Interview with Randy Bryant

Randy BryantRandy Bryant
Dean, School of Computer Science, and recently named University Professor, the highest academic distinction Carnegie Mellon faculty members can achieve.

Can you tell me a little about yourself? Let’s start with where you’re originally from.
I grew up in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. I went to high school there, and then went to the University of Michigan as an undergraduate. After I finished there, I went to MIT for my graduate degrees (Masters & PhD). Then in 1981, I went to Los Angeles and was on the faculty of CalTech for 3 years. In 1984, I came back towards the East and took a position as an Assistant Professor at Carnegie Mellon, and have been here ever since.

So what got you into computer science in the first place?
It was a pretty easy decision for me. At the time, computers were not widely available (as in personal computers or even small scale access) so I never had a direct encounter with a computer until I started as a freshman in college. But the day I did, I thought, ‘this is it for me—this is what I’m interested in.’ Plus, I’ve always been interested in math and engineering type subjects, and I like to build things.

And what’s your favorite aspect of computer science?
I think what I like the best is that it allows the style of research that has a very close connection between mathematical foundations and things that are useful to people.

How do you feel as the new Dean of the School of Computer Science? Does the title bring on any fear or nervousness with its magnitude?
[Laughs] Right now, I’m still very much in the middle of trying to understand what this job is about and all the things that I have to do. I’ll admit that I’m not fearful, but I am a bit overwhelmed. There are a lot of people, and a lot of issues going on…I’m trying to make sure that everything that needs to happen, happens. But the day is too short to get everything done!

So far, what has it been like being Dean? Is it really different from being the Department Head [Computer Science Department]?
Yeah, it’s very different from being Department Head…so first of all, it [CSD] was an organization that I had sort of “grown up” with, and I knew much more about how it and all the people who were involved. The School is much bigger, and it has a lot of people who I may have never even met before. Also, there are a lot of differences between the individual departments in the School, especially in research styles.

This job, as Dean, has much more of an external focus—I have to worry about raising money for the School, I’m much more involved in public relations with newspapers, etc. Those kinds of things have been really big changes.

What’s your favorite thing about Carnegie Mellon?
I’ve always liked the atmosphere…the people here are very much of the ‘let’s just dig in and get things done’ attitude. There is very little squabbling, and people just do what they need to do. Also, I think we’ve managed to create an organization with a lot of very high powered and very smart people, who also have a sense of working together for a common good. Sometimes, you get people who think that they are so special that the whole world should revolve around them—that doesn’t really happen here.

You have been at Carnegie Mellon since 1984—what changes and developments have you noted in those 20 years?
Well, there have been a lot of changes. The biggest two are, first of all, we created an undergraduate CS major. We’ve put a lot of our resources, time, and effort into making it a really strong undergraduate program. And it’s been very enjoyable, but it’s also been a lot of work. When I first came, the emphasis was very clearly on research, and teaching was secondary—but now it’s very balanced. There are a lot of faculty here who feel that teaching is a very important part of their lives. So that’s been a big change…and the result of that has been that we now have a lot of very smart undergraduates in our environment who are not just taking courses, but are getting involved in research projects as well.

The other big change is that there has been a big shift in funding. When I first came here, there was so much research funding available that it was relatively easy to get, and so we, largely, could just assume that we’d have the funding for all the research we wanted to do. So, we could concentrate heavily on our research and other activities. But nowadays, because of shifts in policies in government funding agencies, it is much more difficult for us to get the funding for the research going on. So, all of the faculty are spending really too much of their time trying to write proposals for grants and funding from different sources. Fortunately, everyone is doing a really good job, but I think a lot of people feel overworked by the process.

Even as Dean, you plan to keep teaching. Do you ever foresee yourself ever letting go of the teaching?
[Laughs] I really want to keep teaching because I think it’s important to keep that contact with students. It would be very easy as Dean, or a high up administrator, to just kind of float your way up, so you spend your whole day doing administrative type work and just never have contact with the students. I really wanted to have that contact with the students, and I am hoping I can do this because the course that I will be teaching is one that I have taught 5 times before…and that I co-wrote the textbook for! [15-213, Introduction to Computer Systems] So I’m hoping I’ve got that one down pretty well teaching-wise! [Laughs]

Did you always want to teach?
I guess for me it’s been something like I’ve always liked school so much that I’ve always wanted to stay in school…and teaching is a way for us old folks to stay in school!

