New Microsoft Board Member Maria Klawe on Bill Gates, College Students, and Seattle Innovation

3/12/09Follow @gthuang

On Monday, Microsoft announced it had appointed Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College, to the company’s board of directors. Klawe’s appointment makes Microsoft’s board 10 members strong again, after longtime director Jon Shirley (a former Microsoft president and chief operating officer) stepped down last November. I had the opportunity to speak with Klawe yesterday about her new role, and what she brings to the Redmond software company.

Klawe (pronounced “Claw-vay”) has been president of Harvey Mudd, an elite college in Claremont, CA, focused on science and engineering, since 2006. Before that, she was dean of engineering at Princeton University. She had previously spent 15 years at the University of British Columbia in various leadership roles, including head of the department of computer science and dean of science. For good measure, she also spent eight years at IBM Research. (And for any math geeks out there, her Erdős number is 1.)

A highly respected mathematician and computer scientist, Klawe has done seminal research in areas like multimedia, functional analysis, human-computer interaction, and gender issues in information technology. University of Washington computer scientist Ed Lazowska, who has known Klawe for 30-plus years, touts her smarts and leadership. “She’s impatient and persistent in the best senses—she wants things to be done right, and she wants them to be done right now,” he writes in an e-mail. “She’s very strong on gender equity, which will be good medicine for Microsoft—although she’s by no means a one-issue person. Her only idiosyncrasy is that she paints watercolors during meetings.”

Klawe has a disarming modesty about her, though she says she was “difficult” and “arrogant” growing up (hard to believe now). Having followed her research over the years and talked with her a couple of times, I think it’s fair to say Microsoft is gaining a wealth of perspective on computing, basic research, and consumer-tech trends among young people—mainly through Klawe’s deep connections to student life at her school. She also has plenty of connections to Microsoft and the Seattle area, and some compelling thoughts on local innovation.

Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:

Xconomy: So tell us about your new role as a board member of Microsoft, and what it means to you.

Maria Klawe: I just started as a director. They voted me in on Monday, so I’m not assigned to any specific committees yet; it’s the middle of the year. So I have the generic responsibilities of a director. I attended my first board meeting on March 9. I’m absolutely thrilled about it.

X: How did the board appointment come about? Who were your connections, and had you been thinking about this for a while?

MK: Two things happened independently. I was thinking about the next role to play externally that would be a good learning opportunity for me, and good for the college. I discussed it with my board chair, and said, ‘I want to be on the board of a technology company.’ I made a list of three companies: Microsoft, Amazon, and Intel, in no particular order. Google already had two university presidents on its board. So that was on my to-do list for the next few years. I hadn’t actually told anybody else that was what I wanted to do.

The next thing that happened: I know people at Microsoft Research, foremost among them Rick Rashid [senior vice president and head of research]. I got an e-mail from Rick in October asking if we could talk by phone. Given our schedules, it wasn’t until halfway through November that we talked. He said, ‘Microsoft is thinking about putting an academic on its board, and your name has come up.’ Rick thought for sure I wouldn’t be interested; he seemed sorry to be the one to have to ask me. I said, ‘Actually, it’s on my to-do list, to go on a corporate board.’ He said, ‘Really? If you are interested, you should meet with Brad Smith [senior vice president and general counsel for Microsoft] and Bill Gates.’ It just so happened I was going to be in Seattle the next week. Lo and behold, on November 19, I had a meeting with Bill Gates and Brad Smith.

X: I’m guessing the meeting went pretty well. (No word on whether any watercolor paintings came of it.)

MK: As a university president, you want to talk about your college. For the first 45 minutes, Bill just asked me about Harvey Mudd. Towards the end of the hour, he said, ‘You must have some questions.’ It was a great meeting. Then I didn’t hear anything for two months. But then I got another phone call, and Microsoft wanted me to meet with their governance and nominating committee in February. These are fabulous people, wonderful people to talk with.

Then Steve Ballmer’s son was visiting Pomona [College], so Steve made an appointment to talk with me. There were checks of independence, to make sure I’d qualify as an independent director. I’m going to learn a ton.

X: In the Microsoft announcement, Bill Gates said your “close connection to university students and the way they shape computing trends will bring an important perspective to the board.” Can you talk about that perspective and why it’s important for Microsoft?

