First-Hand:IEEE Award Recipient Series:Jeffrey Dean
What Award did you receive from IEEE?
2021 IEEE John von Neumann Medal
Place of Birth
Honolulu, Hawaii, USA
Where did you grow up
Many places! I went to 11 schools in 12 years. The world tour was: Hawaii; Philippines (3 months as an infant); Hawaii; Boston; Uganda; Boston; Arkansas; Hawaii; Minnesota; Somalia; Minnesota; Atlanta; back to Minnesota for college, with summers spent working at WHO in Geneva; Geneva, working for WHO in the Global Programme on AIDS for a year after undergraduate, graduate school in Seattle at University of Washington; and then I moved to the Bay Area after finishing my Ph.D., where I've been every since. (My kids did not get the same world tour that I did growing up.)
Family Background: Parents and their education level & Siblings and their education/profession
My father has an M.D. and a Masters in Public Health, and spent part of his career doing tropical disease research and then switched to being a public health epidemiologist. My mom has a Ph.D. in Medical Anthropology and did field research in many places around the world, including Uganda, Somalia, the Ozark Mountains, Minneapolis, Hawaii, and other places. She had a real gift for languages and spoke 9 more or less fluently. At one point she also was a Latin teacher. For her anthropological work, she often studied refugee communities in different cities, including learning different languages to help with this. I'm an only child, and just had a few pets growing up. "A Drive" and "B Drive" were two cats we had for quite a while. My wife and I have two daughters, ages 26 and 22. We’re still adjusting to not having them around.
What did you want to do when you grew up?
Once I really got into writing software around age 11 or 12, I knew I wanted to do something that involved creating programs.
Did you partake in after school activities? Did you play sports?
I played soccer and basketball growing up, and I still play in two 25-and-over adult soccer leagues in Palo Alto (currently shut down due to COVID-19). I'm clinging on in the A division despite some players being half my age :). I also enjoy running, road biking, and hiking (and have been doing more of all that during the pandemic, since my soccer leagues are shut down).
Did you have a part-time job (after school, summer)? What was your most surprising job assignment?
For a while I thought I wanted to be a violinist. My first paying job was in a Renaissance string quartet when I was in middle school: people would hire us to play at weddings on the cheap because the unusual aspect of having semi-charming middle-school-aged musicians at the wedding made up for our lack of excellence.
Did you take vacations and/or go on day trips?Favorite holiday/family gathering?
My family and I enjoy traveling with extended family and friends. We often get a group of two or three or four other friends, couples, or families, to go somewhere, so that we have 8 to 15 people traveling together. We've done this with various casts of characters and enjoyed trips to Kenya, Ghana, Madagascar, India, Thailand, New Zealand, and a few other places over the years.
EDUCATION: Favorite subject in school (K-12, university). Why?
Various math and science classes.
Why did you select the university (universities) you attended? What was your major and why did you select it?
I picked the University of Minnesota because I had enjoyed living in Minneapolis from 5th to 10th grade (with a 6-month interlude in Somalia). We moved to Atlanta before 11th grade, and so I figured I would go back to U of M because I knew that they had a good engineering and computer science program, and I already had enjoyed hanging out on the U of M campus when I was a teenager. I majored in computer science and economics. I picked the University of Washington for graduate school because it had good programs in both my field (computer science) and that of my wife (organizational behavior).
You have been awarded one of IEEE's highest-level awards. What does this award mean to you?
Receiving an award named after John von Neumann, who is truly one of the giants in the field of computer science as well as his work in mathematics and so many other disciplines, is truly humbling, and I am deeply honored to receive this award. Like all individual awards, this unfairly recognizes me, when really it should be recognizing all the amazing collaborators I've had over the years. I have learned so much from working with great people on interesting problems, and I really feel proud of the work we have done together. My close collaborator, Sanjay Ghemawat, has been someone I have relished working with on an almost daily basis for 25 years. (We've made nearly 15,000 cappuccinos together!)
Career Advice: What advice would you give to young professionals entering your field today?
Make sure that problems that you pick to work on are ones that, if everything turns out well, will truly have a major impact in the world. If you squint at a problem, and the best possible outcome is a relatively mundane, slight improvement on the status quo, you might want to evaluate if you're being ambitious enough! Also, I like to say that it’s usually better to skim 10 papers than to read one paper in great detail, and it’s almost better to read 100 abstracts than to skim 10 papers. Sometimes you obviously need to read a paper in great detail, but the more important thing generally is to understand what is possible, what different techniques exist, and thereby have a large tool chest of approaches that one can call on or combine to solve new problems. (And you always have the option of going back to a paper that you learned a bit about to dive into it and absorb all the details.)
Was there a project that you were so passionate about that you continued to pursue it even though there may have been doubts about its success?
Many people at Google expressed skepticism about using neural networks in 2010 and 2011 when I and a few others started a research and engineering effort (the Google Brain project) to train very large-scale neural networks to tackle speech, vision, and language problems. I had done some early work on parallel neural network training algorithms in 1990 as part of my undergraduate thesis, and at that time, I felt that the abstraction was the right one for solving lots of interesting problems. In 1990 though, we lacked enough computational power (even with my thesis project to parallelize backpropagation over a 64-processor hypercube machine!). It turns out that we needed ~1,000,000X as much compute power to really tackle real-world problems like speech, vision, and language understanding with neural networks, and starting around 2008 or 2009, we started to have that much compute available, thanks to Moore’s Law’s advances over the previous couple of decades. So, although people doubted this effort, I felt it was very likely going to work and produce interesting results.
What career achievement are you most proud of?
My work with many collaborators on the early years of scaling Google’s crawling, indexing, and query serving systems, going from a few million queries on an index of tens of millions of pages that was updated once a month (if we were lucky) to one that handled billions of queries per day over hundreds of billions of pages and that had some parts of the index updated every minute. It’s fantastic to see that billions of people all around the world rely on Google for search and many other services, using software that I helped build along with many, many others!
What personal achievement are you most proud of?
Helping raise two wonderful daughters!
Do you have a favorite food? Or a family recipe that may have been passed down?
Anything spicy! Ethiopian, Mexican, Thai, and Italian food are my favorite cuisines. I'm vegetarian.
Do you have a favorite genre of music? or a favorite song? Or do you play an instrument?
Classical! My favorite composers are Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and Dvorak. I play violin (took lessons from 5 to 17). I recently played a tiny part of the Google Orchestra's virtual performance extravaganza (300+ musicians) playing the Ode to Joy portion of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, which is one of my favorite pieces.
Who was your mentor? (eg. family member or professor)
My undergraduate advisor, Vipin Kumar, and my graduate school advisor, Craig Chambers, were amazing mentors.
What is one thing you cannot live without in your work space?