Dr. Maria Klawe: Pioneering World-Renowned Computer Scientist and Executive Leader, shares her early years

This is one of the most remarkable, open, personal, and candid interviews that I have “ever” conducted since the 1980s’ with a most talented executive and academic leader who is shaping history on many fronts. It is unlike any I have ever done before and it is part of a series—this extensive interview covers Maria’s experiences from early childhood to 30. As a side note, Maria is keynoting at the IFIP World CIO Forum and I will be seeing her there.

I trust you will enjoy this interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it.

Dr. Maria KlaweHarvey Mudd College is led by Maria Klawe, HMC's fifth president who began her tenure in 2006. A renowned computer scientist and scholar, President Klawe is the first woman to lead the college since its founding in 1955. Prior to joining HMC, she served as Dean of Engineering and Professor of Computer Science at Princeton University. During her time at Princeton, Maria led the School of Engineering and Applied Science through a strategic planning exercise that created an exciting and widely embraced vision for the school.

At Harvey Mudd College, she led a similarly ambitious strategic planning initiative, "HMC 2020: Envisioning the Future." Maria joined Princeton from the University of British Columbia where she served as Dean of Science from 1998 to 2002, Vice President of Student and Academic Services from 1995 to 1998 and Head of the Department of Computer Science from 1988 to 1995. Prior to UBC, Maria spent eight years with IBM Research in California, and two years at the University of Toronto. She received her Ph.D. (1977) and B.Sc. (1973) in Mathematics from the University of Alberta. Maria has made significant research contributions in several areas of mathematics and computer science including functional analysis, discrete mathematics, theoretical computer science, human-computer interaction, gender issues in information technology, and interactive-multimedia for mathematics education.

Her current research focuses on the development and use of multi-modal applications to assist people with aphasia and other cognitive impairments. Maria is a past president of the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) in New York, chair of the Board of Trustees of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology in Palo Alto, and a trustee of the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics in Los Angeles and the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley. In the past Maria has held leadership positions with the American Mathematical Society, the Computing Research Association, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, and the Canadian Mathematical Society.

Maria is one of the 10 members of the board of Microsoft Corporation, a newly elected member of the Broadcom board, a board member of the non-profit Math for America, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and past chair of the board for the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology in Palo Alto, Calif. She was elected as a fellow of the Association of Computing Machinery in 1996 and as a founding fellow of the Canadian Information Processing Society in 2006. Other awards include Vancouver YWCA Women of Distinction Award in Science and Technology (1997), Wired Woman Pioneer (2001), Canadian New Media Educator of the Year (2001), BC Science Council Champion of the Year (2001), University of Alberta Distinguished Alumna (2003), Nico Habermann Award (2004), and honorary doctorates from University of Maryland Baltimore County (2011), University of British Columbia (2010), Mount St. Vincent University (2007), University of Ottawa (2008), University of Alberta (2007), Acadia University (2006), Dalhousie University (2005), Queen's University (2004), the University of Waterloo (2003) and Ryerson University (2001).

To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link


Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic

Maria, you are an icon in so many domains where your innovations and accomplishments laid foundations in science, education, leadership, innovation, and research. This is the first in an interview series where we will explore your considerable history from your early years and into your professional life of notable distinction, and significant outstanding contributions in a number of fields including societal causes. Thank you for sharing your considerable expertise, deep accumulated insights, and wisdom with our audience.
"....It's been interesting preparing for this interview because as you'll hear I've had a somewhat turbulent life. I hope that others can learn from my many mistakes...."

What are your earliest memories and how do they correlate to where you are today?
"....My first memory is my third birthday and I was given a swing set....I had wanted a swing for a very long time and was devastated when my parents insisted that I had to let my older sister as well as my best friend use it....I'm better at it now than I was when I was turning three, but learning that I really had to share things with other people, it took me a long time to get there...."

One thing is clear when I speak to your colleagues is that you are so curious and you have a questioning nature. What triggered your questioning nature?
"....I think my father was exactly that way and my daughter Sasha is that way. I think all of us are interested in many, many things, but we also have this intense wish to change things for the better and I think when you're that way, no matter what you encounter, you're constantly trying to figure out how it works and how it could work better...."

Describe your first good and bad experiences in school?
"....My first good experience was in kindergarten....I was making complex geometric patterns with these rods and I remember being enormously pleased that my kindergarten teacher thought that this was really wonderful....The bad experience for me was that I was extremely lonely at school until I was about eight because my interests were so different from all the other students...."

Are there any particular teachers who inspired you and how did they inspire you?
"....One teacher who stands out particularly for me was a music teacher whom I met first in 8th grade...."

What are some of the specific attributes that made her so outstanding?
"....She realized I was going through a very difficult transition so it wasn't just that she taught me music, she found a way to help me bridge this transition from moving from Scotland to Canada...."

