After applying to college as an electrical engineering major and receiving registration materials he found less than exciting, Lazowska switched his major to physics. As he describes, “That didn’t go so well” because “I learned a five on the AP exam didn’t mean I understood Calculus.” But at Brown, he ran into Andries van Dam, a legendary early computer scientist who gave him his first experiences as an “intellectual adult” as they build one of the first early types of text editors.
Just as importantly, Andries van Dam taught him to “view this whole thing as a sort of game.” Back in his day, computer science work at Brown was done in the University computer center, and van Dam’s group always wanted to do more than they had funding for. In order to use the computing center from midnight to 8 AM, while it was reserved by a geophysicist, they reportedly bought an “ungodly” amount of her daughter’s girl scout cookies.
Here, in order to keep up with the rapidly emerging field of computer science, they had to simulate the future. By using the mainframe computer at Brown, they could predict what a personal computer would be like some day and design applications for it.
After majoring in “non-numerical computer science,” what computer science that wasn’t for geophysics was then called at Brown, Lazowska followed van Dam’s advice, going to graduate school at the University of Toronto. Although he started trying to build primitive applications as he had at Brown, he transitioned into analyzing the efficiency of network systems, seeing this as a quicker way to finish.
After being hired onto the University of Washington faculty, Lazowksa’s priority soon became his students; he switched from the “researcher” box to the “educator” box on career questionnaires in just a couple of years. Since then, he’s gone on to be one of the University’s most prominent professors. He was the founding director of the eSciences Institute and has served on numerous national councils focused on advancing computer science and the inclusivity of the field. On January 1st, 2020, he stepped down as the Bill and Melinda Gates Chair of the Paul G Allen School of Computer Science.