The VMware Founders Professorship of Computer Science
at Stanford University

The endowment

This professorship was endowed in 2012 by a donation from VMware co-founders Edouard Bugnion (former CTO), Diane Greene (former President and CEO), and Mendel Rosenblum - an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University and Edouard's former PhD advisor. The donors requested that the professorship be used to pay the salary of "faculty in the Department of Computer Science who are known for their past and ongoing contributions to disruptive technologies". The endowment also contains matching funds from Stanford University's School of Engineering. VMware was founded in 1998, based on technology developed in Rosenblum's lab at Stanford, and creates virtualization software that runs on Windows, Linux, and Mac platforms. The company was acquired by EMC in 2003.

My essay upon accepting the professorship

It is traditional at Stanford for the first recipient of an endowed professorship to write an essay reflecting on the meaning of being installed to that post, and typically thanking the donors. Here is my essay, written in January, 2012 and published by the School of Engineering as a pamphlet during an installation ceremony on May 30, 2012.

Being named to an endowed chair at Stanford University is a high honor. Being the first holder of an endowed chair is even more special. I am humbled by, and proud of, this honor. Actually, I have three reasons to be proud today.

First, VMWare is a good idea, and I am proud to be associated with it. VMWare's software allows one computer - whatever operating system it may run - to host a copy of another operating system as a "guest". This copy, called a "virtual machine", allows people to run any computer program on any computer, regardless of which operating system it runs. I run VMWare Fusion on all of my MacOS computers.

Second, Stanford's Computer Science department is one of the top CS departments in the world, and I am lucky to be a member of it. When I applied for a position at Stanford in 1990, I studied the rankings of its departments relative to those at other American universities. In engineering MIT had more departments in the top 10, and in humanities Harvard had more. But across all disciplines Stanford had the most number of top-10 departments. This breadth is a hallmark of our university and is reflected in every aspect of its functioning, notably undergraduate admissions. The students in my lecture course on digital photography range from freshman "fuzzies" to 4th-year PhD students in Physics, and include students from Law, Business, and Medicine. The diversity of talents and opinions these students bring to the classroom is amazing, and it produces a liveliness of interaction that no online university will ever match.

Third, the founding charter for this professorship expresses a preference for faculty who are known "for their past and ongoing contributions to disruptive technologies - technologies that fundamentally change the course of computer science, science, and engineering." As children we are taught not to be disruptive. As faculty at Stanford it is expected of us, and we are rewarded for it. Of course, the meaning of "disruptive" changes as we grow up. Even so, it has not always been considered a virtue, and even today it is not valued in many cultures. The American research university had its roots in the German universities of the 19th century, and it benefited from their spirit of humanism and freedom (as reflected in Stanford's motto, "Die Lufte der Freiheit Weht"). Nevertheless, a visitor from Germany to a U.S. university at the beginning of the 20th century would have noticed some differences, for example that American faculty and students call each other by first names. Though apparently minor, this difference is pivotal, because it encourages students to challenge the authority of their professors. More broadly, as long as we behave respectfully towards our colleagues, the American research university rewards those who "think different".

While I am proud of being called "disruptive", I have found that it comes with a price - in the form of restlessness. I have worked in computer graphics since meeting my first mentor Don Greenberg during my freshman year at Cornell University. However, within graphics I have switched subfields every 10 years: in the 1970s I worked on computer animation, in the 1980s on medical imaging, in the 1990s on 3D scanning, and in the 2000s on computational photography. This restlessness means that I have never become the senior spokesman for a topic, editor of its journal, or arbitrator of its tastes. But switching areas brings benefits as well - including on occasion the ability to see solutions overlooked by those entrenched in the current paradigm, or the opportunity to apply the perspectives of one area to the problems of another.

I would be remiss if I did not briefly describe my current research. What is this thing called "computational photography", and why is it disruptive? The principles of photography have remained largely unchanged since its invention in the 1820s; a lens focuses light from the scene onto a photosensitive plate, which records it to form a picture. Because this picture is a simple copy of the scene, improvements in image quality have been incremental, mostly recently by replacing film with digital sensors. Computational photography challenges this view. It instead considers the image the sensor gathers to be intermediate data, and it uses computation to form the picture. Often, it requires multiple images to be captured, which are combined in some way to produce the final picture. Representative techniques include high dynamic range (HDR) imaging, multiperspective and panoramic stitching, and lightfield imaging. Computational photography (the name comes from a course I taught in 2004) allows more challenging scenes to be photographed than before, and it allows new kinds of pictures to be created. It also places a premium on software over hardware, and it promises to create a new marketplace - of cameras that can be customized by downloading apps. To an industry addicted to megapixels, these changes are disruptive.

In closing, let me return to the theme of Stanford. Much is said in the business world about discovering one's unfair advantage and exploiting it. To that dictum I would add: while still serving society as a whole. At Stanford we abound in unfair advantages: California's natural beauty and good weather, our legacy of entrepreneurship (dating back to the Gold Rush), the synergy between the university and Silicon Valley, our ability to attract bright faculty and students from around in the world, and the size and economic power of our endowment and alumni. I benefit from these advantages every day. I would particularly like to thank my Stanford colleagues Pat Hanrahan and Mark Horowitz, with whom I have worked closely and fruitfully for 20 years.

Nevertheless, pride is dangerous and complacency deadly, especially in a flat world. By endowing this chair, Mendel, Diane, and Edouard have freed a billet to hire a new faculty member in engineering, preferably in Computer Science, preferably young, and preferably disruptive - someone who might invent the next VMware. Let's get to work on that important task.

© 2012 Marc Levoy