I guess a great lesson is that if you're in a community of some sort and you see some people being isolated, reach out and try to mentor them or bring them into the group in some way?
"....Absolutely....One of the things that I feel really good about Harvey Mudd College is that people (including me but also the faculty, the other students and staff), make a huge effort to reach out to people like that and find ways for them to find a connection...."

Looking back how would you describe yourself - your attitude; your approach to family, friends, activities, interests, hobbies, life in general, schools, dreams of the future, your intended career?
"....My parents believed that I could accomplish anything that I chose to do with the exception of sports - I was very clumsy and uncoordinated and they thought of me as being athletically challenged. I completely internalized that and was very surprised to discover much later, at the age of 37, that I actually had talent as a long distance runner...."

Are you still in touch with some of these people from that time?
"....We had our 40th high school reunion three years ago....Lisa is the person I'm closest to but I still know people from then...."

Who were your first mentors and how did they influence you?
"....Obviously my parents had a huge influence on me because they really believed that I could do things and my music teacher as well. I also had very good math teachers in high school....They really made me feel that mathematics was something that belonged to me or that I belonged to...."

Maria, can you describe further your early years and some pivotal events that shaped you before you entered university?
"....I ended up choosing many things which were non-traditional for girls and eventually for women in life, and I think if my father had not been so supportive it would have been much harder....Establishing friends who taught me that even though I was so different from people around me it was possible to find people with similar interests and abilities....Soon after we moved to Canada I discovered that I was an atheist. This was my first intellectual battle with my parents that I actually won and for me I think it established that I could make my own choices....I had to adjust many times (I must say with difficulties), to many cultures in my career but learning that it was possible and be willing to try to do it from that time has become an important skill....I learned that I could work when I decided that I really wanted to achieve something....Another thing was what happened when we wrote the valedictorian's address in 1968....It was my introduction to the student protest movement that became a very big part of my life in the next few years...."

What was remarkable from your time as an undergraduate?
"....I think the biggest thing was that I really wanted to feel that I could contribute something useful to the world. I really liked pure mathematics, but I couldn't see how that would allow me to contribute anything...."

What five forces shaped you at that time?
"....The student protest movements....The pain of separation from my family - particularly this feeling that I had lost my father's belief in me....Taking full financial responsibility for myself was really important....Travelling around the world with PH was an amazing experience....Finding out how important mathematics was for me and how to work hard, and the importance of working hard and what it meant...."

What were some of the good and bad experiences from that time (undergraduate days)?
"....I had many good experiences as an undergraduate student. The math professors at the University of Alberta were very good to the Honours Math students. They cared for us as individuals; they really believed in us....I also had some really good friends from that time....When you participate in student government you get to see a different side of how universities are run. I think it was a good experience....Obviously travelling was a great experience....The bad experiences were the separation from my family...."

Throughout this discussion, I can see a lot of decision points. How did you make your choices and why?
"....I feel that during that period (roughly a five year period), since I was out of school for about 2 years and in school for about 3 years, it felt like I was really searching to find out who I was....What was so wonderful was that when I found out I really needed to do mathematics, I could come back and really be a student and embrace it for what it really was...."

Maria describes her time as a graduate student and beyond.
"....During that year [at Oaklands] I discovered there were well-known mathematicians who worked in the computer science department and there were tons of job openings – academic jobs for computer scientists...."

Who were your mentors at that time and how did they influence you?
"....Tony Lau my advisor was an incredible mentor. He taught me about how to be a good academic citizen, how to be a good researcher....Václav Chvátal at that time was Professor of Computer Science at operations research at Stanford....Ron Graham and Alan Hoffman….Derek Corneil...."

What five lessons did you learn at that time?
"....Sometimes you just have to give up....How important it was to allow myself to be helped by somebody....I learned a lot about the culture of different disciplines when I moved to computer science....I learned the importance of learning a new discipline and how important it is to learn to function in the culture as well as to learn the knowledge....I learned that what you thought to be right is not necessarily right. If you allow your biases to blind you, you might miss some very important things....You never know when something is going to come along that just transforms your life...."

Based upon those early years, if you were conducting this interview, what 3 questions would you ask, and then what would be your answers?
"....Why did I have such a turbulent life especially during my university years?....There's a recurring theme of loneliness during my first roughly 30 years and how did that influence my choices?...How did being female influence what happened during this period?...."

Maria, with your demanding schedule, we are indeed fortunate to have you come in to do this interview. Thank you for sharing your substantial wisdom with our audience.
"....I feel very lucky that I survived the first 30 years because there were definitely some difficult times. But I had some amazing support and some amazing experiences that certainly shaped what I've done with the rest of my life...."

This is the first in an interview series where we explore Maria's considerable history from her early years and into her professional life of notable distinction, and significant outstanding contributions in a number of fields including societal causes. In the next interview, we will delve into Maria's early professional career as an academic and researcher.


