Thursday, January 13, 2011

Fair Harvard

I've been reflecting on my reasons for moving to Harvard seven years ago. Although I have decided to leave academia, Harvard is really a wonderful place, and I would certainly recommend it to anyone considering an academic career. Back in 2002, I had job offers from several other (big name) universities -- including CMU -- but I chose Harvard for a whole host of reasons, and am really glad that I did. So I thought it would be good to share some of the things that I love about the place.

The campus.
This is an easy one. The Harvard campus is just unbelievably beautiful. It feels like the quintessential university: old brick buildings, vines, little walking paths crisscrossing the quads. Even better is that it's not isolated: it is right in the heart of Cambridge, and as soon as you leave campus you're in the middle of Harvard Square which has tons to do. Every day I would take my dog for a walk around campus at lunchtime just soaking in the atmosphere and bumping into Korean tour groups snapping photos of the John Harvard statue.

The Computer Science building.
Maxwell Dworkin Hall is home to the Computer Science and Electrical Engineering faculties. It was built in 1999 and named for Bill Gates' and Steve Ballmer's mothers --  no joke. It's one of the best CS buildings I've been to on any university campus (and I have visited a lot). The faculty offices are huge, there are great common spaces, and the overall layout (with a central open staircase) promotes interaction. It is a great place to work.

The faculty.
Probably the number one reason I joined Harvard was to interact with all of the incredible faculty. The thing that struck me the most when I interviewed was that the CS faculty were an amazing bunch that really have their act together and were all doing incredibly interesting things. Although a lot of places talk about being cross-disciplinary, Harvard embraces it like no other place that I've seen. David Parkes (pictured above) and Yiling Chen work across computer science and economics; Krzysztof Gajos on the boundary of AI and HCI; Radhika Nagpal across biology, systems, and algorithms; Stephen Chong and Greg Morrisett across systems and languages; Hanspeter Pfister across graphics, systems, and scientific computing ... among many other examples. What's great about this is that the faculty are not isolated in their own little worlds -- since there is so much cross-fertilization, everyone knows a lot about what the other faculty are doing. In a smaller department this is absolutely essential.

The students.
This is another easy one. I have raved about Harvard students on this blog before, but it's worth mentioning again. (One of my favorite students of all time, Rose Cao, pictured above.) Working with and teaching Harvard students has been one of the highlights of my career.  They are smart, engaged, creative, passionate about what they do. It is extremely rare to meet a student who was just "along for the ride" or trying to coast through college -- not at Harvard. They pushed me and challenged me to do better all the time. My graduate students were similarly amazing, an extremely dedicated bunch who were not afraid to take risks. Although Harvard's a smaller school, I was never for want of great grad students to work with.

The department culture.
One thing that is hard to get right in any university setting is the overall culture and feel of the department. If it's broken, it's incredibly hard to fix. Harvard's CS department feels like a family. There's a sense of a shared mission to make the place better and everyone pulls their weight. For junior faculty, it is a really supportive environment: the senior faculty work hard to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to be successful. One of the most remarkable things is how decisions get made -- nearly always by consensus, after a lot of discussion (generally during faculty lunch meetings). There's very little "department politics" and all voices are heard. Harvard chooses to hire new faculty who will fit into this culture, so there's a really strong emphasis on retaining this structure, which is great.

The size.
One of the main reasons I came to Harvard, rather than to a much larger department, was to have impact. I've often compared being at Harvard to being at a startup (though an incredibly well-funded one) instead of, say, a huge company like IBM (or Google for that matter). Though I feel that Harvard needs to hire a few more CS faculty to attain critical mass across all areas, I really like the smaller department feel of the place. Pretty much all of the faculty can fit in a single room for a lunch meeting and have a substantive discussion. Each individual faculty member can have a tremendous amount of impact on teaching and research. So being at Harvard was a great opportunity to shape an important CS department and this is one of the things that really attracted me to the place.

The city.
Finally, there is a lot to love about Cambridge and Boston. It's a beautiful city and very compact. I could walk to work every day in about 20 minutes, and along the way pass countless restaurants, bars, coffee shops, record shops, you name it. Cambridge has a great mix of "big city" and "residential" feeling to it -- it is kind of like an oversized college town. Over the years I have amassed an impressive list of places to eat and things to do around the city and it never gets old. OK, I'll admit that the weather is not always ideal, but it's probably my favorite city on the East Coast, and a lot more livable (and affordable) than New York.

What would I change?

I don't want to be too negative, but for balance I think I should mention two things that I would change about Harvard, if I had the chance. The first is that the tenure process is too damn long. If all goes according to schedule, the decision is made at the end of your seventh year, which keeps you in limbo for quite a long time, making it hard to get on with your life. On the other hand, the good thing about a long tenure clock is that you can take big risks (which I did) and have time to make course corrections if necessary. Harvard is not unique in having a long tenure clock (as I understand it, CMU's is longer!), but still long compared to the more typical four or five year clocks.

