A Master of Transformations, Bryant Ready for Next Step: Retirement

When Randy Bryant , the  Founders University Professor of Computer Science, Emeritus, took the helm of Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science in 2004, he quickly realized that SCS, despite its top ranking among computer science schools, had joined its peers in falling a bit behind the research curve.

It was a time when Google and Amazon used thousand-machine server farms to perform unimagined feats and develop new computational methods for solving problems. But academics had yet to embrace the power of big data.

"We were still thinking in terms of much smaller scale when we looked at data, and not all the things we could do with it," Bryant recalled recently. "So although good research was going on, universities were working at a much smaller scale than industry."

Under Bryant’s leadership, SCS created a new emphasis on big data - an emphasis that then spread across the country. It was just one of many transformations in the school and discipline that bore Bryant’s stamp during his 36-year CMU career.

"As a dean, I feel like I just took what was already a great program with some great vision and helped move it along," said Bryant, who retired on June 30. "I was in a good place at a good time. I do feel like I was able to help the school move forward by recognizing both our own strengths and future trends and help foster that with the university."

Bryant, an MIT alum who spent three years on the Caltech faculty, arrived at Carnegie Mellon in 1984, joining an organization - the Computer Science Department (CSD) - that was smaller and more intimate than today’s sprawling SCS. With a Ph.D. program and almost all of its funding coming from a large Department of Defense grant. "It was research all the time," he said.

In his case, research meant developing software to help computer chip makers design circuitry for then-new "computers on a chip." Between CSD and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering , CMU had lots of talent in these areas, and Bryant enjoyed the cross-boundary collaboration.

As he worked on these design tools, his interests expanded into the field of formal verification. Finding bugs in hardware designs depended on simulation, and there were limits to how much simulation was possible. So Bryant began exploring formal verification - techniques that could prove a design was correct without doing endless testing. He began collaborating with Ed Clarke , who specialized in the field and would later win the Turing Award for his work on a type of verification called model checking.

Meanwhile, SCS launched in 1989 and with it came a new undergraduate computer science degree program. While CSD faculty had once focused almost exclusively on research, now they began to think about how best to prepare undergraduates. Bryant embraced this challenge, partnering with David O’Hallaron to create a new course on computer systems - the one with the course number that’s the same as CMU’s Zip code, 15-213. They also wrote a textbook, now in its third edition.

"That really became a transformative part of my career," Bryant said. "To first create a course at CMU and then create a book we could use to export those ideas to the whole world and develop a community around this book at several hundred universities."

Jim Morris, then CSD head, saw administrative potential in Bryant and began coaching him for leadership. When Morris became SCS dean, Bryant became CSD head. And when Morris stepped down as dean in 2004, Bryant stepped up to replace him.

As dean, Bryant’s vision of "big bets on big data" expanded as he visited companies and heard tales from the Language Technologies Institute about how Google had suddenly dislodged them and the other usual suspects in machine translation competitions. Suddenly, Google was making huge progress in translation by using machine learning to analyze bilingual documents side by side. Unlike previous methods, Google’s programs didn’t understand language structure. They recognized patterns.

"Along with other people in the school, we formulated this theme of big data and made that a center point for SCS," Bryant said. "It turned out the timing was perfect, and we had the right collection of people and the right resources to do it." He also promoted the idea at the national level, contributing to a paper that influenced the Obama transition team in 2008.

During his decade as dean, SCS also launched two new departments: the Machine Learning Department and the Computational Biology Department. In both cases, Bryant said, the new departments followed a CMU pattern: start small, hire young faculty, create bridges to related departments and build the programs carefully until they’re ready to be departments.

Though new departments flourished, SCS also faced the so-called dot com bust during Bryant’s tenure. Student applications, which had been on the rise, suddenly plummeted as high school students began to worry that no jobs were to be had in computer science, or that the jobs were boring, or that all of the jobs would be overseas.

"CMU lived through it because we had a big enough applicant pool that was still strong, even though it was shrinking," Bryant said.

But then things turned around. New grads started leaving SCS with tantalizing job offers and applications went off the charts.

"I describe that as the Mark Zuckerberg effect, because students went from saying, ’Oh, I don’t want to spend my life in a cubicle turning out code’ to ’Gee, I think I’m going to sit in my dorm room and write code all night.’ Same thing, very different attitude," Bryant said.

When he stepped down as dean in 2014, Bryant opted to spend a sabbatical year at the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in Washington, D.C. He spent much of that time promoting the National Strategic Computing Initiative - a unified plan to establish a high-performance computing infrastructure.

"It wasn’t my main research area, but it gave me an opportunity to jump into the middle of a government initiative where a lot of good work had been done and that really just needed someone to keep the ball rolling," he recalled.

Back at CMU after his year in DC, Bryant returned to teaching and, inspired by his work on the computing initiative, decided to delve more deeply into parallel computing - one of the subjects he had tackled at the OSTP. Kayvon Fatahalian , who was then teaching the parallel computing course, agreed to have Bryant teach the course with him.

"Quite honestly, even though I was the more senior faculty member, I was very much the junior partner and I let him do most of the work. He developed the course," Bryant said. When Fatahalian left CMU two years later, though, Bryant suddenly found himself in charge.

"I was quite panicked," he said. "It was really stressful to do it for the first time." Three years later, he’s still teaching the course, with Nathan Beckmann as co-instructor, but in a much better position.

Now, Bryant is making one more transition: into retirement. Though he anticipates staying around CMU and is thinking about the fourth edition of his textbook with O’Hallaron, he said he plans to make it a real retirement, without the pressure of teaching huge classes. He’s got grandkids to watch grow, travel plans - including a possible trip to Nepal - and music to enjoy as a member of the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh.

"One of the things my father used to say is, you should change your job every six years," Bryant said. "And, in some ways, I’ve done that at CMU because I started as an assistant professor and then became a full professor and then a department head and then as a dean and now I’m post-dean. So I’ve fundamentally changed the nature of what I was doing every six years or so.

"And I’ve managed to do it without actually changing employers."


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