Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Rajeev Motwani

Business India, May 24-June 6, 2004

Mathematician at heart

Rajeev Motwani is eagerly waiting for the Google IPO

Shivanand Kanavi

Rajeev Motwani has done it all. A Godel Prize winner, one of the most prestigious awards in theoretical computer science, one of the youngest professors at Stanford. Author of several papers in esoteric subjects like randomised algorithms and data streaming, Motwani is now eagerly waiting. No, not about another award or a theoretical conference, but for the Google I P O. As a former technical advisor to Google and a mentor to the founders in their student days at Stanford, where the search engine took shape, Motwani owns an undisclosed amount of stock in Google.

Motwani’s father was in the Indian Army, which meant growing up all over India. Young Motwani wanted to be a mathematician, like Gauss. “This was partly shaped by the books I had at home. My parents for some reason had a lot of these books – 10 great scientists or five famous mathematicians – their life story and so on. As a child, whatever heroes you read about you want to become,” adds he.

After St. Columbus in Delhi, Motwani joined I I T Kanpur, which at that time had just started the undergraduate programme in computer science. “I truly wanted to be a mathematician, and my parents were hesitant because how do you make money as a mathematician, how do you support a family, what is this all a b o u t .

“I was basically forced into going into computer science even though I did not want to, but it turned out to my wonderful surprise that computer science is actually quite mathematical as a field. One of the shaping influences was actually Kesav Nori – he was there for a while and, in fact, I I T Kanpur at that time had a outstanding computer science department. It was an amazing confluence of people and p e r s o n a l i t i e s .

“Again Berkeley was a very positive influence, very politically oriented; it’s like the J N U of the US. I was so thoroughly enjoying the new environment I was in. My advisor, Richard Karp, was a Turing Award winner, which is sort of like the Nobel Prize in computer science. At that point it occurred to me that I am letting down this great man, not producing anything and the last two years I was tremendously productive.”

Motwani has worked in many different areas in Stanford, like robotics and drug design. “I credit Stanford for creating an environment where people in different areas can work with each other and do things where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” he says.

“Meanwhile the World Wide Web was coming around at that time and I just got sucked into that. Sergey Brin and Larry Page were running a search engine out of Stanford. These 21- year-olds would come in and make demands on me – we need more disk space because we are crawling the Web and its getting bigger, we need to buy more disk... I’d give them more money and they’d go buy more disks. At some point these guys said, we want to go do a company. Everybody said you must be out of your minds. There are like 37 search engines out there and what are you guys going to do? And how are you going to raise money, how will you build a company, and these two guys said, we’ll just do it and they went off and did it. And there are some big names who supported the company in its early stages. And then they took over the world. And right now, you know, other search engines do not even compare. It is just amazing. Just feels like a part of a little bit of history and I contributed a little bit to that history. Now I have become a start-up
j u n k i e . ”

How does Google’s technology work? He explains, “Let us say that you wanted information on ‘bread yeast’ and put those two words in Google. Then it not only sees which documents have these as words mentioned but also whether these documents are linked to other documents. An important page for ‘bread yeast’ must be having all other pages on the Web dealing in any way with ‘bread yeast’ also linking to it. In our example there may be a Bakers’ Association of America, which is hyper-linked by most documents containing ‘bread yeast’, then it implies that most people involved with ‘bread’ and ‘yeast’ think that the Bakers Association’s Web site is an important source of information. So Google will rate that Web site very high and put it on top of its list. Irrelevant documents which just mention ‘bread’ and ‘yeast’ will not be given any priority in the results.

“By the way, you might have noticed that the job of the search engine is nothing more than what a humble Librarian does all the time and more intelligently! However, the automation in the software comes to our rescue in coping with the exponential rise in information.”


RaneForrest said...

Sadly, I'm reading this after having learned that Rajeev passed away today. What an unfortunate an untimely end to a brilliant mind.

Vasudev (Vas) Bhandarkar said...

This is an excellent piece on Rajeev, and provides brilliant insights on the Rajeev I've known these past few years.


Vasudev (Vas) Bhandarkar said...

This is an excellent and unique write up on Rajeev, and provides brilliant insights into the Rajeev that I got to know over the last few years.

-Vasudev Bhandarkar

daman kohli said...

what we learn form rajeev motwani ... is to always follow one's heart ..:)

Ram Ramdas said...

i too read this after searching on google for "rajeev motwani google" on hearing about rajeevs untimely death - a sad irony. i had occasion to meet him briefly once, long ago in a TIE silicon valley event. my heartfelt condolences to his family. a great mind...

sagar said...

Really felt sorry after reading the new, It's been a great loss to the Innovative world of SE.

lexmi said...

A whole lot of humanity's future was in that brain which crashed. Very sad, indeed. I wish I had some connection with such a jewel at some point. My heart goes out to his family and students..

lakshmi Padmanabhan, Mumbai

ajax said...

Only after his death did I come to know who he is..wow...he was something!!!

fenin said...

feeling sorry for rajeev..came to know about his achievements only after his demise..google should create a logo for rajeev..

KeithG said...

I was fortunate to be able to take some classes from Rajeev at the same time as Sergey. He was brilliant, inspiring and always willing to help in a most friendly way. Truly a sad loss.

paapoooo said...

This is my first ever blogging. Only when I just HAD to utter, in utter disbelief. Rajiv Motwani's untimely death is saddening. Like two other bloggers here, I really learnt about Rajiv Motwani after his death, announced in the Sunday technology page of a local English daily here in Pakistan.
Curiously, that Pakistani news piece diluted Motwani's achievement by naming him a "lecturer" at Stanford, whereas he was the youngest ever professor at Stanford University. Rajiv Motwani, locally uncelebrated and purposely obscured just like Dr Abdus Salam is, is of no surprise. Such attitude toward the "other" needs change.

Whats really annoying is the fact that the American media never made much of Rajiv Motwani's achievement. There was only twice ever a mention of an Indian-descent mentor to Google's Sergei Brin and Larry Page at the Stanford University. Ever since those two media notations I had always been very curious about this person, apparently not unlike the less-celebrated Tim Berners Lee, but clearly the American as well as the Pakistani media chose never to reach out and hose me down with at least "Rajiv Motwani."
Even in books such as Evan Schwartz's "Juice" (Harvard Business School Press), mentor Rajiv Motwani is never named or credited along with Max Levchin who got "Paypal" together--indubitably not without Motwani's help. New acronym: DEAF: Denial, Exclusion And Fear.

RaneForrest said...


Rajeev got recognition enough in the American media -- if posthumously. I don't really fault them for DELIBERATELY obscuring him. Note that he wasn't Page and Brin's OFFICIAL advisor at Stanford. Pakistani State's dysfunctional identity issues with "the other" are, of course, well-known.

Dr. Abdus Salam's deprecation in Pakistan, I'm reading, had less to do with his Indian-ness than the State's attitude toward the religious sect he belonged to.

Anyway, this is not the place for politics, but to remember a brilliant mind that was also uncommonly civil.

Anonymous said...

I first read about Dr. Motwani's untimely death in one of the Pakistani English newspapers here. He was mentioned with due respect and honor (unlike what some of the other commentators here have wrongly implied).

I have been searching/browsing for his work and I'm impressed that he had contributed so much to computer science. He was exactly 13 days younger than me, and I feel sad for his family. I wish them well in the future. I believe he was originally from Sindh province of Pakistan?

Karachi, Sindh, Pakistan.