of happy. Would I want to get an advanced degree? Well, there was a time 10 yrs ago when I thought I might. But now I work 12 hour days anyway, so I don’t think I would. It used to bother me that I was not in that “club,” but I’m okay with it now, as I have not suffered any loss of honor or respect because of it. I’m glad that Carnegie Mellon has given me this opportunity, since it takes a special place to let me do what I do without an advanced degree. This is a strong testimony to Carnegie Mellon’s willingness to take a chance.

Where did you work before you came to Carnegie Mellon?

I started working at the age of 16 as a mail boy in New York City, in a stock room. This is where I learned that no matter what your job description is, it’s important to work hard and be happy. I saw a lot of miserable people in various jobs, and I didn’t want to be like that. I also learned that if you work hard, people will notice you and respect that. In college, I also worked as a desk clerk in a bowling alley. I actually met my wife there, over a pair of size 8 bowling shoes. I’ve also worked at a loading dock, driving a fork lift.

I’ve had blue collar jobs, white collar jobs; I’ve associated with all sorts of people in all stages of life. Once I had a summer job at Pace teaching calculus to these professionals from Wall Street. It was like teaching calculus to my dad, because they were all older than me. I remember the first day of class, we were all dressed professionally, and waiting outside the classroom. Since I wasn’t a distinguished professor, everyone was asking, “So who’s this Stehlik guy?” and I didn’t say anything. Then the classroom opened and I walked up to the front of the class, and you could just see their jaws drop since there’s this guy half their age teaching their class. I earned their respect, though, and we had a lot of fun in there.

Have there been changes in CS department over the years?
Absolutely. When I first came to Carnegie Mellon, it only had a Ph.D. program, no masters program. There was only the CS department, and Raj Reddy was just starting to form the Robotics Institute. The philosophy of the institution was just “research, research, research,” which was fine, but that didn’t align with my vision for CS.

There were Ph.D. students like Brian Reed, Charles Leiserson, and Paul Hilfinger. There were also faculty like Rick Rashid, who now heads Microsoft Research, and Al Spector, who was a big part of IBM research, and Jon Bentley, who went to Bell Labs. We spent hours in the terminal room, just talking about computing. It was a rich environment, with 90 brilliant people talking about what was really important and going on in the discipline.

But it was all focused on the Ph.D. bit. When the Department of Computer Science became the School of Computer Science, the price of admission to “school hood” was creating an undergraduate program. At one of the first talks I attended as a Ph.D. student, the speaker said, “We only teach undergrads because if we didn’t, Carnegie Mellon wouldn’t let us stay here.” Prior to 1988, if you studied CS, you did it as an Applied Math major. There were CS classes, but they all fell underneath a Math degree.

When they created the undergrad program in 1988, initially it was a joint degree with the Mathematics department to ease the transition from the old Applied Math degree. And, of course, they needed someone to advise the students because the grad students were worried that so many undergrads running around would detract from their work. Initially, I didn’t apply. They held the first round of interviews and didn’t like any of the candidates, though, so I was encouraged to apply. “Only if teaching is a part of the job,” I said. Nico Habermann, the department head and first Dean (and one of the most principled people I have ever met) gave me a strange look and said, "So if we ask you to do more, you'll do it?" And I said, "Yes!". So I got the job.

Since then, the department has really embraced the undergrad program. In the ‘90s, the faculty finally looked at undergrads and saw a lot of smart people. They started encouraging them to get involved in research, which created this wonderful convergence. It’s really moved very far forward very quickly. We’ve been at this for just 15 years, and we’re recognized as one of the best, if not the best, in 15 years? That’s impressive. I think it’s because of the synergy of smart people coming together to do some really cool work.

What difficulties do you encounter in advising students? Any horror stories?
I’m not at liberty to divulge many of those stories, but there have been many tears shed in this office over the past 15 years.
Students lose parents, students fail classes, students go though real tough times. We keep some big tissues here because we cry a lot.

This is all part of the life of a 20 year old. When you have 500 students and something affects 1 percent of the population, then that becomes statistically significant. But for every one of those teary-eyed stories, there is always a story of overcoming difficulty and success. And every May we get to graduate a class and laugh together. 1500 CS alumni are walking the earth right now, so there have definitely been some interesting times. The consequences of that are that I have connections everywhere if I’m ever traveling and need a place to stay!

What is your favorite thing about advising students?

I think sitting and talking to people is fascinating. Just when I think I’ve heard it all and seen it all, a new situation presents itself. My job is not to solve your problems; it’s to help you solve your problems. It isn’t my job to enforce regulations, but rather to understand them and know which rules can or cannot be bent. The dynamism of my job makes it interesting. On any given day my job is fundamentally different from what it was before and what it will be tomorrow. Not to mention, a lot of education happens between the person on the chair [points to black chair] and me. Some people think that it’s rough that I stay here until 10pm some nights. But if I could do that every day, that would be great, because my favorite thing is talking to you folks. Tomorrow will be another set of challenges, and that’s what education is all about.

I’ve also had some great experiences outside this office. Last April, I got to go to India to attend the wedding of two alumni, and I was the best man at another alum's wedding, long after I thought my "best man" days were over! I even presided over a wedding of 2 alumni (don't worry - they were legally married in a civil ceremony!), which was pretty cool, although I doubt that I’ll ever do that again!

