To begin, I'd like to say how sorry we are at Harvard that Matt's not returning. Matt's been a great colleague, continually pushing to make CS at Harvard better. His enthusiasm and tenaciousness have made us tangibly better in numerous ways. I, personally, will miss him a lot. Matt pushes hard for what he believes in, but in my experience he's always done so with open ears and an open mind. We're losing a leader, and Google is lucky to have him. I have no doubt he'll do great things for the company, and maybe even earn them another billion or two.
While Matt's decision has been a blow to CS at Harvard, I'm optimistic that our plan for growth will, eventually, make up for that loss. My job as Area Dean is to try to make that happen as soon as possible. I don't want to suggest that replacing Matt will be easy, but rest assured we'll be on the case.
I'd also like to say that I think I understand Matt's reasons for leaving. I'm glad to have him write "I love Harvard, and will miss it a lot." And how could I disagree with statements like "The computer science faculty are absolutely top-notch, and the students are the best a professor could ever hope to work with. It is a fantastic environment, very supportive, and full of great people." But I know from previous talks with him that he hasn't always loved being a professor. And that's what I'll try to write about the rest of the post.
I think there's a sense in academia that people get PhD's so that they can become professors. Most graduate students have that point of view going in -- their experience with research professionals at that point is essentially entirely with faculty. And most professors encourage students to have that goal. Some of that, I think, is that most professors like their job (unsurprisingly), and some may not have other experiences to suggest to their students. And some of it may be more calculated. One measure of a faculty member's success is how many faculty offspring they've produced.
But being a faculty member is not for everyone. As Matt has described in this blog, and I in the past have described in my blog, being a professor is probably not exactly what most people expect. Besides teaching and research, your time gets taken up with administration, managing (graduate) students, fundraising, and service to your scientific community. It's perhaps absurd to expect that everyone who starts out in a PhD program be interested in all these various aspects of the job. And, fortunately, in computer science, there are still many other compelling options available.
As Matt says, at Google, "I get to hack all day." That's just not true as a faculty member -- time for actual hacking is usually pretty small, and more of your time is spend managing others to hack for you. (This is a complaint I've heard from many faculty members.) I can understand why Google would be a very appealing place for someone who wants to write code. I'm sure Matt will come to miss some of the other aspects of being a professor at some point, and I'd imagine Google will to some extent let him entertain some of those aspects.
One of the comments suggested money must be a motivation. For some people who have to make this choice, maybe it is. (See Matt's comments on the post below for his take on that.) So what? Again, it's good that in our field there are good options that pay well. That's a big plus for our field, especially if we accept the fact that not everyone can be or wants to be a professor. But as Matt says, professors at Harvard (and top 20 institutions in general) are doing just fine, and money probably isn't the main issue for those who choose a different path.
I suppose the question that's left is why I'm staying at Harvard -- that is, why I still like being a professor. (And thank you to those of you who think the obvious answer is, "Who else would hire you?") I enjoy the freedom of working on whatever I find interesting; being unrestricted in who I choose to talk to about research problems and ideas; having the opportunity to work with a whole variety of interesting and smart people, from undergraduates to graduate students to CS colleagues all over the globe to math and biology professors a few buildings down; the ample opportunity to do consulting work that both pays well and challenges me in different ways; the schedule that lets me walk my kids to school most every day and be home for dinner most every night; and the security that, as long as I keep enjoying it, I can keep doing this job for the next 30+ years.
The job is never boring. On any given day, I might be teaching, planning a class, working with students, thinking, writing a paper, writing some code, reading, listening to a talk, planning or giving a talk, organizing an event, consulting in some form, or any other manner of things. In the old days, I wrote a blog. These days, I'm administrating, making sure our classes work smoothly, our faculty are satisfied and enabled to do the great things they do, and we're able to continue to expand and get even better. Once I wrote a book, and someday I hope to do that again. Perhaps the biggest possible complaint is that there's always something to do, so you have to learn to manage your time, say no, and make good decisions about what to do every day. As someone who hates being bored, this is generally a good feature of the job for me.
And Harvard, I find, is an especially great place to work. We attract some of the most amazing students. Our still small-ish CS faculty really works together well; we all know who each other are, we keep aware of what we're all doing research-wise, we collaborate frequently, and we compromise and reach consensus on key issues. Outside of the CS faculty, there's all sorts of interesting people and opportunities on campus and nearby. Boston is a great city (albeit too cold and snowy in the winter).
Other profs have made similar comments in Matt's post -- there's a lot to like about the job, and at the same time, it's not the best choice for everyone. Of course I don't like everything about the job. Getting funding is a painful exercise, having papers rejected is frustrating and unpleasant, and not every student is a wondrous joy to work with. I sometimes struggle to put work away and enjoy the rest of my life -- not because of external pressure (especially post-tenure), but because lots of my work is engaging and fun. Of course that's the point -- there's good and bad in all of it, and people's preferences are, naturally, vastly different. I don't think anyone should read too much into Matt's going to Google about the global state of Computer Science, or Professordom, or Harvard, or Google. One guy found a job he likes better than the one he had. It happens all the time, even in academia. It's happened before and will happen again.
But I'm happy with my job right now. In fact, I'm pretty sure my worst day on the job this year was the day Matt told me he wasn't coming back. We'll miss you, Matt, and best of luck in all your endeavors.