Photo: Jason Dorfman, CSAIL photographer
Where did you grow up: In Calgary, Canada.
What was your academic path before coming to grad school at MIT? I have Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Computer Engineering from the University of Waterloo, Canada. When I was finishing my Master's degree, I was pretty tired of being in school, and was convinced that I wanted to go work in industry. While I was applying to jobs, I figured that I might as well keep my options open. I applied to my top choice school: MIT. To my surprise, I was accepted. I went to MIT for the PhD visit weekend, which was a great look at what my life might look like if I chose to do that. At the same time, I ended up with an offer to go work for Google in New York. I really wanted to defer my acceptance for a year, but MIT will only let you defer for one semester. I ended up declining MIT's offer and went to New York instead. I reapplied to MIT for the following year, and thankfully was accepted again.
What did you want to be when you were younger? Is that still an interest of yours?
What is something most people would be surprised to learn about you? If you don't know me very well, you might be surprised to know that I love to cook. It is what keeps me entertained when I'm not at my keyboard.
What department are you currently working in, and when did you start there? My work is in the systems area. My primary interest is distributed systems, which I've been working in since I started my PhD in September, 2007.
What are you working on and why are you passionate about it? Currently, I'm working on a new high-performance database for transaction processing systems. These are the systems that keep your bank records, book flights, and process e-commerce purchases. Our system provides 10X better performance than existing systems such as MySQL or Oracle by being designed specifically for these applications and for modern data centers. My specific interest is in the distributed transaction protocols used to ensure that the multiple physical computers used to implement the system can efficiently cooperate to process transactions quickly, and can survive failures of individual components.
What is your favorite thing about working at CSAIL? CSAIL has great breadth and depth. There are a large number of researchers working on a wide variety of projects. If you need an expert in any area of computer science, you'll find at least one in the lab. For me, the benefit has been working on projects that I didn't expect to be interested in, and collaborating with people who have contact with both the academic and industrial communities.
What effect do you think your area of work will have on the world in the next decade? The impact of my research will be completely hidden and invisible. My work lives in the server rooms and data centers scattered all over the planet. Ideally, my work will help people design and build reliable systems that take advantage of the resources of many computers connected over networks. My interest is in building tools that make software robust to failures, require less work to manage, and easily serve any number of users, from dozens to millions.
What are your future plans? Finishing my PhD is going to occupy the next few years of my life. After that, I am interested in both working in industry and in academia, if I can possibly make that work. Ideally, after my PhD I would love to run a start-up based on something related to my research, to have that experience.
What advice would you give a prospective CSAIL graduate student? I personally benefitted immensely from my time in industry. I would recommend that anyone interested in building software systems needs to have at least a year of industrial experience, to get a sense for what real problems are out there.
Beyond that, do your homework: look at a broad section of the faculty here and see what they are working on. You might believe you are interested in one particular area, but I recommend looking outside that specialty, since you might find something you didn't know you were interested in.