MK: For all technology companies, especially in areas of fast moving technologies, college students are the first to really take up new technologies. They also drive the development of new technologies. Look at the Google guys doing a search engine while they were students at Stanford. There are lots of other examples where students and faculty work together. Mudd is small and has amazingly talented students. I know most of their names, and I talk with them about what’s important to them. I live on the campus and have a better sense of what they’re excited about. That’s hard to do if you’re a senior executive at Microsoft.

For example, about a year and a half ago, I finally went on Facebook. I don’t ask current students to friend me, but after they graduate, I will ask. We have an a cappella group called Midnight Echo, a group that runs across the five Claremont Colleges. I got an invitation on Facebook to attend one of their concerts, and it turned out we were the only non-students to attend. What’s interesting is, with this Microsoft announcement, I’m getting e-mails from all over—but from former students, it’s almost all from Facebook.

It helps to know what motivates students to do things and not do things. I have a good sense of how much time students are working on laptops, and the different roles that cell phones and mobile devices are playing.

X: Which leads to my next question. In his statement, Steve Ballmer said you bring “a solid grasp of the technologies that will be important to Microsoft’s future growth opportunities,” as well as “long term vision and focus.” Which technologies do you see as most important to Microsoft’s future?

MK: I can’t comment on that. But I can talk about the technologies that interest me. I’m really interested in serious games . There are huge opportunities in areas of healthcare and the lives of elders. I’m also very interested in [Internet] search and what happens to search eventually. We’re just at the beginning of what search will mean in our lives. It’s a blend of mathematics, algorithms, economics, sociology—a fascinating interdisciplinary mix that you need to have to make progress.

I’m interested in the convergence of technologies. [Klawe notes that she has multiple game consoles like Sony PSPs, Xbox, and others.] I’ve done research in games, but I’m also genuinely interested. My son is constantly trying to get me to play what he thinks are interesting games, like Prince of Persia 2008. He said, ‘Mom, this is such a forgiving and easy game.’ I actually finished it—it was good except for the fighting parts. So, I’m interested in the convergence of TV, games, cell phones, mobile devices, and tons of other things on the consumer experience side.

X: I noticed your top three company-board choices were all based in the Northwest, or have major operations here. What are your thoughts on technology innovation in the region?

MK: It seems like the Northwest corridor from Portland up to Vancouver is continuing to hum. I had an interesting conversation with Google. Google wanted to invest more in the Northwest corridor because they were getting better work out of that area than any other site around the world. I think you develop critical mass in terms of the communities of people who live there. It’s partly the presence of really good universities. Like UW, and the University of British Columbia (UBC)—they really invested in computer science and electrical engineering, and they have great students and great faculty. Or maybe it’s the weather, who knows?

X: How have the computer science departments at UW and UBC evolved over the years, and what is their role in supporting local innovation?

MK: When I was head of computer science at UBC, UW already had a very strong computer science department. UBC was very far behind. One of the things that was absolutely wonderful was that UW helped us build the department. They would encourage their best Ph.D.s to apply to UBC and interview there first. Those students became assistant professors at Carnegie Mellon and MIT, etc., but they had met folks at UBC, and were connected…And eventually we succeeded in hiring some of them. Whenever I needed advice on how to build a top department, I’d call up UW and ask them how to make a case, for instance. UW was really our partner.

I’ve been involved in a couple of startups in Vancouver. When I wanted access to VCs, I’d call up Ed Lazowska. It’s always been not a competition, but a collaboration. UW and UBC both deliberately built a culture of support. Take any faculty member there, and you’ll get a good human being.

X: Will your ties to Seattle increase as a result of your role at Microsoft?

MK: Yes and no. We already have quite a few Mudd grads who go on to do Ph.D.s at UW. Probably we’ll have even more Mudd students doing internships at Microsoft. I can imagine this will cause more high school students in the Seattle area to think about coming to Harvey Mudd, so it will raise our visibility in Seattle.

X: How will you work for gender equity at Microsoft?

MK: Steve Ballmer actually raised the issue. All technology companies have difficulty with this, and Microsoft is no exception. I was delighted to meet Lisa Brummel, Microsoft’s senior vice president for human resources. It’s something I’ve spent a lot of my life working on. But how that will play out is a question. I know how to attract females to major in computer science, or to do Ph.D.s in computer science. For Microsoft, it’s not a new thing for them to care about, but hopefully I’ll be of assistance.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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