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Remembering Rajeev Motwani

June 8, 2009

Posted by Alfred Spector, VP of Research

Many hundreds of us at Google were fortunate to have been educated, advised, and inspired by Professor Rajeev Motwani. Six of us were his PhD students and very many others (including our founders) were advised by or took courses from him. Others Googlers, who were not students at Stanford, had close collegial relations. But, no matter what the relationship, we respected Rajeev as a great man. He was not just a mathematically deep computer scientist, not just an entrepreneurial computer scientist who catalyzed value at the intersection of his work and the real world, he was also a thoughtful, caring, and honorable friend.

The words of just a few of us speak louder than any summary I can make:

Sergey Brin wrote in his blog, “Officially, Rajeev was not my advisor, and yet he played just as big a role in my research, education, and professional development. In addition to being a brilliant computer scientist, Rajeev was a very kind and amicable person and his door was always open. No matter what was going on with my life or work, I could always stop by his office for an interesting conversation and a friendly smile.”

Zoltan Gyongyi wrote, “Not only a great educator and one of the brightest researchers of his generation, Rajeev was also a catalyst of Silicon Valley innovation--Google itself standing as a proof. Moreover, he was a mentor, colleague, role model, friend to many Googlers. I am utterly unable to find words that would properly express my personal gratitude to him and the weight of this loss.”

Mayur Datar wrote, “I was fortunate to have Rajeev as my PhD advisor for five years at Stanford. Beyond graduation, he often helped me with priceless career guidance and professional help in terms of meetings with other people in Silicon Valley. There are only a handful of people I can think of who are such high caliber academics and entrepreneurs. His contributions and impact on CS theory community, Stanford CS Dept, and Silicon Valley enterprises and entrepreneurs is unfathomable. I still find it hard to come to terms with his horrible reality. My deepest condolences and prayers go out to his family. He will be fondly remembered and dearly missed by all of us!"

An Zhu wrote, “I am both fortunate and honored to have Rajeev as my PhD advisor. The 5 years at Stanford is very memorable to me. I’m eternally grateful for his advice and support throughout. It is indeed a sad day for many, including his students.”

Alon Halevy wrote, “Rajeev was an inspiration to me and my colleagues on so many levels. As a young graduate student, I remember him working on some of the toughest theoretical computer science problems of the day. Later, his taste for good theory and ability to apply it to practice had a huge impact on various aspects of data management research. As a professor, and now as a Googler, I am awed at the amazing stream of high-caliber students that he mentored. As an entrepreneur, he gave me some generous and well-timed advice. And most of all, as a person, his kindness and willingness to help anyone was a true inspiration.”

Vibhu Mittal wrote, “He was a brilliant researcher and a great professor. And yet the only thing that I can remember right now is that he was a fun, generous, helpful guy who was always willing to sit down and chat for a few minutes. I hope wherever he is, he is still doing it. And I hope there’ll be more people like him in this world to help people like us. I wish his family well — words cannot express what I feel for them.”

Gagan Aggarwal wrote, “I feel extremely fortunate to have had Rajeev as my PhD advisor. He was a wonderful advisor--always very flexible and willing to let his students work at their own pace, while making sure that things are going alright and providing guidance when needed. One of the several striking features of Rajeev's research was his ability to translate real life problems into clean, well-motivated, abstract questions (that he would promptly pose to his students). He was for me an eternal source of fresh problems and great ideas, a source I could tap into whenever my own ideas dried up (and was planning to, just last week). It is impossible to come to terms with the fact that I am never going to do this again. Rajeev had an unmatched clarity of thought and perceptiveness that was evident not only in doing research with him but also in the invaluable advice he gave me about career choices and life in general. ...Rajeev took on many diverse roles: teacher, entrepreneur, advisor and friend, and filled them all as only he could have. His passing will leave an impossible-to-fill void among all those whose lives he touched.”

There are more notes from Googlers, among those of many others, on the Stanford blog commemorating Rajeev.

I’d like to close by noting that Rajeev Motwani’s work on the intersection of theory and practice inspired not only the way Google processes information, but also Google's core scientific values: we fundamentally believe in the power of applying mathematical analysis and algorithmic thinking to challenging real world problems. This philosophy was inherent in Rajeev’s research, the education he gave PhD students, and the advice and classes he provided to many more.

With his and the recent untimely deaths of other influential computer scientists and friends, we are all reminded to seize each day and make the most of it. I think Rajeev would have wanted us to keep this in mind.