Monday, January 8, 2018

Salute to Prof. Mohamed Gouda: Elegance in computing

A couple months ago, I attended a special half-day workshop organized honoring Prof. Mohamed Gouda's contributions to computer science, and particularly the self-stabilizing systems community.

Mohamed is the Mike A. Myers Centennial Professor at University of Texas at Austin. He has been at Austin Texas since 1980, for almost 40 years. His research contributions to the distributed systems has been phenomenal (borrowing a word Mohamed likes to use for things that excite him.) I am proud that Mohamed is my academic grandfather; he was the PhD advisor of my PhD advisor, Prof. Anish Arora. I wrote about "how to find your advisor" in my previous post, I hope elegance/rigor from Mohamed and Anish rubbed off on me a bit.

At the workshop, there were about 10 talks technical in nature, but at the end of the talks, each speaker mentioned how their research and career has been enriched by Mohamed's contributions/help.

I talked about my technical report on "Does the cloud need stabilizing?", and at the end I took some time to mention what I learned from Mohamed, and how I benefited being around him, albeit for a limited time.

The most significant things I learned from Mohamed is not from what he taught on the board or at the conferences, but from how he acted. Actions speak louder than words.

Always be passionate about research

When I was a PhD student, I had time to spend with Mohamed at self-stabilizing systems workshops and later as part of our work on the DARPA NEST wireless sensor networks project.

What impressed me most was Mohamed's passion for research. At that time he was involved with research 30+ years already, but he was as fresh  and enthusiastic about research problems as PhD students. When someone mentioned a research problem, you could see his ears prick up and his eyes literally sparkle. And this was often after a long tiring day of research talks/meetings.

There has been many days in my academic career where I was feeling tired and down, and I motivated myself by remembering Mohamed's passion about research, and asking myself what excuse do I have to be bored/unexcited/unmotivated. (I will be amiss if I don't add my advisor Anish Arora and postdoc supervisor Nancy Lynch to this mention. I try to imitate their genuine excitement about research.)

Never turn down collaboration opportunities

Mohamed has always been very positive and full of energy and humor. He has been graceful and gentle with everyone.

He jokes that he never says no to any collaboration opportunities after he regretted to say no to collaborating at that time on the newly starting field of "ad hoc networks" (I am most likely misremembering the name/anecdote but was that with Charles Perkins), saying that "ad hoc networks" does not sound like a respectable name for a research area :-)

He helped build the self-stabilizing systems community, as many speakers credited him at the workshop. If you help people, you help yourself as well.

Clarify, Simplify, and Generalize

On the technical side of things, I learned from Mohamed the art of abstraction. He really has a knack for simplifying things to their essentials and contribute there and generalize from there. Mohamed is famous for saying, he does not trust any distributed algorithm that has more than 3 actions. You can see this elegance/simplicity at work in his classical papers. He was colleagues with Dijkstra for many years, who was a grandmaster of the art of abstraction.

In a research talk you could find Mohamed listening carefully, asking a couple trivial seeming definition questions, and towards the end of the talk making very insightful comment/observation about the work. After knowing how Mohamed works, I can see he is simplifying and mapping the work to his mental framework and generalizing and contributing from there.

Mohamed's book on "elements of network protocol design" thought me about networks, after the networking class I took made me hate networking. (I wrote about it here earlier.) The book also showed how you abstract away details and simplify things to their essence and focus that essence.

MAD questions

(This section is here because of my new year's commitment.)

1) Mohamed has always been an exceptionally good storyteller as well. Several successful researchers I know are great storytellers. I wonder if this is an important feature for successful researchers. Could this be correlated with the researchers' ability to frame/present their work better?

2) Shouldn't we create more opportunities for our graduate students to spend quality time (or hanging around time -- or maybe they are the same) with such energizing and inspiring researchers? Conferences these days look far away from fulfilling that goal, maybe very small workshops or summer schools are better places for that. What are other ways to cultivate that interaction? Or to make this scale, how can we capture the thought-processes of these people better? The research papers are finished products and fail miserably at capturing the thought processes of the researchers.

3) I called it the "art of abstraction", because I don't think that there are well-defined rules to abstraction. What is the right level of abstraction to treat things at? Should you abstracts things as far as most people accuse you to go too far?

In a quote attributed to Einstein, he says: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." Could this pass as a helpful heuristic? What is the limit of possible?

No comments: