UW’s Computer Science Hiring Spree Nets More Kudos

7/9/12Follow @curtwoodward

It’s been a rough few years for state-supported entities in Washington, as tax collections still haven’t rebounded from the Great Recession. Among the most visible victims has been the University of Washington, which has seen its state tax funding drop by about half over the past several years.

But recently, the UW has been making headlines in a much more positive way. With a recent string of hires, the university has seriously beefed up its faculty in the area broadly known as “Big Data,” becoming increasingly important in as the Web continues to grow and spread via mobile computing.

It’s an infusion of talent that UW hopes will allow it to attract high-quality students to its programs.

A New York Times profile of the department published last weekend could help get the word out. In that piece, Seattle-based reporter Nick Wingfield says the UW’s program “may be the best computer science department you’ve never heard of.”

Wingfield’s piece paints a picture of a computer science department on the rise, adding big names in academic circles to its previously established group of leaders like department chairman Hank Levy, Bill & Melinda Gates chairman Ed Lazowska, and Oren Etzioni—a crucial kind of professor who straddles the worlds of research and start-ups, he’s currently working on price-predicting engine Decide.

As documented in this recent Seattle Times story, that recent surge of hires added heft in machine learning, statistics, and data visualization. Those new recruits came from top programs: Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and the University of Pennsylvania.

So how could the UW afford to poach some name-brand professors amid budget cuts? After several years of slashed spending, the state left the UW basically alone in this past round of budgeting, with a condition that it shift $3.8 million into growing overall engineering programs. The computer science department got nearly half of that money, and it helped in recruiting.

“We were not yet finished with the faculty recruiting season, and we were able to extend additional offers to people we had interviewed, knowing that the funds would be there,” Lazowska says.

The local community stepped up in important ways, too. As the UW was recruiting professors Carlos Guestrin and Emily Fox, who are a couple, Lazowska reached out via email to Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos for some help. Bezos expressed Amazon’s keen interest in machine learning when he visited the school in December, and Lazowska wanted to see if Bezos would underwrite endowments for the pair of professors.

The response was quick. “Within 48 hours we had a firm commitment for two $1M Amazon Endowed Professorships in Machine Learning, one for Carlos and one for Emily,” Lazowska says. “Unbelievable—just like that.” Microsoft Research vice president Peter Lee, who knew Guestrin from their Carnegie Mellon days, also helped woo the pair to the region, Lazowska says.

The story of the UW’s program reflects the overall state of the Seattle-area tech sector. The region is seeing its star rise among the traditional power centers of the technology world—particularly the San Francisco Bay Area—as competition for engineering talent continues to climb, sending companies of all sizes up to Seattle in search of new hires.

That’s increasing the talent competition for big hometown players like Microsoft and Amazon. But it’s also making things even harder for local startup companies, which now have a new layer of hot employers to compete against.

That’s why these big-name hires and national headlines for UW matter. More name-brand professors can help attract more promising students, increasing the chances of turning out top graduates (who tend to stay nearby).

When the UW can start contributing more top people to the talent pool, and if innovative companies can take advantage of that talent to build the next generation of startup successes, the region will have moved into the next meaningful phase of its evolution.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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