From all the experiences you’ve had at CMU, what’s been your most cherished memory?
I was awarded a chaired position in computer science in 1997, and my family was able to come for that, including my father, who then died several weeks after that. It was really very special that he could take part in that, and be a part of my success.

If you didn’t go into academics or administration, what would you have done in another life?
If I didn’t have to worry about money, I’d be a nursery school teacher. I just love being with kids that age…they have this complete openness and imagination.

When’s your birthday?
October 27th.

Are you married and do you have children?
Yes, I’m married, and have been for 21 years. And I have 3 children. The oldest is a freshman at Harvard, the middle one is an 11th grader here at Schenley High School, and the youngest is an 11-year old in 5th grade.

Do you think your children will pursue computer science or come to Carnegie Mellon (not the oldest one, but the other two)?
No…somehow that part I didn’t manage to get them hooked onto well! My oldest looks like he’s headed for majoring (or they call it “concentrating”) in government, mostly with an interest in international relations. And then my high school daughter is sort of really leaning toward linguistics, and I don’t know what my 11-year old will do, but she’s crazy about animals!

The two older ones both really want to get out of Pittsburgh—so I don’t think it’s so much Carnegie Mellon—it’s just that they grew up in this city, and really want to see other parts of the world at this point.

What is your favorite kind of animal?
I guess dogs. Right now, in our house, we have six dogs, because we had this litter of puppies. We sold two, but it’s getting a little too much—6 dogs are too many, and 8 dogs were way too many! [Laughs]

What’s your favorite food?
I guess Japanese food. We lived in Japan for year—1990 to 1991. I was a visiting researcher at Fujitsu, and my two older kids came along (my youngest one wasn’t even around), and we’ve always been interested in and had a sort of fondness for Japanese things.

Where’s your favorite place to go in da ‘Burgh?
I think Frick Park is my favorite place to go. It’s amazing to have a city park that is just woods and trails. I enjoy the outdoor activity.

What’s your favorite color?
It’s green these days [Laughs]

From your personal website, it seems clear that you are a big fan of rowing. How long have you been into this sport?
I started rowing when I was a graduate student at MIT. And I was pretty serious about it—even though I was a graduate student, so I couldn’t possibly be that serious, but I even competed in national competitions. Then after I graduated, I tried rowing in Los Angeles for a bit, but it became clear that this wasn’t something that a new assistant professor should be trying to do along with all the other stuff. So I dropped it. Then, in 2000, I started up again rowing in Pittsburgh. I really enjoy it a lot.

It’s really interesting because in Pittsburgh, we have all these rivers that to most people are just sort of a nuisance, because they cause all these traffic jams (trying to get on to cross the bridges, etc.) But it’s really quite pleasant and peaceful to be out on the Allegheny River—I was just out there this morning, and it’s really quiet and serene!

Do you also enjoy any other water-based sports?
I like to swim, and I like to do stuff like kayaking and rafting, but I don’t do it very often.

What other hobbies or passions do you have?
I don’t actually spend a lot of time on hobbies, but I guess I’ve been pretty interested in photography these days, especially with digital photography. It makes it possible to work with pictures and do things that would normally take a dark room and lots of time. So, I kind of enjoy it, but I’m not that serious about it.

What’s your favorite vacation spot?
My family goes to a family camp that is run by the University of Michigan Alumni Association. It’s on this beautiful, large, blue lake up in Michigan, and it’s really very nice. It’s very relaxing, and there are a lot of activities to do. Boating, sailing, things like that.

What’s your favorite quote?
I like the quote from Andrew Carnegie that is in our motto, “My heart is in the work.” I think it pretty well captures what people at Carnegie Mellon are like: we work hard, but we do it because it’s really what we want to do.