Robert Sedgewick, Princeton Computer Science Professor, Director at Adobe Systems: ‘What Am I Reading? I’m Usually Just Writing!’

And again we have a world-renowned computer scientist on the program! On Friday (April 6), I’ve sat down and talked with Robert Sedgewick:

  • founder and former chairman of the department of Computer Science at Princeton
  • William O. Baker Professor of Computer Science at Princeton
  • member of the Board of Directors at Adobe Systems
  • Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery for the seminal work in the mathematical analysis of algorithms and pioneering research in algorithm animation
  • author of numerous research papers and several books, including a series of textbooks on algorithms widely used all around the world (published by Addison-Wesley)
Personally, Sedgewick’s book helped me understand algorithms much better than CLRS and Knuth. Thanks to motivated examples, actual implementations of the algorithms presented, detailed illustrations,  cool experiments and intuitive mathematical analysis I felt I was growing after every page. I think, a human being is inductive - it’s easier to comprehend new material if first presented with examples and the practical side, with the theory and generalizations developed afterwards. Unfortunately, many books and courses teach things the other way around.
One of my favorite parts of the interview was when to my question, ‘What are your reading habits? What have been you reading recently?’, Robert Sedgewick just replied saying, ‘Not much. I’m usually just writing!’ That’s the creative mindset of a true producer! 

The questions I asked to Prof. Sedgewick:

  • When did you decide to pursue CS as a career?
  • You completed your PhD under the supervision of legendary Donald Knuth. What was it like to have him as an advisor?
  • Do you agree with Donald Knuth’s advice to young people, ‘If the topic is popular, the results will be unimportant’?
  • On Nobel-prize effect when scientists after being recognized can’t afford to work on small problems and end up not producing anything great afterwards?
  • What are your thoughts on the Nobel-prize effect when applied to innovation - big successful companies overlook small low margin markets which are attacked by disruptive startups?
  • While working on your PhD, how did you allocate your time on reading, writing and research?
  • What was the collaboration environment like at Stanford back then?
  • How was the intro to programming taught at Princeton before 1992 - the year when you started COS 126?
  • ‘COS 126: General Computer Science’ is the highest-enrolled course at Princeton (50% of all students at Princeton take it), 25% of all students take ‘COS 226: Data structures and Algorithms’. What are the reasons behind the popularity of the courses you developed?
  • On the future of publishing: if the scientific paper won’t be read on paper why write it as if it will?
  • Could you elaborate on some ideas for the future of publishing you hinted during your ‘Algorithms for the masses’ talk at ANALCO’2011 (San Francisco)?
  • Can you describe your hybrid model of publishing: traditional textbook + forward looking booksite ('Intro to Programming in Java' booksite; 'Algorithms' booksite) with all the code, videos, pictures and simulations?
  • Your ‘Algorithms’ textbook aims to cover 50+ algorithms every programmer should know. It’s widely considered one of the best books on algorithms (example of this is a question on Quora: ‘what are some great general algorithms books other than Knuth, CLRS and Sedgewick?’). What are the reasons behind its success?
  • Galactic algorithms are ones that will never be used in practice. Why? Any effect would never be noticed in this galaxy. You once said, ‘O-notation is useful for many reasons, but common error is to think that it is useful to predict performance’. Can you talk more about this?
  • You worked as a software engineer in Silicon Valley, and currently at the board of directors of Adobe. Which companies are, in your mind, the most innovative?
  • What do you think of the future of consumer web and social networking startups?
  • What are your reading habits nowadays? Any technical blogs do you recommend?
  • It’s understandably highly contextual, but what is the one piece of advice you would give to students who haven’t figured what to do with their lives?
Guest: Robert Sedgewick
Producer/host: Arman Suleimenov
Princeton, NJ
April 6, 2012
Blog comments powered by Disqus