Build Your Career: Interviews 


TITLE: Dorothy and Walter Gramm Professor of Engineering at Dartmouth College

ACADEMIC DEGREES: BSc in mathematics from the University of Toronto, PhD in electrical engineering and computer science, Princeton University

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Taught at Tufts University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, before coming to Dartmouth in 1992. Actively involved in research projects funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Department of Homeland Security, and Advanced Research and Development Agency, among other agencies.

CS ACTIVITES: Member of Computer Society's Board of Governors and a Fellow of the IEEE; served as founding editor in chief for Computing in Science & Engineering in 1999 and IEEE Security & Privacy in 2003.


George Cybenko

Professor George Cybenko

DP:   Where are you in your career right now?

GC:   I was just counting up the years and I've been a professor for 30 years. I got out of graduate schools with a PhD and with the exception of one year where I worked for the government, that's what I've done.

I guess one could say I'm a terminal professor. In other words, I have no aspirations or interest in going into university administration. For 30 years, I've done a lot of things that professors do, like advising graduate students and doing research and teaching undergraduates. At this point, the things that interest me the most are things that tend to be a little higher risk. I've sort of done a lot of stuff that is lower risk, more expected and doable.

What remains to be done is a little more outside the norm.

DP:   What are some of those things that you're pursuing?

GC:   Well I would say I'm willing to tackle some technical problems that are more open ended maybe than I would have done 10 or 15 years ago.

I'm also involved in commercializing some of my ideas. In academic research, the normal routine is to come up with ideas and disseminate them. Then it's up to others to take the next few steps to deploy them or make ideas operational or take them to market. Now, that's something that I'm getting interested in doing myself.

DP:   The over-the-horizon problem that you're interested in solving, what's that about?

GC:   I've been doing a variety of research projects where it turns out a common denominator is a technical problem of learning a behavior. Let's say you want a model behaviors—I'm talking about behavior of a computer system or a network—network traffic.

You don't want to just characterize the percentage of traffic that's of a certain type or a certain other type. You actually want to understand the dynamics—how it's changing over the course of the day and how it might be trending.

There are also interesting applications in terms of modeling behaviors of people as well and things like social network systems.

I was just talking with someone today about a new application that's available for the iPhone where people are sharing their location and their activity information with a circle of friends. If you could build up a characterization of your friends and yourself, then you get a sense of how things are trending in terms of your behaviors, how your behavior and how you spend your time compares with the rest of the population.

We have a lot of very gross statistics about people's lives but when it comes down to how we actually spend our time, I think it'd be interesting to know how much time I spent today sitting, how much time I spent today driving, how much time I spent reading…



DP:   When you were a young person, a high school student in Toronto, what helped determine that you would become what you became?

GC:   There are two things. One, I found something I was good at and I was getting positive reinforcement for being good at it.

The other thing, I can sort of picture in my mind the small number of professors who really encouraged me, the ones who went out of their way to encourage me to pursue studies. That makes a huge difference. I try to do that myself, being a professor now. The last thing you want to do is discourage people or be indifferent to them.

DP:   Can you give an example of one of those professors and how they encouraged you?

GC:   Sure. One was Israel Halpern. He took an interest in me and offered me an internship. I got paid a small stipend when I was a sophomore, I guess.

I worked over the summer reading; there were a few other students doing similar types of internships. He was actually abroad that summer but he took an interest in me and encouraged me and made it possible for me to spend time doing what I wanted to do. He just passed away like a year ago. I stayed in contact with him for 30 years, 35 years.

DP:   So how do you try to emulate that behavior with your own students and advisees?

GC:   Within reason, it's important to be positive and encouraging to people. I see so many examples where young people are trying to move ahead and they aren't getting encouragement from their peers or from their superiors or their professors.

That's a mistake. In most cases, if people are trying to do something they're just not destined to do, they'll figure that out on their own. It's just terrible to walk around feeling that you're not being encouraged to do something that you want to do.

So I just try, through my words and actions, to encourage people, especially the students that I work with.

DP:   As you moved through your career, what was the smartest decision you ever made?

GC:   The best decision - and it's a sequence of decisions that I've made - is that I reinvent my technical area every five or six years.

