Look Who's Talking!
The Woman Who Does it All - Mor Harchol-Balter
Renown computer scientist, professor, and mother, Mor’s enthusiasm and optimism helps her keep up with her exciting and fast-paced life. Mor received her Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of California at Berkeley and is currently an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University. In this interview, Mor shares her thoughts on family and career.
Where are you originally from?
I’m originally from Jerusalem, Israel. I lived in Israel until I was 6 (with one and a half years in Scotland). Then I moved to New Jersey, and then to Germany for five and half years. After that, it was back to the United States for college in Boston, and Ph.D. in Berkeley, California. And now, back to the East Coast. So I’ve been around a lot.
How did you become interested in computer science?
Initially, I wasn’t interested in computer science at all. In high school, the computer science lab was where all the really geeky guys went. When I went to college, I decided to study math and chemistry. After my first year of college, my Dad said that he wouldn’t pay for college if I didn’t take computer science. He thought computer science was a much more practical field. So sophomore year, after not having taken any computer science classes at all freshmen year, I signed up for the typical computer science classes (similar to 15-211 and 15-212 and 15-251 here). I took all these classes at once, and I thought they were awesome! I had fantastic teachers and I was really hooked!
And so you decided to go to graduate school?
Well, no. I rebelled against the idea of graduate school. I had an undergraduate
thesis advisor, Marty Cohn, who was wonderful. He really wanted me to
go to graduate school. He thought that I was definitely graduate school
material and that I would be really happy there. But, I was determined
that I had already put in all this time at school, and I was going to
go get a job, make a lot of money, and just have an easier life. So I
went off to go work at GTE. The group that I was working for was a very
research oriented group, building pattern recognition systems. It sounded
very exciting to me. I knew nothing about pattern recognition.
I was working on all these different projects; many of them were just my own ideas that I had become intrigued with. But my own company wasn’t interested in the research end of my work. I myself didn’t realize that what I was doing was research. However, it was becoming more and more clear to me that I needed more math skills to solve my problems. So I decided to apply for graduate school.
I made a list of schools that I would go to. I didn’t list any of the top 4 schools. My advisor, Marty, said he wasn’t going to write a recommendation for me unless I had all 4 schools on my list, which were Berkeley, CMU, MIT, and Stanford. So I applied to those schools, but I still applied to a ton of other schools too because I was 100% convinced that I wasn’t good enough to get in anywhere. And then I got in everywhere and I chose Berkeley!
Why did you choose Berkeley?
I wanted sun! My advisor told me all four schools were very good schools and it didn’t matter which one I picked; it was more about the effort I put in.
How did you come up with your talk “Applying to
How long have you been giving this talk?
Forever! I started it at Berkeley on my own volition. I gave the talk every year while I was at Berkeley. I would hang up little hand-written signs all over the place. I would give the talk in this one room where there was no seating area, so there would be hundreds of undergrads, all sitting on the floor. I would stand up on a chair, no viewgraphs, no board, no nothing. I would stand there basically yelling out what to do and not do when applying to grad school. It was simply word of mouth that had people coming. At the time I had no document or anything, so if they didn’t come to the talk, they just missed the information.
I’ve been giving the same talk every year since I’ve been
at CMU, sometimes twice a year. I created this document called “Applying
to Graduate School” and every time I go anywhere, like to a conference,
all these graduate students run up to me and say “let me shake your
hand.” I think, “Oh, maybe they like my research!” But
no, that’s never it. Instead
If you didn’t go into academia what would you have done?
A lot of people might answer, “Go to a research lab,” but I wouldn’t say so. I’m too independent; I like to run things my way. I like to be inventive and creative. And I don’t really want somebody telling me that I have to work in this area and only this area or that I have to do things in a certain way.
If I weren’t in academia, I would start my own company. I’m always coming up with ideas for computer companies that I would like to run some day.
I am also passionate about advancing the state of math education for young kids in this country. I’m always ranting and raving about how young kids aren’t challenged in their math classes, and the math being taught is uninspiring. I have been volunteering at my son’s school for a couple years now, working with “advanced” second graders. When I get them at the beginning of the year, they can’t even multiply. But by the end of the year, they can count in different bases, multiply large numbers, write simple algorithms, and understand algebraic abstractions. I’ve also worked with inner-city kids in Boston, teaching them math in the evenings. I firmly believe that most people are capable of far more math than we expose them to, and that we’re stifling the best and the brightest kids with excessive repetition. I have written a book titled “Math for Smart Kids” that teaches simple multiplication in a non-traditional way. I would love to have more time to produce more such educational materials.
Why did you decide to come to Carnegie Mellon?
So I knew I wanted to be in academics. I also wanted to go to a school that was very highly ranked, because I wanted really good graduate students. I figured if I’m going to be giving up every hour of every day, I’d better have some good graduate students who can benefit from my energy and can be inspired and from whom I can learn.
What really swung the door in Carnegie Mellon’s favor was the collaborative environment that seems to exist here. People seem to genuinely like each other. They really don’t seem to be in competition with each other. There are always exceptions to the rule, but for the majority, people are really not competitive. One thing that made a huge impact on me was my second visit to CMU. There were all these parties. One party was at Guy Blelloch’s house. I told him I was going to bring my son Danny, who was about 2 and half years old at the time. He had invited many different faculty and they all brought their little kids. The thing that was amazing was that all the faculty knew each others little kids’ names! They seem to really know the kids’ history; they knew what the kids liked to do and even what they were allergic to. I felt, “This can’t just be show! These people must hang out together regularly and really like each other.” That was a very big selling point.
