This is the next blog in the continuing series of interviews with top-echelon and renowned professionals. In this blog, I have an interview with Derek Corneil: Renowned and Esteemed Computer Science Professor Emeritus University of Toronto.
In the fall of 1964, Derek Corneil was one of the 7 initial graduate students of the Graduate Program in the Department of Computer Science (DCS) at the University of Toronto. After completing his Ph.D. in 1968, he undertook a Post-Doctoral Fellowship at the Technical University of Eindhoven in the Netherlands, and then returned to DCS as an Assistant Professor in January, 1970. Throughout his career at the University of Toronto, he held various administrative positions including Department Chair, Director of Research Initiatives of the Faculty of Arts and Science, and Acting Vice President of Research and International Relations. He was instrumental in the formation of the Information Technology Research Centre (ITRC) under the Province of Ontario Centre of Excellence program, and was the initial Academic Director of the Bell Emergis/University of Toronto Labs.
His research area is algorithmic graph theory; in this regard, he has supervised (or co-supervised) 34 MSc and 25 Ph.D. theses and has published over 100 refereed scientific papers. He currently serves on 3 journal editorial boards and actively pursues his research as a Professor Emeritus at DCS.
To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link
Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic
Describe your journey into computing from your youth up to the present. What foundational lessons did you learn from this journey? Why were you initially attracted to computing?
“….As with most of us, our life’s journey is very much a series of accidents and mine was no exception….The lessons I learned: Always be ready for a surprise….Make sure you’re good in mathematics….Also make sure you’re good in English….”
In those early days as an undergrad when you were programming on the side, were the languages like assembler?
“….When we started with the 1401, it was a machine language initially and then we got into SAF and Assembler language….”
Derek shares about the very early days of programming.
“….A lot of emphasis was put on flowcharting at the time. Little did I know that this was my first contact with graph theory, vertices or points and edges. I remember I came up with the 68 page flowchart for the job I was doing….”
Before 1964, can you describe the educational landscape for those interested in computing?
“….There were no undergraduate courses. It was not until later that I was aware that there were any computers at Queens University….”
While an undergraduate at Queen’s, what computers and computing courses were available? I guess very little.
You talked about your undergraduate years at Queens and you finally enter the University of Toronto because they did have programming courses in the Department of Computer Science (DCS). Can you profile your professors in the early years of the DCS?
“….There were no computer scientists but there were a couple of physics professors (Kelly Gotlieb being one of them), a couple math professors and a couple from electrical engineering and if I remember correctly, one from psychology. There was also a fellow who had been brought in from industry (but without a PhD)….”
Can you describe those early years in 1964, as one of the 7 initial graduate students of the Graduate Program in the Department of Computer Science (DCS) at the University of Toronto?
“….In those days it was not clear if Computer Science was an academic discipline in its own right….Very few people saw what was going to happen. That was one of the key roles that Kelly Gotlieb played….”
You just mentioned that Kelly Gotlieb was your supervisor. Can you describe the process of obtaining your Ph.D and how has it changed?
“….In many ways, not much has changed. It’s still sort of an apprenticeship – one of the few apprenticeship type of relationships we have in modern society where you are working closely with an expert and you slowly somehow end up with a thesis….”
In those early days because you are really at the birth of computing (from an educational standpoint as a science), you must have developed a close relationship with Kelly and spent a lot of time with him in many respects.
“….Kelly’s style was that we would meet once a week or every two weeks with a clear understanding that if I didn’t have anything to present, then don’t waste his time and to postpone the meeting….The time I spent with him on the supervision was very much just on the academic work. It was only through social areas that I got to know Kelly as a person and our very strong friendship developed….”
What were some of the notable events at the University of Toronto (U of T) in those early years of the DCS?
“….Electronic transmission to the University of Saskatchewan and early developments of programming languages and compilers and the work Pat Hume did in these areas….Kelly Gotlieb’s early work in data structures….A lot of work in numerical analysis – Velvel Kahan is a Turing Award winner for establishing a lot of the numerical protocols….”
What were the challenges that DCS had to overcome over the years and what were the opportunities that DCS enabled?
