Interview with Klaus Sutner

Klaus Sutner

Klaus Sutner
Teaching Professor
Assoc. Dean of Undergraduate Programs SCS
Department of Computer Science

How long have you been at CMU?
Since 1995.

Can you give me a little bit of history about how you got here?
How far back do you want to go? Kindergarten?

Sure! As far back as your memory takes you—where you were born, where you’re from, the works.
Well, I grew up in Munich, Germany, and I went to school there and got my degrees from the University of Munich. At some point in the early 80s I decided to come to the US for 1 year—and as you can see, that “year” is still ongoing! I never quite made it back…it’s what’s called “brain drain” in Europe!

So have you always been doing computer science work?
Actually my degree is in mathematics, and so my very first appointment was as an Assistant Professor of Mathematics. But then, after a year I switched to computer science—for many reasons, but mainly because that’s where the action is.

What do you like most about CMU?
As far as the School of Computer Science is concerned, the most compelling fact is that there is no semblance of walls between the various areas and disciplines. There’s theory, there’s systems, there’s robotics, there’s AI, but everyone here works together and one finds a tremendous sense of congeniality, which is somewhat unusual. It’s a very open atmosphere, and of course the quality of the work is superb—there are other places where the quality of work is likewise superb, but they tend to be much more boxed-in.

What’s your favorite aspect about Computer Science?
Coming from mathematics, I think what fascinates me most about computer science is having the ability to take fairly abstract ideas and concepts, say, from number theory, and put them to practical use.

So have you always wanted to teach?
Pretty much so. You have an early experience where some professor teaches a really lousy course, and you make a resolution to do a better job at some point in the future! I actually was never seriously tempted to pursue a career outside of academia.

What’s your favorite class to teach and why?
My own! There’s a course that I started two years ago, called Computational Discrete Mathematics, where the key idea is to take hard, classical concepts from discrete math and tackle them from a computational point of view. I think for computer science students this is arguably a much better approach than the classical one.

What’s a day in your weekend like?
On Saturdays usually the most important thing for me is to sleep late! Then I do a few things around the house; if time permits I like to do a workout…Sunday always starts with the same ritual that it has for the last 35 years—I teach a martial arts class; currently at the Skibo Gym here on campus. Afterwards, social things, some work, some reading.

Actually, one of the things you are probably best known for is your martial arts skills—what forms have you studies and what do you like most about the art?
My main art is Aikido, which is a form of Japanese Jujitsu—it’s an internal art, where the emphasis is not just on technique, strength and speed but on the notion of ki. I’ve done a little bit of Judo, some Karate…about 15 years ago I started to do Tai Chi Chuan, and I have been involved with it ever since.
What is it that fascinates me? If your professional lifestyle consists of sitting at a desk and hitting a keyboard all day long, then you have to make an effort to balance things—keeping your body fit and building a bridge between your mental and physical worlds. The martial arts are just perfect for that, more so than Western type sports in my opinion. I probably should not admit to this, but when I was young, I also liked the idea of being able to beat up other people…but that’s long since abated. [Laughs]

Are you married and do you have any kids?
I’m married, and we don’t have kids—but we have a dog! His name is Yojimbo, which is Japanese for “bodyguard”—of course he’s a total sweetheart! [Laughs]

What's your favorite place in the world?
For vacationing I like any place where there’s a nice beach, sufficiently far away from civilization so you can have your quiet…the Caribbean for example. As far as non-vacational existence, that’s a hard call...I love the [San-Francisco] Bay area.

Do you go back to Germany a lot?
Yes, several times a year, I still have family there. Of course, Germany also has many attractions—in particular, what I consider to be the best beer in the world! Growing up in Munich one develops rather strong opinions about beer.

What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?
I think when it comes down to it plain, simple lemon—if I had to choose one. Of course, I like chocolate chip cookie dough and other Ben & Jerry type insanities too, but that’s deliberate excess…

What’s your favorite holiday or festival and why?
Well…definitely not Christmas, because it’s so stressful…actually, I don’t think I have one.

If you didn’t go into a technical field, what would you have done in another life, and why?
When I was getting my PhD, I was also running a martial arts school in Munich—it was fairly clear to me that I would finish my degree, but it wasn’t so clear what I would do afterwards. One very distinct possibility was always to become a professional martial artist.

Do you have a favorite quote?
Or favorite motto maybe?

Ko-bo-itchi. That is a principle in the martial arts that literally means attack and defense is one, it is the same thing. On a more abstract level you can interpret it to mean that there exists a duality between things that one naively considers to be opposites—but if you come to look at them from a better perspective they really turn out to be the same thing. I think the idea of ko-bo-itchi is actually quite helpful in organizing one’s life—moving forward and moving backward are actually the same thing. Does this make sense?