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John Hennessy
John Hennessy
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John Hennessy Interview

President of Stanford University

May 5, 2001
San Antonio, Texas

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  John Hennessy

We understand you grew up on the East Coast. How did you end up at Stanford?

John Hennessy: When I started working on my Ph.D., two wonderful things happened. First of all, I found an interesting Ph.D. topic very early on in my graduate career, and it was just because something very unusual sprung up. Microprocessors were just coming out. It was the very beginning of the microprocessor age, and a research scientist from Brookhaven National Lab came over to the university, over to Stony Brook, and explained the interest he had in using microprocessors to solve a complex real-time control problem. And I began brainstorming with my Ph.D. advisor, and we thought about how to build a software system that would enable you to write this kind of software more easily, so I started on that research project. Happily and fortuitously, just as I was finishing up my Ph.D., this area exploded. Two of the major giants in the field started publishing papers in this field, and here I was, completing a Ph.D. in this field that all of a sudden had become tremendously important. So I hopped on the interview trail, convinced I wanted to be an academic. I ended up interviewing at 16 different universities. My wife was panicked that I was going to take her to some place where there are more cows than people, but my very last interview was at Stanford, and I knew that if they offered me a faculty position that I would go there, and that happened, and it was fortunate for both of us.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

You also found yourself at ground zero of a revolution in technology, didn't you?

John Hennessy: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely at ground zero.

I think part of -- certainly my success and lots of other people -- is realizing that the time is now, that you're at a point where an opportunity lies to really change the direction that a field is going and take advantage of that and be bold. Take some risk. Be a pioneer as the field is opened up and is created. And I think that's what we were willing to do, and it made a big difference.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

The reduced instruction set computing (RISC) technology that you developed in the 1980s has revolutionized the computer industry. What were you thinking at that point? When you started working on this, did you feel you were taking a risk?

John Hennessy: Oh, we certainly thought so.

Integrated circuit technology was reaching the level where you could think about building a real computer, a 32-byte computer, on a single piece of silicon, a single chip. There were people who believed that you would just take what had been done earlier on many separate chips and transfer that over without rethinking the space, the design space, how you might make use of the fact that everything is on one chip. We stood back and asked the question, "Does this change the ground rules? Does this change the guidelines?" And for the first six months, I ran with a group of graduate students and a couple of other faculty members -- purely a brainstorming session -- to ask about how the ground rules might be changed. What did we know that could change things? I don't think we realized how big a change it would make in the field at the beginning. I think we just had some faith that this paradigm shift would create the opportunity for a big change, and we jumped on that faith and took the chance that it would happen. We really didn't know, probably for six or seven years, how big the change was really going to be.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

When you believe in something, how do you cope with the nonbelievers? How do you cope with the skeptics, the naysayers?

John Hennessy: That's a great question. That is a wonderful question.

We had the nonbelievers. In fact, after we had finished our research project in 1984 -- 1983 and 1984 -- we first tried to convince the established computer companies to pick up on this technology, without success. What was most amazing to me is that we saw a glass -- we would argue it was three-quarters or seven-eighths full. They saw a glass that was half empty, and it wasn't clear how to fill it the rest of the way in terms of where the technology could go. And I think because we had worked on it, we had the faith that the remaining problems that would need to be solved to commercialize this technology could be overcome, but others didn't have that belief. Happily, I think one of the most important things was there was a collaborating team at Berkeley that was doing similar work along the same time, and we reinforced one another. Because we were both discovering similar things and we both believed it very strongly, you weren't out there alone -- a lone voice in the wilderness but there was somebody else who believed it as well. I think that convinced us to take a chance and really try to move this technology into the commercial space on our own. But when we went to talk to investors, they were very uncertain about this possibility and whether or not it would really work. We really staked our reputations and everything we believed on it, and we found one group of investors who were willing to take the chance.

That was a risk for you, wasn't it? Staking your reputation on this idea?

John Hennessy: Oh, absolutely.

It was a risk, and I think leaving the university for the 18 months or so that I left was a big risk. We could have published our papers. They would have been completely accepted and this technology may have just sat on the shelf for years. But I think because we were willing to take that risk, not only did we have a much larger impact much sooner than we would have otherwise had, but I think actually the understanding of the technology and our understanding of what the problems were -- we gained a tremendous amount in that period of commercializing the technology, of filling the glass the rest of the way, and that was a wonderful learning experience for me as well.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

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