What is your role in the Qatar campus?
I view my role as bringing a little piece of Pittsburgh to that organization. I’ve been here almost 30 years, so I believe that I have a sense of what this place is. I try to bring some of the gestalt of this program to Qatar. It’s not really quality control—just infusing Pittsburgh into the mix. I want them to know our traditions in CS. It’s fun for me because when I teach, they have small classes in Qatar which are really fun because I can really establish a rapport with the students.

How did you help shape the AP Computer Science program?

I was the chief reader of the AP CS exam from 1994 to 1999, right when we were moving from Pascal to C++. Later, it quickly moved to Java. I was responsible for that first language transition, though. I created the grading standards and supervised the grading of all 20,000 exams. It really was a weeklong extravaganza with a group of about 100 high school and university faculty grading free response questions. Believe it or not, it was actually fun, even though most professors will tell you that grading is the least favorite part of their job. So, how do you get 100 faculty members to get excited about grading? We created a community that was fun and interesting—people looked forward to getting together with other colleagues. There was this feeling of community that transcends my tenure as chief reader, and I think it was cool to help establish that educational community.

What motivated you to coauthor the book 'Karel++: A Gentle Introduction to the Art of Object-Oriented Programming'?
Karel Capek was a Czech playwright who wrote Rossum's Universal Robots (Rossumovi univerzální roboti). Rich Pattis, who was an undergrad here, later a faculty member, and is now working at UC Irvine, wrote the original Karel the Robot which was oriented more towards Pascal. Jim Roberts and I decided to revise the book to cover some things like recursion. Later, Joe Bergin (from Pace) ported it to C++. Now it exists in Java as Karel J Robot. Rich really “got it right” with Karel by stripping down the programming language in order to let students focus on program design and modularity.

What is the craziest thing you have ever done for your students or for Carnegie Mellon?

Probably dressing up as a chicken or duck for a fundraiser. I also got to sit in a dunk tank at carnival. There was the time that 4 students were driving in Ohio and were involved in a (thankfully) minor car accident, but the car was badly damaged, so I had to drive 3 hours to get them and then 3 hours back to Pittsburgh. And I left at 10pm. And I had to teach the next morning! That was pretty crazy. There are probably other episodes that I can think of….Nah; I have to be careful of what I admit to!

How did the CS volleyball tradition start? Did you play volleyball when you were in college?
Volleyball started as part of the AP reading. When it was held at Clemson in the summer, a bunch of people would set volleyball nets up everywhere. One day one of the aids invited me to come out and play and I had a blast. I thought it would be fun to bring this back to Pittsburgh, and a good way to get people out of the clusters. I bought a volleyball net when I got back to campus and it was the best $200 that I ever spent on the CS undergraduate program. I would set up every afternoon around 4:30 and have fun with the students.

This started maybe 15 years ago, but amazingly enough, the first men's club volleyball team grew out of this and was mostly made up of CS majors. Nowadays I can’t play as much as I used to because I started a volleyball elementary school team for my daughter and have to coach away games on Friday evenings. I still enjoy when I can do it, though, and have a lot of cool memories related to it. Last year, a student who was graduating introduced me to his parents at graduation as “the guy who hit me in the head with a volleyball freshman year.” Also, Terrence Wong, who graduated in 2006, is still coaching volleyball with me.

Do you have any other hobbies?
I have an old car, a ‘69 Plymouth. I love to take care of it and drive it… fast.
I also have a model railroad collection that I started when I was very young. I’m looking forward to a time when I can spend some more time on that. I’m a big baseball fan too—I love the Pirates, although it pains me to say that. I’m a part time season ticket holder. I also love hockey. My dad would take my brother and I to Ranger games in Madison Square Garden. Hockey is the best sport to view live; you can’t get an appreciation of it from TV. I’m a big Penguins fan.

Why are there so many books in your office?
There are a lot of books on the shelf that are evaluation versions from companies. They’re mostly for CS 100 and 200 courses that publishers send us because they want us to use them for our courses. Also, some students would come up on occasion and ask me for books on new technology that the library didn’t have yet since technology changes so fast. I thought that someone ought to have some sort of lending library, so why not me? I love to read, and I love having reference books handy; there are some fun books in this library. Also, textbooks are expensive, so sometimes I lend a book out to a student for a course. I also lend out books during the summer, and sometimes even out to faculty. I do wish I had more time to read, though.

There are a lot of quotes on your homepage. If you could choose just one for all your students to hear, what would it be?

There are a couple that I invented but it’s not going to be one of those… probably the Emerson one:
"To laugh often and much;
to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others;
to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded."
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Any plans for retirement?
No, no plans for retirement. I can’t think that far ahead. My parents have been retired for a while, and I’ve talked to some faculty members who have retired, but how do you know when it’s time? The trite answer is “when it’s not fun anymore,” but I’d like to have some time after this ends to travel more. I’ve taken a lot of driving tours, to Montana Glacier National Park, for example. But I can’t imagine a time when I’m not teaching. I turn 50 in two days, and it’s really weird to think about that. If I had to pick a second favorite quote, it would be: “Age is a number. Old or young is an attitude.”

I think talking to 20 year olds all the time has really kept me young. My daughter is 19, so she’s always a reality check. But my musical tastes and reading tastes tend to run young, because I have to interact with the students. It forces me to think young, which is a nice side effect to this.

Any other advice for your students?
Find what you love and do what you love.
Nothing can compensate for doing something you hate. Carnegie Mellon is living proof of that. You couldn’t pay people here to work as hard as they do; they do it because they love doing it. Also, what you love often isn’t what parents love for you, which can create some tensions. Will you make money and be successful? If you love what you do, though, you’ll always have enough money to deal with life, and will be happy and successful by definition.