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Find him on social media: @dfoulser on Instagram and Twitter and iNaturalist.org
Undergraduate: Yale University, 1981, Major in Mathematics
Graduate School: Stanford University, Computer Science PhD 1986
Current job title: Retired as of 2019-03-01. Most recently Senior Engineering Manager at Google, managing software engineers.
What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue?
First experiences included raising Polyphemus moth caterpillars and Preying Mantids. But also things like collecting the mercury from batteries and marveling at this liquid metal.
Tell me about some people who helped or inspired you along the way, in your early training and later in your career.
Very early inspiration came from my father, who was a mathematician with a strong interest in science and music.
Later, math teachers in high school, including the one who ran the computer club with an old paper-tape and teletype based computer. And the math teacher who made a big deal of it when I won the HS math contest as a freshman.
In college, my freshman advisor twisted my arm to take computer science courses.
Once I got to Stanford, there were obvious inspiring characters like Don Knuth, who had lots of interesting stories. But also Silicon Valley characters from the early days.
Can you tell me about any moments of doubt you had as a student or early in your career and how you dealt with it?
Starting to learn programming (Fortran) was very frustrating. This was before advice to get something working and iterate slowly in any kind of Agile or Test Driven software development. I’d write the entire program from scratch, then try to get it all to work. I spent hours and hours in the computer lab struggling over this. I just believed that I could do it, that I could be successful at this like anything else, so I never gave up. It took years to really become proficient and even expert at it, but it worked out well.
Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path.
I was unsure about whether to follow and academic path or not. After getting my PhD in CS I went to a startup for 18 months, then took a job as a research scientist in CS dept at Yale (also with work at a New Haven startup). Three years of this was enough to convince me I should be in industry.
I moved from East Coast (Yale) to West Coast (Stanford), then back to the east (Yale & New Haven), back west to Silicon Valley, and finally east to Boston/Cambridge where I’ve been. It is possible to flop back and forth multiple times and have it work out well.
In grad school I worked on analysis of algorithms and numerical/probabilistic problems to stay away from software systems and large volumes of programming. Ultimately my career was as a software engineer writing large systems and large volumes of code. I never would have expected that from the start.
Can you give some examples of how you have incorporated your non scientific interests into your work.
While at Google I became interested in social justice activities and joined the group White People Challenging Racism (WPCR). Over time I was able to incorporate these activities into my work at Google, to the point at which I took a semester out of my engineering management responsibilities to move to North Carolina and teach intro Computer Science at a Historically Black University (NC A&T State Univ). This was a very fulfilling experience that seemed to make a difference to a large number of students, including helping several to get summer internships at Google. I’m going back to NC this fall to continue this social justice work at two different universities.
Is there some advice you could you share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path.
Personally I found the intrinsic motivation of loving my studies and my work to help immensely in putting in enough time and effort. This let me develop expertise even in the face of frustration or difficulty.
Remember not to work too hard. A colleague once told me this about 10-11PM after many long days and evenings of coding and debugging: “I had better go home now. The last time I worked this hard my wife left me.” I asked, “Did she come back?” His answer was “No, so I don’t want it to happen again.” I have tried very hard to keep my family priorities in mind while working.