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Rick Rashid

Rick Rashid MA '77, PhD '80

Interview from 2015 Multicast Newsletter

Rick Rashid (MA 1977, PhD 1980) was in the first PhD class at URCS, having been intrigued by an offer from our founding chair Jerry Feldman. He had just graduated with honors in mathematics and comparative literature from Stanford University. At UR, Rick worked on artificial intelligence, operating systems, networking and multiprocessors, and networked computer games, taking advantage of URCS's then-unique ownership of powerful networked computers. As a professor at CMU, he directed and developed influential systems for distributed personal computing, including Mach, an operating system that survives today underneath many commercial computer and mobile-device operating systems.

He has an impressive collection of highly-placed professional responsibilities, awards and honors. He is a Trustee for the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology. In 2015, he received an Honorary Doctorate at the University of Rochester and participated in Commencement activities throughout the weekend in May. Mr. Rashid recently was interviewed by our editor.

You joined the board of the Anita Borg Institute in 2004 and became involved in the effort to increase the number of women in Computer Science. URCSD is part of the BRAID program to increase diversity in the tech industry thanks to generous corporation backing. In the event the diversity numbers increase in the enrollments in undergraduate and graduate programs, what needs to happen to make the industry environment more suitable to retain them?

RR: Actually, I joined ABI in 2003 and I’m just finishing up my 12th year on the board! Achieving gender diversity in the technology industry has been a frustrating problem at each level of the pipeline. The BRAID program holds promise, I believe, in bringing more young women into the field but we also need to do a better job keeping technical women in the workforce both in industry and academia. There are many efforts ongoing within the field to address the reasons women leave the workplace and those are extremely important but frankly just the act of getting more women into technical disciplines will have a huge positive effect on its own. We know that women are more likely to stay in a workplace that has significant female representation and that groups managed by women hire more women and retain them better. If programs like BRAID are successful they will go a long way toward addressing the problem of diversity.

You received the 2014 ACM Software System Award with fellow UR alumnus Avie Tevanian. This award was 30+ years in the making, as the technology was developed while you were at CMU.  Is it unusual in this ever-changing technology world that a 30-year old development like your Mach system would still be so widely used in commercial applications like iOS mobile devices and personal computers like OSX? What about Mach makes it timeless?

RR: If you told me 30 years ago that the code I was writing would eventually be running in over 100 million cell phones I would have had to inquire what a “cell phone” was! I think there were two key properties of Mach that led to its success and longevity. First, it was an operating system “kernel” which we envisioned could emulate the “personalities” of many other operating systems. While at CMU we built implementations of DOS/Windows, Unix and MacOS on top of Mach. This flexibility meant that it could adapt itself to many environments. In fact, Mach ultimately became the first 64-bit implementation of Unix (in the form of OSF/1, Digital Unix and Tru64 Unix) and the basis for MacOS X. Second, Mach was built to be very hardware “agnostic”. We supported many different kinds of uniprocessor and multiprocessor systems and pioneered the idea of machine independent virtual memory management. That allowed Mach to be ported to an enormous variety of machines and ultimately to be adaptable to even very small devices like the first iPod Touch.

In your recent visit to UR during Commencement weekend 2015, you reminisced about your experiences as one of the first PhD students in URCSD in the mid ‘70s. The department was just getting started, with no computing equipment, only five young faculty like your advisor Chris Brown and a newly established PhD curriculum. Was the free form of this environment a creative catalyst for you? Is the current structured curricular approach in computer science education producing the same kind of results as the collaborative young department circa the 1970s?

RR: I think I thrive in “startup” environments. At the UofR we were starting a new department. When I went to CMU I had to establish a whole new area around networking and distributed computing. Microsoft Research was another “start from the ground up” opportunity for me. I do think you have a lot of creative freedom in those kinds of situations. That said, you also have unique challenges. We literally had to build some of our own computer equipment back in my UofR days. For example, I designed and wire-wrapped the memory management board for our Data General Eclipse computer. We built our own software and tools from the ground up. I can’t say there was a lot of time for socializing!

What has been your biggest challenge as Director of Microsoft Research?

RR: The biggest challenge I faced starting Microsoft Research was finding and hiring the right people. Research is a human powered enterprise and if you don’t have the right people to start you will not be able to build a great lab. In those days Microsoft was small and not well known in the academic community. It was located in the Pacific Northwest which was not seen as a great place for a research lab back in those days. I had to sell an idea without anything to show for it. I still feel extremely lucky in finding the right group of entrepreneurial researchers that were willing to take a bet on me and the future. Once we had the right starting team and showed the world what we could do (we had over 25% of all papers in the 1996 SIGGRAPH conference) recruiting got a lot easier!

Since you were one of the first trained computer scientists and have been an important part of this tech boom over 4 decades, can you pinpoint any events or products that surprised you with their success or failures?

RR: I’m constantly surprised – not so much by technology itself, as it is not that hard to see at least a few years into the future if you work in a research environment – but by what people do with technology. We did a great video for a conference back in the mid-1990s where we talked about the “information superhighway” and it’s fun to watch today to see how much of it became true. That said, the impact of social media on society could be hinted at perhaps but not predicted. I often say that scientists and engineers create the raw material for the future but people and society use that raw material and shape it to create the future.

What sort of personalities will drive the next big wave in technology?

RR: People with optimism, energy, drive and an ability to fail without becoming failures are the ones who seem to succeed.

With all the travel and work commitments you have, where do you choose to put your energy and time when you take a relaxation break?

RR: My wife and I do a huge amount of trail running. She’s an endurance runner and the best I can do competitively is a marathon but we love getting out together in the mountains running on trails that go well up into passes and mountain basins where you are unlikely to encounter anything that can talk. I also enjoy learning new skills when I have the time. A couple of years ago my wife and I learned to fly airplanes and that was a lot of fun. My general feeling is that it is important to keep expanding your horizons no matter what your age or position in life.