Rajeev Motwani’s work as a computer science professor at Stanford University and angel investor and mentor to many technology companies in Silicon Valley, including Google, has impacted millions around the world.
Without the mentorship and guidance of the late professor Rajeev Motwani, legendary Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Sergey Brin and Larry Page may not have been able to build Google up to what it’s today—the most significant internet search engine in human history.
A product of IIT-Kanpur and the University of California, Berkeley, Professor Motwani’s pioneering work in data mining and algorithms at Stanford University, as well as a unique ability to solve deeply complex mathematical problems, played a key role in developing the search engine system that would go on to make Brin and Page billionaires.
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As Brin noted in his blog paying tribute to professor Motwani, “Today, whenever you use a piece of technology, there is a good chance a little bit of Rajeev Motwani is behind it.”
However, his impact as a computer science professor at Stanford University, angel investor and mentor to many other technology companies, stretches far beyond the confines of Google and Silicon Valley. Remembered as an exceptionally brilliant mind, his path-breaking research in data mining and algorithms helped him earn a string of accolades, including the prestigious Gödel prize (given for outstanding papers in the area of theoretical computer science) in 2001.
Beyond his research work, however, Motwani was deeply engaged in transforming academic ideas into commercial ventures. According to IIT Kanpur’s Office of Resources and Alumni, he played an “an active role in the Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students (BASES).”
“He was an avid angel investor and helped fund a number of startups to emerge from Stanford. He sat on the boards of several companies including Google, Kaboodle, Adchemy, Baynote, Vuclip, Tapulous and Stanford Student Enterprises,” noted the IIT-Kanpur description.
Going further, he co-authored seminal research papers on the internet alongside Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Stanford academic Terry Winograd on ‘PageRankalgorithm’ and ‘What Can You Do With A Web In Your Pocket’. He would also go on to teach and advise a lot of Google’s pioneering developers and researchers including their first employee Craig Silverstein.
Passion for mathematics
Born on 24 March 1962 in Jammu, Professor Motwani grew up in a military household with his father serving in the Indian Army. Although the family moved around a lot thanks to his father’s postings, he ended up graduating from high school at St Columba’s boys’ school in New Delhi.
From a very young age, he showed a genuine appreciation and aptitude for numbers. Growing up, he read a plethora of books about scientists and mathematicians lying around in his family’s collection. Professor Motwani was particularly inspired after reading one about the legendary 19th-century German mathematician and physicist Carl Friedrich Gauss.
“This [desire to become a mathematician] was partly shaped by the books I had at home. My parents for some reason had a lot of these books — 10 great scientists or five famous mathematicians — their life stories and so on. As a child, whatever heroes you read about you want to become,” said Rajeev in an interview with Alumni Connect (IIT-Kanpur).
But when the time came to choose what subject he wanted in college, his family encouraged him to choose computer science, a subject they “saw as more stable and lucrative than pure mathematics,” according to a 2009 profile by tech journalist Bobbie Johnson for The Guardian.
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Despite his apprehensions, he enrolled at IIT-Kanpur, and soon discovered that computer science was a discipline, which contained a high degree of mathematics.
“I truly wanted to be a mathematician, and my parents were hesitant because how do you make money as a mathematician, how do you support a family. I was basically forced into going into computer science even though I did not want to, but it turned out to be a wonderful surprise that computer science is actually quite mathematical as a field,” he recalled in an interview.
As a student among the first cohort of undergraduate computer science students at IIT-Kanpur, Motwani stood out for not just his immaculate intelligence, but also his variety of interests. An avid reader of science fiction literature, he wasn’t a student confined to his classroom and dormitory. He spent his time solving difficult crossword puzzles, playing volleyball and bridge, and was also known among his peers as “a fun loving, rock-n-rollin’ party guy”.
But Professor Kesav Nori, who taught Rajeev’s first class on programming — TA 306: Principles of Programming, also had this to say: “Rajeev knew that [the] purpose of programming is not just coding; it is to formulate the problem. Rajeev’s thinking was clear; his expression [was] direct. No unnecessary stuff. Rajeev had a knack for creating the most elegant and brief answers to the hardest of programming problems. It was a joy to read his papers.”
Graduating from IIT-Kanpur in 1983, he would go on to earn his PhD (1988) at the University of California, Berkeley, under the supervision of Professor Richard M Karp. Within a couple of years, he became a professor at Stanford, an event which sparked a remarkable journey.
“At Stanford, he founded the Mining Data at Stanford (MIDAS) project, an umbrella organisation for several groups looking into new and innovative data management concepts. His research areas included databases, data mining, Web search and information retrieval,” noted a profile of Professor Rajeev Motwani by the Office of Resources and Alumni, IIT-Kanpur.
Besides authoring two standout textbooks on theoretical computer science, he also served on editorial boards of many well-regarded scientific journals.
According to a short tribute published by Stanford University, “He made fundamental contributions to the foundations of computer science, search and information retrieval, streaming databases and data mining, and robotics. In these areas, he considered questions as philosophical as what makes problems inherently intractable, and as practical as finding similar images and documents from a database. His text book, Randomized Algorithms, with Prabhakar Raghavan, epitomises this meeting of the abstract and the concrete, and has been a source of inspiration to countless students.”
