PRISM Magazine On-Line  -  January 2000
Man in Motion
Stanford’s new provost, Silicon Valley pioneer John Hennessy, understands the technology game and how his university can play an entrepreneurial role.

By Eric Ransdell

Silicon Valley and Stanford University. The two have been synonymous since the days of Frederick Terman, the legendary dean of engineering who sent his professors out to get real-world work experience and helped turn subsequent generations of Stanford engineering students into Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

In Terman's day, entrepreneurs went about it like Dave Hewlett and Bill Packard, first gaining work experience at a reputable firm, then slowly and methodically building up their own company years before taking it public. Today, the system is in hyper-drive. Four years ago, Yahoo founders Jerry Yang and David Filo were penniless Stanford undergrads. Today they're collectively worth more than $6 billion. That's the way the game is played in Silicon Valley and, if anything, the speed and intensity have made the long-standing relationship with Stanford even more symbiotic.

Which is why it was no surprise when the university appointed John Hennessy as provost last April. In his 22-year career at Stanford, Hennessy had worked his way up from an assistant professor to the dean of engineering. That's no small feat, as anyone on the tenure track will attest, but imagine doing it while founding your own computer company. Hennessy did, while on sabbatical in 1984. Today his publicly traded company—MIPS Technologies, Inc., of Mountain View, California—is valued at about $1.8 billion. That's what makes Hennessy something of a legend in Silicon Valley and, many would argue, the right person at the right time for the Stanford job.

What Hennessy brings to the job is not only the industrywide reputation that led Business Week to describe him as one of Silicon Valley's top 25 power brokers, but an understanding of where Stanford can have the most impact in a neighborhood where cutting-edge research is the name of the game.

"Keeping track of what's going on in the industry not only helps you relate better to your industrial colleagues, but it also gives you a much better understanding of where you ought to place the bets in terms of your research program," Hennessy says. "There's no way we can compete with an Intel or an HP or Silicon Graphics or Sun Microsystems. If they decide they're going to work on X, the number of people they can bring to bear to work on X is incredible and the funding they can bring to bear is gigantic. So by understanding what challenges they're facing and what things they think they've got solved, we can try to carefully pick and choose what research problems we try to tackle as a university."

Friends in High Places

The fact that Hennessy—a tall, exuberant 47-year-old—has a gold-plated list of contacts throughout the high-tech industry doesn't hurt, either. Among some of the most well-known are Silicon Graphics, Netscape, and Healtheon founder Jim Clark, former Silicon Graphics CEO Ed McCracken, and Intel co-founder Gordon Moore. And the man who brought Hennessy into the business world is none other than John Doerr, arguably the world's most famous venture capitalist. Doerr, a Rice University electrical engineering graduate, heads up the firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, which helped launch such companies as Sun Microsystems, Netscape, and Amazon.com.

"On a lot of our projects we've kind of said, 'Here's the part we want to build. Let's go find a partner in industry that can help us—maybe we can scavenge the rest of their system so that we only have to build this interesting research-oriented part, and we don't have to build a whole computer system to build a prototype'," Hennessy explains.

Hennessy's adventure as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur began in 1982. At the time he was still teaching at Stanford but also acting as a consultant for former Stanford professor Jim Clark's new startup, Silicon Graphics Incorporated (SGI). When a Stanford project came to an end, computing pioneer Gordon Bell suggested that Hennessy start his own company to build RISC microprocessors, which aim to make computers cheaper and faster by making the hardware simpler.

His Excellent Venture

Hennessy found two partners—Skip Stritter, a Stanford Ph.D. and Motorola veteran, and John Moussourris, a researcher from IBM's Yorktown facility who was looking for an excuse to move to California—and the three began looking for investors. "We kind of put together a business plan and went to see the VCs [venture capitalists]," Hennessy recalls. "This is a business plan I would be embarrassed by today. It's six or eight slides. It's a pure technical sell—there's nothing about marketing."

In 1984, Hennessy took a 15-month sabbatical to start the company, then called MIPS Computer Systems. The company went public in 1989 and was acquired by Silicon Graphics in 1991. Last year, after discussions between Hennessy and SGI management, MIPS was spun off and is now once again a stand-alone venture. How successful has it been? Despite a few financial hiccups, MIPS is a key player in the embedded technology market. Last year alone it sold 30 million of its chips, which are in everything from the Nintendo 64 and Sony PlayStation game machines to Hewlett-Packard laser printers. And last year also gave an indication of the direction the market is heading, as embedded processors of 32 bits or more outsold PC processors for the first time.

For Hennessy, who still plays an active role in the company he founded, it's been a tremendous learning experience, with lessons he's already bringing to bear at Stanford. "It gives you a much greater appreciation for how challenging it is to take an idea and turn it into a successful product," he explains, "and that there's a lot more involved in that process than just the technology. It's very easy, sitting in a university, to become too isolated and 'ivory tower-ish'—especially in engineering and computer science—and not realize all the challenges of making these technologies work."

Hennessy's entrepreneurial experience has other benefits for Stanford as well. "The majority of our students are bound to work in industry, not to be faculty members somewhere," he says. "So you're in a much better position to give them advice, to understand what the trade-offs are, to give them some real world experience on the kinds of challenges that they'll face in the real world."

The Early Years

Hennessy had the engineering bug from the very beginning. Growing up on Long Island in the 1950s, he watched his father work the graveyard shift as an aerospace engineer at Sperry Rand. This was during the height of the space race, when America trembled at the thought of Russia's Sputnik satellites orbiting the earth, and engineers on both sides of the Berlin Wall were scrambling to be the first to claim the heavens as their own. "It wasn't just manufacturing people," Hennessy says, recalling those days, "even engineers were working round the clock back then."

