This is the next blog in the continuing series of interviews with top-echelon and renowned professionals. In this blog, I interview Frans Kaashoek: ACM-Infosys Foundation Award $150K Recipient, Internationally Renowned MIT Professor and Researcher, Innovating Entrepreneur Company Founder and Executive.
A professor of Computer Science and Engineering in MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Kaashoek, 46, is also a member of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and acknowledges the collaborative benefits of his colleagues and students. In 2011, Professor Kaashoek received the ACM-Infosys Foundation Award and the $150,000 Prize in the Computing Sciences for his contributions to the structuring, robustness, scalability, and security of software systems underlying many applications. As noted by the ACM, "Kaashoek's advances have led to efficient, portable, and highly distributed applications of software systems, fostering wider use of portable embedded and distributed systems. He also used information flow control techniques to address a major security challenge in broadly deployed commercial systems. In addition to his groundbreaking research, Kaashoek founded commercial ventures that have enabled expanded content distribution like large, high-quality video files to travel over the Internet, and that have enhanced protection of large enterprise networks using network behavioral analysis software." Kaashoek was Chief Scientist and Co-founder of Sightpath, Inc. The company was acquired by Cisco Systems in 2000. He also helped found Mazu Networks, Inc. where Kaashoek served as a director of Mazu Networks until its acquisition by Riverbed Technology, Inc. in 2009.
Kaashoek was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2006, and was named an ACM Fellow in 2004. In that year, he also received the William R. Bennett Prize Paper Award from the IEEE. He won the inaugural Mark Weiser Award from ACM’s Special Interest Group on Operating Systems in 2001. A graduate of Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, he earned a Doctorandus Computer Science degree (equivalent to an M.S. degree) and a Doctor Computer Science degree (equivalent to a Ph.D. degree).
To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link
Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic
When did you hear of this extraordinary honour, recipient of the ACM-Infosys Foundation Award? How did you feel at the time and what was the reaction from your colleagues and from your family?
"....It took me a couple minutes into the conversation before I realized that I was actually selected for the award....It was a huge surprise...."
How will you use the 150K prize?
"....I'll probably try to do something special with it related to computer science...."
Describe your journey into computing from your youth up to the present.
"....At some point I had to make a decision of what to major in and I thought, I like programming a lot so why don't I just go into computer science. That was the start of getting involved in computer science and going in that direction...."
During this journey into computing what foundational lessons can you share?
"....Follow your heart and your interest. It can lead you into directions that you might not have anticipated...."
Whose work inspired you?
"....I was greatly inspired with people who built large software systems and were able to actually make them work and innovate at the same time...."
In your journey have you had any mentors?
"....There were a couple of people who were hugely influential. Most importantly, my PhD advisor, Andy Tanenbaum, who took me under his wing and guided and taught me how to do computer systems research...."
How did you end up at MIT?
"....I really wanted to go to the United States and I talked to several people in the field. They said why don't you apply for faculty positions? That seemed to me to be a reasonable idea, so I did, not expecting to get any interviews or any offers. But I ended up getting a bunch of interviews and subsequently a number of offers including one from MIT...."
Can you provide your inside perspective of the environment at MIT?
"....MIT is indeed a unique place....MIT is very much about doing it the right way and trying to figure out what the right way is. This makes it a very stimulating environment...."
Looking at your background, I notice that you are deeply connected with the ACM, IEEE, and so on. Why do you participate in those societies?
"....The ACM is the sponsor of many of the major conferences in computer science....It's very important that there are a healthy set of conferences for being able to move the computer science field forward. As a participant in those conferences, supporting the ACM is an important thing to do...."
How would you describe your top three innovative achievements in terms what specifically inspired these innovations, what were the factors that made the innovations possible, the problems you were trying to solve, your solutions, and the impact they have today and into the longer term future?
"....The Exokernal project....Distributed hash tables....Decentralized information control for operating systems....The impact has been more indirect as opposed to direct...."
Can you profile your future research, its challenges, opportunities, and implications?
"....Multi-core operating systems....Additional work in the area of computer security...."
Can you describe the journey – from initial start-up, obtaining investment, managing the ventures, conducting innovative research, acquisition – for the commercial ventures you have founded and what you learned from the process?
"....There were 2 companies that I was actually involved in founding. They all started accidentally....All you can do is to build a viable company that can stand on its own feet and see where it goes...."
Do you have any recommendations on the process of pitching the start-up to the venture capital or angel communities in order to get some initial seed capital?
"....It turns out that all the experience of writing papers and giving talks on research ideas is really helpful....You basically have to be able to express very concisely what your idea is, how it relates to other ideas, and why your idea is an advancement over the current state of the art and has large potential. Being able to articulate those ideas well and succinctly is the key to getting VC funding, in addition to having a good idea...."
Do you have new commercial ventures in mind for your current and future research?
"....Much of the current research I’m doing is not so much a stand-alone product – it would seem it would be much better embedded in existing products. The path to commercializing this is not through startup but through working with companies that are already in this space...."
Over your distinguished career, what are your top lessons you want to share with the broad audience?
"....Follow your heart....If you like what you are doing, it's much easier to be persistent...."
If you could sum up your life experiences with career tips for the working ICT professional outside of academia, what would be your tips and the reasons behind them?
"....Be good at what you do. If you are very good at something, people will recognize it and you will make an impact...."
Please make your top predictions for the future, their implications, and how executives and IT professionals can best prepare?
"....It's very hard to make any serious predictions about what will happen in computer science in the next couple of years other than something exciting will happen...."
More broadly (inside and outside of computing), what do you see as the top challenges facing us today and how do you propose they be solved?
"....I have a limited view of the world and I mostly look at things through an academic research perspective....I think there are huge opportunities in the section of computer systems and sensors and connecting every device in the world to the networks....Tremendous opportunities and interesting problems in the area of computer security...."
If you were conducting this interview, what question would you ask, and then what would be your answer?
"....Why is computer science so exciting?...."
What is your passion outside of computing and what is your favorite device?
"....Maybe a bike....I like biking and playing squash...."