This article is published in the January 2008 issue.

Do You Remember? Why Research and Education Really Matter

Musings from the Chair

As technologists, we often focus on the technical aspects of our profession. Yet the cultural transformation wrought by the technologies we create is deep and profound, with implications for how we train a new generation of researchers and how we attract new and more diverse computing students. Herewith are a few memories to personalize and ponder.

Realizing—for the first time—that you could read. For most of us, our intellectual sojourn began with this. Remember sitting on your parent’s lap, seeing that crazy jumble of shapes on the page become words and ideas, leaping off the page and filling you with wonder? This is cultural magic, the transmission of ideas across generations and minds via symbols. Computing research is creating new tools and approaches to knowledge transmission and facilitating the sharing of human experiences via ever richer and more vibrant representations.

Standing in the stacks of a great library, marveling at the accumulated knowledge. The ideas and experiences of a library call across the disciplines and the centuries, a feast for the mind. Our work in storage technologies, knowledge representations, indexing and search are democratizing access to our cultural heritage and our knowledge base. A primary school child can now hold the text content of the Library of Congress in his or her hands, and many of us are working to develop more powerful and intuitive access mechanisms.

As a teacher, seeing enlightenment on students’ faces. There are few things more satisfying than “pulling back the magic curtain” and explaining the foundations of a complex process. For me, that experience was explaining how one constructs a computer from devices and gates; a device able to execute machine code derived from a high-level language. In each of our specializations and in our diverse applications of computing, the educational experience, for teacher and student, can be intoxicating.

Realizing as a researcher that you knew something never before known. This is when fragmented and diffused ideas assemble in crystal clarity and you know—you really know—something new. It is the essence of research: the sense of excitement, of childlike wonder at discovering general mechanisms behind special cases.

Holding the galley proof of your first research paper. If you were like me, you zealously checked and rechecked each word and each heading for typographical errors. That sense of excitement at having contributed something, however small, to our human knowledge base is what attracts each child to science and engineering. We need to nurture curiosity and innovation, recognizing that there is no clear separation between education and research. They are a continuum of personal discovery, enabled by computing.

Seeing your first program come to life. The often dazzling complexity generated from simple rules speaks to the deep nature of computability and the relations among mathematics, logic and our designed computing systems. We work in that most malleable of engineering media, the world of software, where ideas come to life in the systems we design.

Feeling the power of shared thought in a great research team. The warp and woof of ideas ricocheting off one another, as they are embellished and enhanced by multiple perspectives and insights, is exhilarating. Working with experts across specializations and disciplines is an intensely social process. All too often, we in computing are perceived as solitary laborers; nothing could be further from the truth.

Each of us became researchers via personal paths. Our stories differ, and each is interesting as an example of computing’s intellectual attraction and vibrancy. Share your story with your students; let them see your passion.
Dan Reed CRA’s Board Chair, is Microsoft’s Scalable and Multicore Computing Strategist.
Contact him at : Daniel.Reed @

Do You Remember? Why Research and Education Really Matter