This article is published in the March 2007 issue.

Why We Go to the Woods

Musings from the Chair

In the spirit of Henry David Thoreau, why do we get up each day and work? To pay for groceries and make mortgage payments? Practical and necessary reasons, for sure. To conduct important research, educate students and make disciplinary contributions? These are the quantitative and qualitative metrics of success in our field, without doubt. Yet I suspect neither practicality nor disciplinary metrics are the real reasons we climb out of bed each morning. Rather, I believe that when we are circumspect, we know we are each driven by the desire to make a difference, to make the world a better place today than it was yesterday.

Hence, I often ask people, based on their age, one of two variants of a standard question. If they are beginning their careers, I ask, “What do you lie awake at night and dream about doing?” If they are older, or like me—older and follicly challenged—I ask, “What do you want to tell your grandchildren you did with your life?” The answers are always revealing and insightful. We are blessed to work in a discipline that is transforming society and enriching the human experience and we are privileged to be a part of that process.

The astronomer Edwin Hubble once wrote, “Our immediate neighborhood we know intimately. But with increasing distance our knowledge fades. . . . The search will continue. The urge is older than history. It is not satisfied, and it will not be denied.” Although technically about the large-scale structure of the universe, his comments are perceptive and speak to the real reason we get up each day and why we conduct research—because we want to add a tile to the great mosaic of human knowledge, because we want to make a difference in the lives of the world’s citizens. When it comes to the big questions—matter and the universe, life and its processes, and what they mean for the human condition—in each case, computing research is revolutionizing our approaches to exploration and discovery, and we are a part of it.

When I was teaching, at the end of each semester I spent some time talking to my class, not just about final examinations or term projects, but about what they should do in life and why computing matters. Although we are well remunerated for our efforts, I always tell students that they should work for love, not for money. If you love what you do and you are passionate about it, it always pays enough. If the passion isn’t there, the tasks become drudgery.

All too often, we become immersed in the minutiae and lose sight of the “big picture.” Remember than in the end it isn’t about how many proposals you wrote or how many papers you published; it’s about whether you really are making a difference. It’s that ineffable notion of impact, but driven by our passions and desires, not by external expectations.

We need to make sure we share the passion, the love, the dreams, with our students and our colleagues. Our students need to know what we know: that computing research is driven by the same creative impulses that shape art, music, literature and the other sciences. We are artists in that most malleable of media, the world of computing, where ideas take flight. Share the love, share the future.

Finally, as I write this, the National Science Foundation has just announced that our colleague Jeannette Wing has been named the new NSF Assistant Director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE). All of us in the community look forward to working with Jeannette in her new role, as we chart the future of computing.

Dan Reed, CRA’s Board Chair, is the Chancellor’s Eminent Professor and Vice-Chancellor for Information Technology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He also directs the interdisciplinary Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI). Contact him at reed [at]

Why We Go to the Woods