One of these very special professors was Irina Athanasiu. Unfortunately, cancer took her away. I miss her. While she was still alive, I didn't dare to talk to her as much as I would have liked, even when friends from back home said that she used to mention my name quite often. I didn't want to bug her with my own issues and worries...
If I were to say only one thing about Irina was that she was the most straightforward person I've ever met. She really said it like it was, even when it wasn't pretty at all. I have a couple of emails from her from a tough period in my life and I can't help to smile when I read them. She says something like this: "what I have to say is not pretty, but here it is". I miss her advice. She had this rare skill of thinking about things from your own perspective, but with her years of experience and her very particular wisdom.
For the people that did not meet her, it's hard to describe her. And then for those that were lucky to know her, any word does not mean much compared to the experience of interacting with her. She touched the lives of an unbelievably high number of students!
Shall I Be Proud?
by Irina Athanasiu
"You must be really proud to have so many former students that are now employees of Microsoft US"... someone told me recently. There are two assumptions behind this statement. First, the fact that someone works for Microsoft in US is an accomplishment in itself. Second, students' accomplishments are ascribed to their professors, and school, in general.
Why is it that if someone works for Microsoft US is a bigger accomplishment than if they work at Google in US or if they work for Microsoft Romania or Freescale, Oracle or IBM Romania? What if someone works in a company that does not have an international reputation, does it count less? Should I have considered that the ones that developed RAV during the time when the first R meant Romania and not Reliable, in other words when the product was not renowned internationally, valued less than now when they are employed by Microsoft and RAV became just a memory?
Getting hired by a company like Microsoft means passing successfully a suite of interviews that are not easy, but that are just exams, probably more difficult than the ones in school. It's about knowledge and ability testing, in other words it's about testing some premises not certifying some accomplishments. Someone that is successful during the interviews becomes one of the thousands of employees in a mechanism developed in such a way that it does not depend on the deviations of each employee from the average one (not the ideal one). The number of those that have indeed a way to influence the Microsoft products is very small, irrespective of considering technical or marketing aspects. Now I can remember only two names from the top of my head: Toma Tudor and Crisitan Petculescu.
Speaking about accomplishments, I think that George Ciprian Necula getting the Grace Murray Hopper award for the best young researcher of the year in 2001 (http://awards.acm.org/hopper/) and Ion Stoica obtaining the ACM prize for the best PhD thesis in CS (http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1014887) are reasons to be proud for these two. I also think that my former student Daniel Bogdan, one of the two founders fo IPDevel (www.ipdevel.ro) have reasons to be proud, given the spectacular evolution of the company started in 2000 when Daniel was still a student.
How much of students' accomplishments are due to their professors is a question that I will answer with my favorite answer: it really depends. Recently, one of the graduates, Vivi, wrote me an email to let me know that he passed successfully all interviews and he will start working for Google USA starting this fall. In the same email, he reminded me that he worked during his undergrad studies and he didn't finish the most difficult major in our department. In other words, he was successful for what he wanted while not following the advice that I always give to the students. Does that mean that Vivi succeeded without the school's help? For me, the fact that Vivi felt the need to write back to me means that he heard and he wondered if I were right or not. I would be proud if all students that I talk to would listen to what I have to say and think whether I'm right or wrong. If then they act according to their own conclusions, it would mean that at least part of my job description was covered.
What part of the multiple successes obtained by our Computer Science and Engineering Department team of students (http://icpc.baylor.edu/past/icpc2005/finals/Standings.html) in international competitions are ascribed to the school? What if these students were studying at a different university in Romania or abroad, do you think they wouldn't have obtained the same prizes? Probably the merit of the school is that because it's renowned, it attracts a lot of very good students that you can build winning teams with. Also, the group of professors and TAs that manage every year to select and advise a group of students is a contribution of the school. Does this mean anything about the whole school in general?
To be proud of someone else's success, you must have done something to contribute to this success. Otherwise, of course we've always been and ar proud of Nadia Comaneci's* successes.
* Nadia Comaneci is a famous Romanian gymnast that got the first full 10 in the Olympics Games for gymnastic.