The word is out that I have decided to resign my tenured faculty job at Harvard to remain at Google. Obviously this will be a big change in my career, and one that I have spent a tremendous amount of time mulling over the last few months.
Rather than let rumors spread about the reasons for my move, I think I should be pretty direct in explaining my thinking here.
I should say first of all that I'm not leaving because of any problems with Harvard. On the contrary, I love Harvard, and will miss it a lot. 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. They were crazy enough to give me tenure, and I feel no small pang of guilt for leaving now. I joined Harvard because it offered the opportunity to make a big impact on a great department at an important school, and I have no regrets about my decision to go there eight years ago. But my own priorities in life have changed, and I feel that it's time to move on.
There is one simple reason that I'm leaving academia: I simply love work I'm doing at Google. I get to hack all day, working on problems that are orders of magnitude larger and more interesting than I can work on at any university. That is really hard to beat, and is worth more to me than having "Prof." in front of my name, or a big office, or even permanent employment. In many ways, working at Google is realizing the dream I've had of building big systems my entire career.
As I've blogged about before, being a professor is not the job I thought it would be. There's a lot of overhead involved, and (at least for me) getting funding is a lot harder than it should be. Also, it's increasingly hard to do "big systems" work in an academic setting. Arguably the problems in industry are so much larger than what most academics can tackle. It would be nice if that would change, but you know the saying -- if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
The cynical view is that as an academic systems researcher, the very best possible outcome for your research is that someone at Google or Microsoft or Facebook reads one of your papers, gets inspired by it, and implements something like it internally. Chances are they will have to change your idea drastically to get it to actually work, and you'll never hear about it. And of course the amount of overhead and red tape (grant proposals, teaching, committee work, etc.) you have to do apart from the interesting technical work severely limits your ability to actually get to that point. At Google, I have a much more direct route from idea to execution to impact. I can just sit down and write the code and deploy the system, on more machines than I will ever have access to at a university. I personally find this far more satisfying than the elaborate academic process.
Of course, academic research is incredibly important, and forms the basis for much of what happens in industry. The question for me is simply which side of the innovation pipeline I want to work on. Academics have a lot of freedom, but this comes at the cost of high overhead and a longer path from idea to application. I really admire the academics who have had major impact outside of the ivory tower, like David Patterson at Berkeley. I also admire the professors who flourish in an academic setting, writing books, giving talks, mentoring students, sitting on government advisory boards, all that. I never found most of those things very satisfying, and all of that extra work only takes away from time spent building systems, which is what I really want to be doing.
We'll be moving to Seattle in the spring, where Google has a sizable office. (Why Seattle and not California? Mainly my wife also has a great job lined up there, but Seattle's also a lot more affordable, and we can live in the city without a long commute to work.) I'm really excited about the move and the new opportunities. At the same time I'm sad about leaving my colleagues and family at Harvard. I owe them so much for their support and encouragement over the years. Hopefully they can understand my reasons for leaving and that this is the hardest thing I've ever had to do.
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