I really think how you do in school and in your career depend on how happy you are. It all comes from you. You need a tremendous amount of energy to do well in academia. If you’re spending a lot of time obsessing because you’re worried about getting tenure, or you’re competing with folks, then that worrying is zapping your energy. Carnegie Mellon really tries to create a supportive noncompetitive environment. Great research is gets done at CMU because people are happy. I really like Pittsburgh too! To me Pittsburgh was a big selling point. Pittsburghers are extremely friendly and talk to you all the time.
How do you manage family and career?
I spent a lot of time planning before I had a kid. The first step is to get a very supportive husband. So I married the right guy! But he works full time and I work full time, so you still have to ask, how about all those hours? One decision that I made early on was that my son would go to day care and that I wouldn’t have any guilty feelings about that. I believe that it’s good for kids to go to day care. They become more social. Daycare has made my son, Danny, independent, confident, and very social. I really like that.
I think you need to make some high level compromises. It would’ve been lovely to have two kids, but with this type of job, I can only afford the time for one. I think that’s a compromise you make. It’s possible to do really well with just one kid. I always say, “You can’t have all of everything but you can have a little bit of everything, and that’s pretty good too.”
Describe your typical day
My husband takes Danny to school. I get up a bit later, and I’m in my office by 9 or 9:30. I work straight until 5:30, and at 5:30 I pick up Danny from school. I bring him home and he usually runs upstairs to play Internet chess while I make dinner. We have dinner, and sit and talk and he does his homework. I’m out of the house by 8:30 or 9 in the evening, when Danny is getting ready to go to bed. I typically stay at work until midnight, sometimes later if I have deadlines, and then I go back home. So I think it’s true that I’m here all the time. I don’t work Saturdays though. That’s family day.
What do you like best about your job?
I really enjoy coming up with counter-intuitive theorems and with new system designs. I really like working with my graduate students, Adam, Taka, Bianca, and David, and my collaborator, Alan, in the Business School, to invent whole new research areas and techniques. Our research meetings are always very long, because I get caught up in the problems and forget everything else. It’s very exciting and very rewarding, especially when we later see people following up on our ideas, and these people feel the same way we feel about the problems. It’s a great feeling to have impact. You’re not only deciding what you want to do, but you’re now influencing other professors and students, pushing them into an area that maybe they weren’t going to work on before, but have now become convinced is exciting. I like to influence people that way.
I also really like teaching classes! I teach in a very interactive style, and I love to hear the ideas that students come up with.
The only negative thing about this job is that there are all these cool things that you can do, such as running workshops, solving hard problems, and teaching classes. But somehow, you’re expected to do all of them, and expected to do all of them every day. It’s really an 80 hr a week job. So you always feel like you’re not doing quite as well as you want to be doing in every area. You always feel like you’re skimping a little bit.
What do you like to do for fun?
Truthfully, I spend all my extra time with my son, Danny. Once a year, my husband, Bobby, and I go away because I get invited to go somewhere. More typically though, I turn down these invitations. I like watching Danny play with his friends. He seems so sure of himself, and kids seem to follow him. I like cooking in the kitchen while listening to Danny laughing with his chess teacher in the other room. I like tucking him into bed at night. I just like being around for that kind of thing.
Do you have a source of inspiration?
In graduate school, my advisor, Manuel Blum, was a source of inspiration because he always believed in me. I was spending a huge number of hours measuring UNIX processes and discovering that they had heavy-tailed CPU demands, and thinking about the impact of this discovery on resource allocation and queueing in general. I was worried that no one would believe me (and many didn’t), but he kept telling me that what I was doing was great and that I should keep going.
As a professor, I get a lot of inspiration from the work itself. I’m working on this technique that reduces n-dimensionally infinite Markov chains to just 1 dimension. This allows the first near-exact analysis of many fundamental multi-server system problems, including cycle stealing, task assignment, server placement, threshold-based resource allocation, priority queueing, and others. It’s really exciting, and it’s what makes me race to work in the morning.
Do you have a motto or philosophy that you live life by?
I think you have to be happy with what you’re doing. I try to avoid unhappy thoughts. And I avoid anybody that makes me feel bad or unhappy. I find that I derive a lot of happiness from helping others. I also derive happiness from doing jobs well.
It’s easy to talk about being happy. But you might suddenly find
yourself in a situation where you’re not. Maybe you’re stressed
about having to give a very important talk, or you have to send off this
application and you’re worried about the outcome. You’re anxious,
thinking, “I’m never going to be able to get through this!
It’s just hopeless.” I think everybody sometimes has those
moments of anxiety where you feel like the least happy person in the world.
When I first became a professor, I decided to make this list of every
moment where I have felt that way. It’s a long list! For each item
on the list, I wrote down exactly why I felt paralyzed, and then I described
what happened in the end. It was really therapeutic to write this list,
because I realized that these “crises” all seemed like no
big deal a couple years later. Now, just thinking about my list is enough
to make me smile.