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David Cheriton: “The goal is to get students to think like experts”

​A computer science professor discusses his research, philanthropy, and how to improve the state of education.

David Cheriton | Photo by Jonathan Sprague


In his 35-year career at Stanford Engineering, Professor David Cheriton has built a reputation for foresight into the future of Silicon Valley that is perhaps unrivaled even at an institution known for great technological prescience.

He built and sold several companies in his own right and staked the founders of Google the seed money needed to get their idea off the ground. But Cheriton remains first and foremost a researcher, a teacher and, with increasing frequency, a philanthropist. He recently endowed a $12 million fund at Stanford to support senior and newly tenured faculty in Computer Science, with a preference for researchers working on experimental computer systems. He has also endowed graduate fellowships and undergraduate scholarships. We talked with him about his career, his attachment to Stanford and his vision of where education must turn if the future is to be anywhere near as transformational as the past.

What sort of things are you doing in your current research?

My research interest is in the plumbing level of computers, helping to run complex applications better. I’ve been interested in distributed systems for years—coupling several computers together to run applications, but also in the interface between software and hardware. Right now I have students working on something called “transactional memory.” We’re trying to make the memory systems that are resilient to failures.

In-memory processing leads to dramatically faster computers—in some cases speeding up applications by a factor of 100,000. It changes the complete nature of how a business can run. We’re trying to lower the cost and to fit these systems in existing memory structures and reduce the number of components to make them more reliable and more secure.

In your philanthropy, you’ve donated to several universities in your native Canada. The School of Computer Science at the University of Waterloo even bears your name. You’ve worked with Stanford’s Nobel-laureate-physicist-turned-educational-theoretician Carl Wieman. And, you recently established several endowed professorships and fellowships in the School of Engineering at Stanford. Why such a heavy focus on education?

At Stanford, in particular, enrollment in Computer Science has doubled. We are now the largest major at Stanford by quite a bit. The teaching load is off-scale. The student load is off-scale. And, of course, I’m a computing bigot—I just think this department is absolutely essential to society and to Stanford in general.

My financial support of these chairs is both to recognize how much I personally have benefited from this place and to support the educational direction I think Stanford should be heading in. Meanwhile, these professorships will help meet some of the demand pressure on the department.

The bottom line is that people are what make a university tick and good people create opportunities. There are numerous, numerous stories of people with a disadvantaged background who got an opportunity to attend a university because of some scholarship or to continue their studies because of a scholarship, and then went out and changed the world. I like to think that when you’re funding these things you’re creating opportunities to develop these abilities.

I look at philanthropy from an investment standpoint: What do you put in and what do you get back? If you look at all the options for using one’s financial resources, I think education is the best investment. I don’t think about it in the sense of, “Oh, I want to help people.” To me, it’s just a good investment for the future.

What troubles you about the state of education?

I became very concerned when I was interviewing prospective graduate students about what they had learned, and it seemed to me, even though they had gone to fairly good schools, they didn’t seem to have gotten from their courses as much as I would have expected. To be honest, I thought even I wasn’t doing a very good job of educating, either. We teach too much, so the students learn too little.

Improving education starts with two objectives: one is to recognize that the goal is to get students to think like experts, to analyze situations and find new ways to solve problems; and two, each course needs to have constructive goals—a vision of what you expect that they can do when they’ve completed the course.

What does it mean to “think like an expert”?

I think it’s the way an expert approaches a situation to fully understand it, and if you’re trying to solve a problem, how do you go about solving that problem? A good plumber walks into a situation and goes through a thought process to say, what is the root cause, where is it leaking and why is it leaking, before he starts pulling things apart. An expert identifies what needs to be fixed and what’s the least disruptive way to fix the problem. The same thing applies to a detective at a crime scene or an engineer trying to build a car or a bridge.

How can the students get more out of education?

I tell students: You should own your education. For example, at Stanford we expect our students to have taken a course in probability. When I’m interviewing potential grad students, I ask them: What’s the utility of probability to computer science? And a surprising number of them look at me dumbfounded. You’re telling me that you’re 20 years old, you could be on the beach with your boyfriend or girlfriend and you’re sitting in this class and you’re being taught all this stuff that you won’t remember and yet you haven’t asked yourself, “Why is it important to learn all this stuff? Why am I paying tuition? What is it useful for?” Students have to challenge the education system.

What is it about Stanford that makes it such a special place?

I have been here for 35 years and my first thought is: I don’t know. If you press me, I’d say it’s because we have this relaxed, free-thinking environment. We have this amazing virtuous cycle going between the university and the industrial engine of Silicon Valley. We have all these interesting, amazing things going on at various companies and Stanford is sort of the natural meeting place for the free flow of ideas.

Beyond that there are also a lot of reality checks. You might have a research idea and there are plenty of people around who can tell you if you’re solving a real problem. This produces a culling of ideas. Only the better ones survive. There’s a lot of opportunity to carry ideas forward through technology transfer from the university to the Valley, whether it’s through an existing company or to start your own. That sort of excitement is picked up by the students and they carry on the tradition. Yesterday’s entrepreneurs mentor today’s entrepreneurs who mentor tomorrow’s entrepreneurs.