Professor Emeritus Landweber, an Internet pioneer, encourages risk-taking

Professor Landweber

When seeking career advice in computer science, asking someone who’s been around since the early days of the field is a wise strategy.

“I tell students, don’t overthink or overplan your future.  Especially in this field, there are so many opportunities,” says Larry Landweber, the John P. Morgridge Professor Emeritus of Computer Sciences and former two-time department chair. “If something sounds exciting, with great potential, but is risky, do it! Take a chance! You have no idea where things are going to lead.”

Landweber should know—he’s been part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Computer Sciences almost since its beginning.  Fresh out of graduate school at Purdue University, Landweber joined UW in 1967, only three years after the CS department’s founding, when the field was rapidly taking shape.

Landweber’s advice to students is borne of his own experience. When arriving in Madison, Landweber could not have envisioned the shifts his own career would take.

“When I first came, I was younger than many of the grad students,” he remembers.  “There was no stage 2 or 3 building yet [in the computer sciences complex at 1210 W. Dayton St.], and only 20 or 30 grad students.”  Madison itself was in the throes of antiwar demonstrations.  “Sometimes the grass still smelled of teargas in the morning when I went to teach class.”

In those early days, the department focused heavily on mathematics, and Landweber fit that mold.  “I was doing theoretical CS and most of the department was people doing numerical analysis or operations research, like Olvi Mangasarian and Seymour Parter,” he recalls.

Then, in the 1970s, the nature of the department broadened through the hiring of faculty in more applied areas.  During Mangasarian’s time as chair (1972-75), Landweber took a lead role in faculty recruiting. During this period, Charles Fischer, David DeWitt and Marv Solomon—all now emeriti themselves—came on board.

The biggest turn in Landweber’s career took place in the late ‘70s, when he moved from theory to networking.  By 1980 or ’81, it was his main focus and a rapidly developing subfield of computer science.

At that time, networking was like the Wild West.  “When I first taught networking, there was really no text.  I was kind of winging it and gave out projects that students really enjoyed, but I think they probably threw darts at my picture during the semester!” he says with a laugh, admitting that the assignments were “so completely unreasonable, they required more hours than students had in the day.”

Yet the challenging nature of that first course in networking prepared Master’s students for plum jobs and gave Ph.D. students a great foundation for further study, he says. “All of it was new, and an incredible amount of research was going on. Because of this, every time I taught, I had to change about 30% of the course.”

Landweber, who was inducted into the inaugural class of the Internet Hall of Fame in 2012, is credited with being “a leader in the development of the international Internet.” (Read more in WIRED magazine’s profile on the occasion of his Hall of Fame induction.)

In fact, Internet history accounts for much of what occupies Landweber’s time now.  Supported by a National Science Foundation grant, he (along with co-author Doug VanHouweling of the University of Michigan) is writing a history of the Internet from 1978 to 1995, based on interviews with those who were key players during that time.

Yet his eyes are also on where the Internet is heading next.  He predicts that in 25 years, most people won’t really remember the Internet as we know it today.  And through his consulting on projects like GENI and CloudLab, Landweber keeps a hand in the development of next-generation infrastructures.

For fun, he and his wife, Jean, enjoy boating and bicycling (they embark on weekend rides of 20-30 miles per day and have gone on bike trips to France and South Africa).  They spend half the year in Washington, DC, where they can be nearer to their grandchildren, and the rest in Madison. 

Professor Landweber considers his greatest legacy to be the students he taught and advised.  He would love to hear from former students; drop him a line at lhl@cs.wisc.edu and let him know how you’re doing!

[Photo credit: Sarah Morton, UW-Madison College of Letters & Science]