The patriotism of the whole endeavor, combined with his father's encouragement, convinced Hennessy that his future lay in math and science. During his junior year of high school in 1969, Hennessy and a friend managed to use salvaged electrical relays to build a machine that was capable of playing tic-tac-toe. The project went on to win first prize at a science fair. "That really got me hooked on computing kinds of things," he says.

At Villanova, he decided to major in electrical engineering. During his junior year, he worked with a graduate student who was putting a multi-chip microprocessor on a single board using micro-programming. "That, together with experience I had working as a recitation instructor for an introductory engineering programming course, got me hooked on thinking I might want to be an academic," he says.

After graduating in just three and a half years, Hennessy went on to do his Ph.D. work at SUNY-Stony Brook in upstate New York. There, during his first six months, he ran into a computer scientist from the Department of Energy's Brookhaven Laboratory who was looking for some help on the problem of microprocessor control. So Hennessy began building a real-time system for microprocessors as part of his Ph.D. work. "It was sort of a lucky topic because just as I got near the end of my work, this area exploded," he says. "So it was a good choice of a topic at a good time and the technology was moving in the right way."

That 'lucky topic' launched Hennessy's career as an academic, garnering him an offer to become an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Stanford in 1977. In 1986, Hennessy became a full professor of electrical engineering and computer science. In 1994, he was appointed chairman of the computer science department, and two years later he was made dean of the engineering school.

"Moving from department chair in computer science to dean of engineering was a little step, but this is a big step," Hennessy says of his current job as provost. As dean of the engineering school, Hennessy earned a reputation as one of the best administrators on campus, but his new job is of an entirely different scope. Instead of dealing primarily with scientists and engineers, he's now involved in every discipline from English literature to art history to developmental economics.

Tearing Down The Wall

"The diversity of thought at the university level is much greater," Hennessy says. "You have a much wider range of the way faculty make their contributions, and the kinds of research projects they're involved in are all over the map. So I go talk to the music department or English department or to history and then the next day, I'll be over to visit cardiovascular surgery. That's what makes it interesting: it's a real mind-stretching exercise."

Being provost of Stanford is a broad- based job, and Hennessy brings to it a fundamental understanding of how high technology is changing everything it comes into contact with. Just as the Internet is breaking down the barriers between commerce, science, and the arts, Hennessy wants to encourage collaboration between the many different disciplines at Stanford.

"We're really trying to build an interdisciplinary research and teaching program that goes between engineering, the medical school, and the sciences," he explains. "The revolution in the biological sciences is so profound that it's going to profoundly change so much of engineering."

At present, 20 members of the engineering faculty are specializing in biomedical engineering, a figure Hennessy expects to double within the next few years. Meanwhile, at the medical school, about 20 percent of the faculty are actively working in the biomedical engineering field. "There are really interesting opportunities that are just beginning to emerge," says Hennessy. "For example, everybody's cardiovascular system is a little bit different in funny ways. So when you do a bypass or an aneurysm repair, you can use the computer to do a better job of that. We already have an active collaboration going between engineers and cardiovascular surgeons in that area."

Biotech Explosion

But Hennessy's ideas about collaboration aren't just confined to engineering and science. He's equally excited at the prospect of bringing the humanities into the interdisciplinary fold. "We're slowly starting to say, 'Okay, how do you take advantage of the fact that at Stanford we have these great humanities departments, we have world-class technology departments, and we're in the middle Silicon Valley?'" he says. "I think there are a lot of very interesting opportunities for bringing the humanities and technology together."

Which is why this computer scientist, entrepreneur, and university administrator has lately been spending a considerable amount of time thinking about Michelangelo's David. Or, to be more precise, a digital representation of the famed statue located in Florence's Galleria dell Accademia. The project, entitled "Digital Michelangelo," originated inside Stanford's computer science department but has gone on to generate tremendous interest among faculty members and students in the school's art department.

Led by computer science professor Mark Levoy, the project aims to build a machine to laser-scan three-dimensional objects so that the information can be transmitted anywhere in the world. Using a stenographic lithography process, the objects can then be reproduced in their exact dimensions using a plastic resin.

"[Levoy] started off doing these little Buddhas," says Hennessy. "Then he said, 'This is a great project for trying to capture and make permanent records of artwork, of sculpture.'" After deciding to tackle something as complicated, and famous, as David, Levoy went to Florence to scan the 21-foot-tall statue, and Hennessy says "the technology is so good that you can see Michelangelo's chisel marks on these scans."

Hennessy leans forward in his seat. "So now," he says, a note of excitement creeping into his voice, "if you're an art student and you want to see what technique he used you can stand right next to the thing—which you can't do in the museum, not to mention the problems of getting to Florence and waiting in line. You can also look at it from different angles. And what you realize is that Michelangelo sculpted it to be looked at from below and in front. The eyes are actually in a very unnatural position when you look at it from any other angle. So all these fascinating things have come out of this project about looking at artistic technique."

Of course, thinking about sculpture is the fun part of a provost's job. The flip side is a host of tough issues that range from diversity in hiring to budgetary concerns. So with one successful Silicon Valley start-up under his belt, is Hennessy ever tempted to chuck it all for the fame and fortune of another?

"Not really," he says. "To begin with, I just love working with students. Last year when I was dean, I taught an undergraduate course with one of my Ph.D. students who had graduated and gone on to Cornell. But I just loved that experience, and I also love working with my Ph.D. students and having them work on interesting new things. Those are two things I'd really miss."

 

Eric Ransdell is a contributing editor at Fast Company magazine