Alum Pinkerton connects tech and social change as Chan Zuckerberg Initiative's first CTO

UW-Madison computer science alum Brian Pinkerton has tackled big challenges during his entire career, and his next role may be his biggest yet.  This November, Pinkerton (BS ’86) became the first chief technology officer of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a philanthropic entity formed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his spouse, Dr. Priscilla Chan.

The couple announced in September that they are committing $3 billion over the next decade, mostly to projects in education and biomedical research.  They have two specific goals that they want to achieve in their child’s lifetime: to have children today learn 100 times what we learned, and to prevent, cure or manage all diseases.

In Zuckerberg’s words, “Bringing engineering to social change is the basic idea of our work.”  The initiative will create scalable tools to benefit scientists, educators and others, enabling not simply advancement but faster advancement. Zuckerberg has described Pinkerton as “a great engineering leader who I've wanted to work with for a long time.”  

“I’m super excited,” says Pinkerton of his new role.  “I hope we can have a lot of impact.  A lot of what we do will be publicly available” to help researchers, he says.

Pinkerton will bring talents he honed at both UW-Madison and the University of Washington, where he earned his PhD.

He notes that computer science and other sciences are drawing ever closer.  “Broadly speaking, parts of science are becoming information problems as well as laboratory problems, or biology problems, or physics problems.  Part of my job [as CTO] is to figure out when it’s an information problem.  How do we give scientists tools that we’re accustomed to in industry, with all the scale and power that comes with that?”

Pinkerton spent the past five years with A9, a Palo Alto-based subsidiary of Amazon, most of that time as general manager. He joined the company in 2011 as chief architect.

At A9, Pinkerton focused on search, noting that a general Amazon search must now encompass billions of products, particularly as Amazon has mushroomed as a marketplace for third-party retailers, not just its own goods.  (Search has been on Pinkerton’s mind for a long time; he created the first Internet search engine, WebCrawler, during his grad school years.)

His rigorous training in CS will inform how he approaches his new role at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.  “From a methodology standpoint, we’ll probably do a bunch of projects, both for education and biology, and figure out what are the kinds of things we have to solve, and go in and solve them directly without worrying about the bigger picture right away,” says Pinkerton.  “But over time, patterns will emerge, a class of problems – and that’s what computer scientists do well, is generalize and build more general platforms that can be specialized for particular areas.”

Because the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is just getting started, Pinkerton will be able to recruit a new team and help shape the organization’s direction.  “That was part of the attraction [in becoming CTO],” says Pinkerton.  There are still dozens of engineers, architects, managers, scientists and others to be hired as efforts ramp up.

Pinkerton has a special interest in the educational side of CZI’s mission.  Not only is he the parent of two young children, he has aided the UW-Madison CS department as a member of its Board of Visitors, an advisory panel of distinguished alumni, since 2009.

Pinkerton’s career path is the fulfillment of a fascination with technology and creative problem-solving he has had since growing up on Madison’s west side.  His father is Tad Pinkerton, an emeritus computer science professor and former deputy director of the Division of Information Technology.

Because of his dad’s interests, tech was always part of the Pinkerton home.  “Our first computer in the house was a 110-baud Teletype sitting on the dining room floor with an acoustic coupler,” he laughs.

So while technology has changed, Pinkerton’s curiosity has remained the same--and he plans to put it to good use solving some of society’s most critical problems.


[Pictured above (L-R): Priscilla Chan, Brian Pinkerton and Mark Zuckerberg. Photo courtesy of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.]