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Stanford fetes computer-science pioneers
San Francisco Chronicle

March 25, 2006

A little over 40 years ago, Stanford University recognized computer science as a new academic discipline. Since then, its scientists have spawned companies like Yahoo! and Google and helped create futuristic fields like artificial intelligence.

On Tuesday, Stanford will fete the field that has been one of the spark plugs of Silicon Valley. The daylong event will honor academic pioneers like artificial-intelligence guru John McCarthy and look ahead at technologies that are still in the dreaming stages.

Milestones at Stanford
San Francisco Chronicle


1974: Scientist Vinton Cerf and Stanford graduate students Yogen Dalal and Carl Sunshine publish TCP/IP, the foundation of the Internet

1982: Sun Microsystems founded by graduate students including scientist Andreas Bechtolsheim

1994: Doctoral candidates David Filo and Jerry Yang found Yahoo!

1998: Lightning strikes twice when doctoral candidates Sergey Brin and Larry Page start Google

2005: A robotic car built by Stanford scientists drives itself to victory in a desert race

(Source: Stanford University)

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

"Information technology has been the thing that has shaped our lives more than any other thing over the last 25 to 30 years," said Stanford President John Hennessy, himself a computer scientist and entrepreneur. "What has made Stanford stand out is its track record of turning inventions into companies."

Stanford's celebration drew a cheer from University of California-Berkeley computer scientist David Patterson, president of the Association for Computing Machinery, the field's prestigious professional organization. Patterson cited studies that show computer science has spawned 19 different industries during the past four decades, starting with timeshare computing in the 1960s to the World Wide Web today.

Stanford deserves special note even among the big four computer-science schools, Patterson said - the others being Berkeley, MIT and Carnegie-Mellon - not only because it was early to make the field a separate discipline, but also because it has a strong tradition of research with a practical spin.

"What sets Stanford apart is the startup culture," said Patterson, adding, "I have this sense that it's an almost unwritten rule that you have to start a company to be a successful professor at Stanford."

In recognition of that entrepreneurial legacy, Tuesday's event will include a panel titled "Upstarts and Rabble Rousers," featuring Stanford alums Andy Bechtolsheim, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, and Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo! - two offspring from different technology eras.

Many companies and technologies that trace their roots to the Santa Clara County campus include industry players that never became household names. These include MIPS, a 1980s chipmaker whose founders included then-professor Hennessy, and Silicon Graphics, developer of computers with glitzy visualization capabilities.

But Stanford computer scientists have created their share of consumer-centric startups as well, and while not all have been as wildly successful as Google or Yahoo!, their stories attest to the school's unique spirit.

Al Lieb is a 31-year-old computer consultant and entrepreneur in San Francisco, but when he came to Palo Alto to study computer science in 1994, he was a wide-eyed graduate of Milwaukee's Nicolet High School who quickly fell under Stanford's entrepreneurial spell.

"The Internet had kind of taken off, Yahoo! was starting to pick up speed, you had pretty much the beginning of the bubble," he said.

In his freshman year, Lieb befriended another young undergrad, Selina Tobaccowala, who later became his collaborator on the software behind, the Web-based party service.

"We wanted to do a startup," Lieb recalled. "It was less about what the startup was." In 1998, they found money, opened the site and rode the bubble for a while until they were forced to sell in 2001. remains in existence but the founders never struck it rich. Still, Lieb has no regrets.

"I love Stanford, both for the people I've met and the things I've learned," he said.

Logitech, the Fremont, Calif., company that makes computer peripherals, is another Stanford progeny from an earlier wave of computing. It was co-founded in 1981 by Pierluigi Zappacosta, now a 55-year-old investor who divides his time between Silicon Valley and his native Italy.

Zappacosta said that when he migrated to Stanford in 1976 to begin graduate studies in computer science, he sensed that Silicon Valley was nothing like the old country, where graduates went to work for big firms.

"Everywhere you had small groups of people who were doing something fun," Zappacosta said. "That was the shocking realization that changed my life."

In that late-1970s-early-'80s ferment of personal computing, Zappacosta teamed up with another Stanford computer scientist from Europe, Daniel Borel. In 1981, they co-founded Logitech to popularize the mouse. Borel remains chairman of Logitech, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

In addition to looking back at Stanford's legacy, Tuesday's event will include crystal-ball sessions on where the field is headed, said professor William Dally, chairman of the Computer Science Department.

"Computers are going to be everywhere in 2020, as if they weren't already everywhere now," Dally said.

He said ever-cheaper computing resources will turn us into data pack rats, storing everything - family photos and videos, home and office surveillance records, and more - because we can.

"There's some neat stuff about it, but there's some scary stuff, too," Dally said.

It all adds up to a continuing demand for computer scientists, he argued, miffed that stories about jobs being outsourced to India suggest that the field is drying up. Chalk it up to the fact that computer-science enrollment tends to follow the ebb and flow of the high-tech industry.

"During the bubble, our enrollment almost doubled," Dally said, adding "we had a correction" after the dot-com crash that drove Stanford computer-science enrollment "down to 1997 levels" from 2000 to now.

Stanford's Computer Science Department currently lists 285 undergraduates, 300 master's students and 180 doctoral candidates. There are 41.5 teaching and research positions. The ideal computer scientist, Dally said, is a problem-solver who, in contrast to the nerd stereotype, enjoys teamwork.

"The same sort of people who like crossword puzzles or mathematical games tend to be excellent programmers," Dally said, taking issue with the image of "Dilbert-like characters chained to their workstations all day."


E-mail Tom Abate at tabate(at)
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