Comments (13)

  1. Stephen.Ibaraki says:

    LinkedIn Groups

    • Group: Harvard Business Review

    • Discussion: Dr. Maria Klawe: Pioneering World-Renowned Computer Scientist and Executive Leader, shares her early years

    Hi, Stephen, thanks for sharing, very insightful interview, Dr. Maria Klawe's earlier experience may inspire many youth to follow their dreams, especially girls, in the digital era, role model is also without border, people have more resources and freedom to become who they are. thanks.

    Posted by Pearl

  2. Stephen.Ibaraki says:

    LinkedIn Groups

    • Group: Harvard Business Review

    • Discussion: Dr. Maria Klawe: Pioneering World-Renowned Computer Scientist and Executive Leader, shares her early years

    I'm very glad that young people have so many more opportunities today and that gender is much less of an issue.

    Posted by Maria

  3. Stephen.Ibaraki says:

    These comments were posted in Harvard Business Review …

    In answer to Pearl: Maria's work is so important for diversity and leveraging all the talent that is available but needs models as you indicated.

  4. Stephen.Ibaraki says:

    From HBR:

    Your work Maria continues to play a key role in this area: your college leads the nation with gender balance in your engineering programs, you lead and mentor teams to the Grace Hopper conferences, you are keynoting on gender diversity at the World CIO Forum — this is the first such keynote to a senior IT executive audience globally on this topic.

  5. Graham Jones says:

    Thank you Maria

  6. Graham Jones says:

    It is very refreshing to see such honesty and condour from somebody with such a distinguished career and current position in life. It offers insight for those who can learn from it and encouragement for those who are currently fighting their own "battles". It touches close to home in some respects for me personally, as I am sure it does for many who have experienced the ups and downs of personal and professional life. One thing is clear is that all of life's experiences has made Maria the well rounded person that she is today, and that perhaps has given her the courage to be so open with us all. For that I must applaud her.

    Maria has chosen to direct her current energies in the direction of education and I am sure that Harvey Mudd and its students are the better for it. A sound education in whatever is your chosen domain is the foundation for so much in life, something which is often not best appreciated until you are older and hopefully wiser. I am sure that Maria is a great mentor. We all need to find our "mentor" in life and I consider myself extremely fortunate to have found mine, albeit later in life now that I am retired from professional life but have found a new career in volunteer work. Finding your mentor helps you to realize things about yourself and it encourages you to help others, in turn acting as a mentor for others. Thank you Maria for inspiring me to go on believing that much good can still be done with support and encouragement from the right people. We all have our "demons" to overcome.

  7. DPJOL says:

    This interview needs to be heard by everyone involved in academia, technology and most definitely by all students.  Dr. Klawe’s sharing of her life’s challenges and triumphs is an inspiration to every student, indeed to every person.  Her continued excellence in leadership and valuing of students is a model for all education leaders. I find it very enjoyable to highlight Dr. Clawe’s work to the Deans of Information Technology across Canada. Invariably the response is one of excitement and possibilities. And I know once I send a link to this interview to the Association of Canadian Community Colleges for sharing with College and Institute Presidents across the country they will mirror that response. And finally even though her achievements are at the highest level, her success extraordinary and her career amazing, it is her candid sharing of the turbulent and uncertain times of her life that truly marks her greatness in my eyes.  Her mention of suicidal thoughts will go a long way to encouraging others to acknowledge and address those thoughts when they experience them, very likely saving lives.  This interview is a truly great gift and the fact that such an accomplished and successful person would share such a personal journey is a true testament to her greatness and humanity.

    Dave O'Leary

    Chair National Council of Deans of Information Technology

  8. Stephen.Ibaraki says:

    Graham, thank you for providing your thoughts. Mentors mark a special place in peoples lives and mentorship is rewarding to all. You mentor many in your roles as founding vice-chair of GITCA, president of VanTug, founding publisher and managering editor, global newsletter, and much more.

    Moreover, learning from our challenges is a good lesson for success.

  9. Stephen.Ibaraki says:

    Dave, you have the ability to continue the chain of good will encapsulated in Maria's message and I know many will appreciate your efforts in honouring Maria in this way.

  10. Anne says:

    As a new parent of a baby girl, I have keen interest in our educational system. The job of educating our daughter begins with us but is maintained by the educational system. We intend to teach and encourage her to do anything she chooses. The educational system as a whole would do well to follow your thinking that all students would benefit from the recognition and encouragement from the early grades going forward, and not just those who show exceptional talent or abilities. Our future depends on our children. Thank you for your insightful interview. I am encouraged knowing that there are educators like you in the system.

  11. MARIE says:

    As a passionate advocate for education, I found your interview candid and refreshing and I am happy to see that there are equally passionate and caring educators who are working hard to improve the system from within. All students will thrive with support, encouragement and recognition of their individual abilities. I believe the earlier in the students' education this occurs, the greater the result.

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