Typically, that's the lifespan of technical areas. You start with some new ideas and it's really interesting and important to develop those ideas. But, over five or six years, the areas mature. There's still stuff to do but it's more second-order kinds of problems, different kinds of problems from the ones I like doing, which are more fundamental, more foundational.

So, the smartest thing is that I try not to get stuck in one particular area; that I try to reinvent myself consciously. That's what's kept me going the last few years.

DP:   That's perfect for people in technical careers. Actually it's the same advice that my dad gave me. So in that same career, what's been your dumbest decision or the biggest missed opportunity?

GC:   "Missed opportunity" as opposed to "dumbest idea" is the way I characterize what I'm going to tell you. There were some ideas that we were working on 10 years ago during the dot-com frenzy in the late 90s. My colleagues and I didn't push enough commercially and technologically. So we missed opportunities in transitioning ideas and commercializing basic research.

But that's not a regret that keeps me up at night. It's a missed opportunity, but I'm confident that there are going to be other opportunities.

DP:   You've had lots of involvement with the Computer Society particularly in the publications program. For example, together we've worked on starting two new magazines, creating Computing in Science and Engineering out of two earlier magazines and starting IEEE Security & Privacy from scratch. So I wonder what has been your most rewarding experience with the IEEE Computer Society?

GC:   Well, you really put your finger on it there, Dick. I've really enjoyed starting these magazines and then seeing them become sustainable and, in the case of Security and Privacy, growing significantly.

It really feels good to sort of create a community and to create a product, right? So you're sort of defining what this magazine and what this product is in the course of standing it up. I just really enjoy that activity and then working with volunteers and staff such as you and Kathy Clark-Fisher to get these things going.

It's a real entrepreneurial but also a collaborative activity. You can really see the result concretely. The results are immediate because you get the feedback from the readers and the community fairly quickly on whether what you're doing is working or not and whether people like it and want to subscribe to get more. Without question, that has been my most rewarding experience.

I've also been involved with the Board of Governors and the Executive Committee of the Computer Society and that's been rewarding and interesting, too. I've really enjoyed my colleagues there and my peers there. But, given a choice, I really enjoyed the editor's work, the editor in chief work on those magazines.

DP:   So let's say that you were 30 again or 35 and know what you know now about technology and engineering and careers. Where would you point yourself? I guess this is the same thing as where would you direct some of your young students and advisees?

GC:   Today, in a lot of areas of computing and computer engineering, the distance between research and basic research as you might do in academia and having an impact on consumer products and or products—whether it's consumer or government type products that the military might be interested in—that distance is much smaller now than it used to be.

I had lunch with a colleague today. He and his group put together an application that involves a cell phone. They uploaded it on Saturday to the iPhone store and they've got 2,500 users today.

Over the course of what, five, six days. It's an academic research project. It's pretty sophisticated and it's robust. As it matures, it could be quite interesting commercially.

That's an example of something that I would encourage young people to keep in mind in their work each day. Basic research and very technical stuff is what we do, but always bear in mind that you can transition your work fairly quickly now. That's a good thing to try to do.

DP:   Here in America, we're having an election this fall. What scientific or technological policy would you like the new administration to pursue that hasn't been pursued up to now?

GC:   That's a good question. I have a feeling that in the United States in particular we're all expecting some sort of miracle to occur soon. When I say miracle, I'm thinking of the New Yorker cartoon where some scientists are deriving an equation and there are all these formulas. Then in one place it says, "then a miracle occurs."

DP:   Yes, I've seen that.

GC:   So somehow, we're expecting some great thing to happen in terms of energy that we're going to liberate us from the yoke of high gasoline prices.

Historically, you look back and at one point it was the computer industry, then it was the software industry, then it was the Web and the Internet economy. Each one bailed us out and generated a whole bunch of tax revenue. There was a boost to the economy.

Today, we're expecting there's going to be some new technology—maybe it's in mobile computing, maybe it's in nanotechnology, maybe biotech, maybe alternative energy technology.

But if the new administration wants that kind of thing to happen, we have to be investing in people, you know? I'm really concerned about the investments that we're making in our educational system, especially—kindergarten through grade 12.

We need to be doing more and it's not just money. It's the way we organize education and how young people spend their time. I think school days are too short. We need to devote more resources to the younger people in our country in educating them. They're the ones who are going to make these miracles happen.

DP:   Thank you for taking the time to talk with us.



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