The second thing is that the CS faculty really needs to grow by a few more faculty in order to realize its full potential. I think they need to hire at least five or six new faculty to reach critical mass. As I understand it there are plans to hire over the next few years, which is good.

Looking back, I'm really glad that I went to Harvard as a new faculty member. It's hard to imagine that I would have had anywhere near as much impact had I gone somewhere else.


  1. CMU's is longer, but it may actually be a different beast because it's so long: I don't think that most of the faculty in CS here worry nearly as much about tenure because it's waaaay out on the horizon. For me, I figure it's going to be pretty clear one way or another by the time I'm up for tenure, and I can't operate in a non-sustainable overdrive for 9 years. My own choice has been to do my job from the start the way I hope to do it for the rest of my life, tenure or no tenure. I do know that some people here don't like that the tenure clock is so long - and I have to admit to a little bit of envy when more and more of my friends receive it - but I'm on the fence. It has some real upsides as well as some downsides.

  2. In a way, Harvard is shorter. That's because after a positive tenure decision, you are promoted to Full Professor.

  3. Many places have longer tenure clocks; e.g., Yale's nine-year clock; MIT's eight-year tenure clock (or when one reaches age 35), etc.

    Four or five year clocks sound very short to me -- the recommended norm by AAUP is seven years. UC normally tenures in the sixth or seventh years.

  4. Hmm, there's mention only of the length of the tenure clock, nothing about the amount of good work required, nor about the consistency of accomplishments across the years. For instance, do people have higher expectations of a new faculty at a university with longer clocks? How does the tenure criteria vary from university to university? How does one gauge one's progress through the years? I'm sure readers interested in applying for faculty positions would want to know.

    And now I must flee before my nemesis, Mr Anonymousman, shows up and shoots me .

  5. How about coming to Australia? No tenure stress!

  6. See for some background on Harvard's tenure process.

    My perception might be skewed, but most of my colleagues who started faculty jobs the same year as me -- and several who started AFTER me -- already had tenure at least a couple of years before I did. (In at least one of those cases the person was able to get an early tenure decision, not something that Harvard typically does.)

    Greg - true, but I still think tenure is the high order bit with regards to planning your life. In my case my wife was looking at her future career options, and we had to think about when to start a family - the limbo state makes those things harder to do. Full vs. associate doesn't have nearly as much impact on those decisions.

  7. See for some background on Harvard's tenure process.

    I can imagine this exchange between an external faculty member and the tenure committee:

    Committee: 'ello there mate, so what do you reckon of our good old colleague, Matt?

    External bloke: 'ello there, why I think Matt's done pretty well for himself, I certainly do!

    Committee: Thank you very much! Your word's good enough as any!

    I'm looking at my 'research' department and I see the politics in it as well, not just having its finger in the frostings but it has taken the entire cake and ran away over the hill. And I think: if we can't get the conferences to wean away from PC politics, if politics gets tangled in the academia, if it's prevalent in the industry as well, if someone like Matt would much rather spend time coding rather than get mired in administrative matters, and if our notion of a 'technical haven' is a foreign institution like MPI-SWS, what hope is there of US being any sort of world technological leader?

    I bet at this time, a lot of readers will be falling over themselves trying to say, "Poppycock! Bollocks! That's just not true because of XYZ!" Politics.

    When the Internet was first built, when it was unbeknownst to most, those involved were the true nerds who worked on something they believed in. It's a different picture now: there are so many people who want to be involved, to be a part of it, to be part of the 'digital revolution'. But unfortunately, not everyone can be 'the bestest of the bestest', but they want to be anyway. Since most of these people can't beat the true nerds with their brilliant minds, they resort to.... (drum roll) politics. By playing politics, they pull the best people down to their level, and beat them there. By playing politics, they create a role for themselves to play in a world which they really should have been kicked out of.

    It is a sad day for the Internet pioneers.

  8. I guess the tenure clock means different things at different institutions. For example, in many, if not all Canadian Universities, tenure typically comes with a promotion to Associate professor. Typically, one applies for both at the end of his/her fifth year. The next step is the promotion to full professor, which is typically after minimum of six years. So, the whole process takes at least 11 years, if not more. So, given this Harvard, or other mentioned Universities' tenure (and promotion to full Professor) clock is much shorter. Of course, there is always a shortcut to both, given exceptional cases.

  9. Off topic a bit, but your readers may be interested in this alternative crowdsourcing mechanism for ranking computer science departments (just started, modeled on similar ones for other disciplines).

    Vote here:

    Feel free to repost.

  10. @Anonymous : DUDE -
    First, you should understand that this blog is not the place to post such a stupid link. Before posting such a link, you should at least read the subject line of this blog-post.
    Second, your idea is stupid - people can write a script to screw your ranking! - Use CAPTCHA Third, Crowd Computing is science - you should learn it before blindly applying it into the real life - Do not use it to choose best universities or girl/boy friends.


Startup Life: Three Months In

I've posted a story to Medium on what it's been like to work at a startup, after years at Google. Check it out here.