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Computer Science Guest Speakers

2010 May 25
by Hélène Martin

Guest speakers are good for convincing students that real, successful people are excited about computer science.  It’s also nice as a way to break up the routine.  Some of the speakers I’ve had this year:

When I was in high school, I always appreciated the opportunity to talk to adults doing things I found interesting.  Strong engineering and computing mentors played a big role in steering me in the direction I followed so I hope to bring a bit of the same to my students.

Today, my classes were very lucky to get a visit from Ben Slivka, starter of Internet Explorer among other cool things.  I took some notes as students asked questions and have done my best to recreate some of what was discussed.  It was really fun to get his insights on all kinds of things technology.

Which of the companies you worked in was the most fun?
Mr. Slivka told us that he had the most fun at Microsoft.  Starting Internet Explorer was a creative and innovative endeavor involving great people.  It was a lot of work, too — he told us that 80-100 hour weeks were not uncommon for him!  Mr. Slivka first saw a web browser in 1994 (Mosaic) and knew that it was an exciting development.  In fact, in 1995, he wrote an internal memo on how important the web would become titled “The Web is the Next Platform.”  At the time, there were only a few thousand websites as opposed to today’s tens of millions.

Mr. Slivka worked with Internet Explorer through its third release and grew the team from 7 to 69 engineers.  He shared with us that during his time at Microsoft, a person in the USA was more likely to become a Microsoft millionaire than an NBA player!

Why did you leave Microsoft?
Young Microsoft took lots of risks to become successful but as it has grown, it has become more concerned with protecting its primary products (Windows and Office) rather than innovating.  Around 1999, Mr. Slivka wanted to pursue Internet-related innovations but that was not the direction the company was taking.  The book Breaking Windows covers the time when he was leaving Microsoft and the prologue is online.

Is it scary to talk to company founders like Bill Gates (Microsoft) or Jeff Bezos (Amazon)?
No!  According to Mr. Slivka, companies are a lot less hierarchical now than they were maybe 50 years ago so it’s natural for CEOs to have relatively frequent contact with their employees.  When he was at Microsoft, it was not unusual for him to trade e-mails and have face-to-face meetings with Bill Gates.

What is one of the most exciting ideas in computer science?
Mr. Slivka told us about computational complexity, the study of the difficulty of programming tasks.

Was it difficult to see OS/2 fail after 5 and a half years of work?
Only doing things that will succeed is boring, says Mr. Slivka!  There is a lot more to learn from mistakes than from successes.  It was difficult to see such a big time and energy investment be lost but going through the process of creating the product was valuable.  OS/2 was a joint venture between Microsoft and IBM and their goals were different.

What was the hardest project you were involved in?
The human factor in projects is often the most difficult.  In 1998, Mr. Slivka was asked to take part in designing a new interface for Windows.  He and two others were in charge of the project and there was conflict among the leadership which made it difficult.

What do you think of the iPad?
It’s somewhere between a phone and a laptop and it’s hard to know where it fits in.  It still requires a PC since when turned on it wants to be synced to iTunes.  The device is too heavy but it does have a gorgeous screen.  The brushed aluminum is beautiful but very slippery.  Mr. Slivka sees it mostly as an expensive toy.  He reminded us that computing technology is like grocery store produce in that it has a limited shelf life.  This first version of the iPad is not likely to be popular for long.  The lack of multitasking and virtual memory are real limitations.

Can you comment on the Apple vs. Adobe war?
Apple is playing defense right now by trying to protect their control over all aspects of their products.  The Flash battle is not about security or stability, it’s about market control and — ultimately — dollars.

Which web browser do you use?
IE7 was too slow and Mr. Slivka switched to Firefox.  He does not use Bing.

What do you think about cloud computing?
Offline computing still has a role since there is no pervasive connectivity yet.  If cloud computing means data is never lost, actions can be infinitely undone, groups can collaborate well, no need to worry about installations of software then it’s a great idea but in practice, there is no great implementation yet.  Google Docs doesn’t work well but it’s definitely possible to create a fully-functioning word editor in the cloud some day.

What are the main privacy issues on the Internet?
Mr. Slivka shared his policy: he doesn’t put anything up online that he wouldn’t be ok with being on the New York Times front page.  People should be thoughtful about what they share and market forces will work to punish companies that don’t respect privacy well enough.  In his opinion, the government is getting involved because it’s currently on people’s mind and will help politicians win elections.

What will Google look like in the next few years?
Google is now suffering from the same problem as Microsoft: Microsoft has revenue from Windows and Office and wants to protect those while Google has Search and AdWords and wants to protect those revenue streams.  Google’s challenge will be innovating beyond search and ads while making sure they can maintain their dominance as products like Bing get significant investment.  Their current strategy is to be everywhere (Android, Chrome, etc) and make Google the preferred platform so they can protect their search and ad dominance.

One Response leave one →
  1. Sylvia permalink
    May 30, 2010

    Thanks for sharing with us the notes on the discussion. It is very interesting, in particular his thoughts on some of the companies, technologies, and issues of today.

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