Employing his expertise in data mining and algorithms, professor Motwani understood the limitless possibilities of the world wide web. According to Bobbie Johnson for The Guardian, he “helped start a number of classes and groups at Stanford aimed at investigating how to apply the mathematical principles he had worked on to the online world.”
It was Brin who initially sought out professor Motwani for advice. Despite some initial scepticism about Brin’s idea for a new web search engine in what was considered a “crowded market”, Motwani saw potential for something much bigger.
“However, he saw something different in their work and co-authored several papers that developed their strategy for finding information online — taking on the role of informal adviser to Google as a result. In return for his involvement, Motwani was rewarded with a stake in the company, a relationship that paid off when Google reached the stock market in 2004, making Page and Brin billionaires and reaping great rewards for himself,” wrote Johnson.
In his blog, here’s what Sergey Brin said, “Officially, Rajeev was not my advisor, and yet he played just as big a role in my research, education, and professional development.”
“When my interest turned to data mining, Rajeev helped to coordinate a regular meeting group on the subject. Even though I was just one of hundreds of graduate students in the department, he always made the time and effort to help. Later, when Larry [Page] and I began to work together on the research that would lead to Google, Rajeev was there to support us and guide us through challenges, both technical and organisational,” added Brin.
The creation of Google was a deeply collaborative effort. It began when Professor Jeff Ulman, a pioneering researcher in the field of computer science at Stanford University, Sergey Brin and professor Motwani came together to form the research group ‘MIDAS’ at Stanford.
In a 2002 interview with author and journalist Shivanand Kanavi, who was researching for his book Sand to Silicon: The amazing story of digital technology, Motwani recollected, “We did a lot of good work on data mining. Then there was this guy called Larry Page who wasn’t really a part of the MIDAS group but was a friend of Sergey and would show up for these meetings. He was working on this very cool idea of doing random walks on the web.”
“When I understood what the World Wide Web would look like, I knew I had to somehow force randomness into it. When Larry showed us what he was doing, it was like a complete epiphany, we thought it was absolutely the right thing to do. So Sergey got involved and it became a sub group inside MIDAS. I was really a good sounding board for Sergey and Larry and I could relate to what they were doing through randomness. They then created a search engine called Backrub. It was running as a search engine from Stanford just like Yahoo ran till the traffic got big and the IT guys sent it off the campus,” added Motwani.
What started out as a “fun research project” eventually turned into something significant and serious. And calling the search engine ‘Backrub’ wasn’t going to cut it anymore.
“So somebody came up with the name Google. Google means 10 raised to the power of 100. It is actually spelt as GOOGOL, but somebody misspelt it and that’s how the search engine got its name..the official story is we deliberately spelt it that way but my guess is we misspelt it. So Google started and pretty soon everybody in the world was using Google,” he recalled.
Meanwhile, this is how Larry Page remembered him: “Rajeev was a wise theoretician that had the rare knack and desire to turn theory into practical applications….With his always open door and clever insights, Rajeev was instrumental in the early work that led to Google.”
Although professor Motwani did not reach the heights of mainstream popularity that his former students, his experience with Google turned him towards helping other young innovators and entrepreneurs. He would go on to advise and invest in a myriad of other companies including PayPal, the online payments service, and Sequoia Capital, a leading global venture capital firm. He had developed a remarkable network between innovators, nascent entrepreneurs and potential investors, and became a go-to man of sorts in Silicon Valley.
He tragically passed away on 5 June 2009 at the age of just 47 in his swimming pool, with the official cause of death cited as “accidental drowning”. Although his life was cruelly cut short, he left behind an incredible legacy as a scientist, innovator and investor who never turned his back on those who sought out his help and expertise. In fact, one technology investor and friend, Ron Conway, called him “one of the smartest people who has ever existed in Silicon Valley”.
(Edited by Divya Sethu; Images courtesy Wikimedia Commons, IIT-Kanpur & Twitter/Asha Motwani)
‘Rajeev Motwani unplugged’ by Shivanand Kanavi; ‘Rajeev Motwani: Interview 2002’ courtesy reflections-shivanand.blogspot.com (Excerpts appeared in India Abroad, Aug 7, 2009)
‘Obituary: Rajeev Motwani’ by Bobbie Johnson; Published on 10 June 2009 courtesy The Guardian
‘Remembering Rajeev’ by Sergey Brin; Published on 5 June 2009 courtesy http://too.blogspot.com/2009/06/remembering-rajeev.html
‘Remembering Rajeev Motwani’ by Stanford University
‘Late. Prof. Rajeev Motwani’ courtesy Office of Resources and Alumni, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur
‘Rajeev Motwani: There wasn’t a startup he didn’t love’ by Alumni Connect (IIT-Kanpur); Published on 10 September 2013
‘Rajeev Motwani, Guide in the Creation of Google, Dies at 47’ by Miguel Helft; Published on 10 June 2009 courtesy The New York Times
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