“….Developing a new department in any university is always very difficult because you’ve got to get resources from what is already existing and other departments are going to pay for the birth and development of the new department….Tom [Hall] did an excellent job of building up the department in the late 60’s to the mid 70’s at a time when other universities were saying they did not want to get involved in computer science….”
It reminds me of a company called Fairchild and they spawned a number of other companies referred to as “Fairchildren”, many years ago. I get the feeling that the University of Toronto and all of your graduates and PhD students who have finished and going off and flowering the world, in terms of setting up departments or inspiring innovations or going to different regions. Can you share any stories about that at all?
“….So much of it is anecdotal but you’re absolutely right. We’ve done a lot of international education….A lot of students who went back to their own countries and were involved in building the computing science academic infrastructure inside their country as well as a lot of people who were going into industry….”
From your insider perspective, describe your time with Kelly Gotlieb during the early years at DCS up to the present.
“….I can talk about all the things that he inspired academically but in many ways the most important thing he inspired in me was the possibility that you could have a very well balanced life….”
Derek shares several additional stories of Kelly Gotlieb, as the “Father of Computing.”
“….It was about 1967 where he said he envisaged the day when we could send a message electronically instantaneously around the world for free, but it would cost us 50 cents to send a postcard to our kid at camp. That just blew everybody’s mind on both counts. Not only this idea of an electronic free message instantaneously but also I don’t think any of us believed that stamps would ever cost 50 cents….”
We know that Kelly was an inspiration to you but are there others whose work inspired you at that time?
“….Jaap Seidel….Edsger Dijkstra….Bill Tutte….”
From your own personal perspective, how would you describe one of DCS’s innovative achievements (you choose one that resonated with you), in terms of what specifically inspired the innovation, what were the factors that made the innovation possible, the problems being solved, and the impact it has today and into the longer term future?
“….(I will stay close to my own area, namely theoretical computer science)….Here I would turn to Steve Cook and the work he did on complexity….Steve pioneered the understanding of complexity of algorithms….Steve’s work permeates computer science….”
Derek shares some additional stories about the DCS.
Can you share some experiences from the lecture and the dinner reception (from Kelly Gotlieb’s lecture and 90th birthday dinner reception), held at the University of Toronto in March 2011?
“….It was a magical evening, a lot of the great stories – it was so wonderful to hear all of these and to have his family and his friends there. Hopefully it makes us realize what an impact he has had on our lives and of lesser importance on the field of computing itself….”
For the audience, Mike Williams has done a series of recordings with Kelly spanning close to 20 years now. The transcripts from those would be over 70 pages. He did another interview with Kelly following the event that happened in March. The listeners are encouraged to through the IEEE, or ACM to have a look at and read the transcripts. It’s amazing history captured.
Can you profile (getting into more detail) the current work and standing of the DCS?
“….Ten to twelve years ago we developed the role of teaching faculty. These are colleagues who have at least a Masters (and some have PhD’s) in computer science and they’re in charge of a lot of the undergraduate teaching roles….Another thing is Professional Experience Year. In this program instead of having a 4 month co-op placement, the students either at the end of their second or third year have a full one year placement in industry which means that they get a very good project….Another area of recent innovation – we’re in the process of developing a Professional Masters Program….”
More broadly, what do you see as the top challenges facing us today and how do you propose they be solved?
“….(I’ll restrict that to more academic areas and perspectives)….Our inability to attract a lot of really good undergrad students….An ongoing problem with attracting more women and retaining more women in computer science….Another ongoing problem (a lot of headway has been made), building bridges between academia and industry….Funding of research in Canada, not only in computer science but throughout research….”
What would you say is the balance between the provincial side of it and the federal side in terms of research funding?
“….This depends on the province; most notably Alberta and Quebec have put a lot of money into their own research funding at the provincial level….The province of Ontario deserves a tremendous amount of credit for its support not only at the Centers of Excellence but also the Field’s Institute….”
If you were conducting this interview, what questions would you ask, and then what would be your answers?
“….Looking back on your career, any regrets?….”