November, 2008

Nov 08

Kid concert

We’re at our first kid concert – it’s a bit of a mass of kidmanity. There’s even something like a five year old mosh pit up at the front (not kidding). It’s great, really — fun, engaged, optimistic.

It boggles my mind a little bit, though, to look around the hall and think about what these hundreds of kids will be like, how they’ll contribute to the world, how different their world will be from the one we grew up with. Challenging times, but impossible not to be hopeful & optimistic in a context like this.

Nov 08

Extraordinary Letter from Stanford’s President

Along with (I think), thousands of Stanford alums, yesterday in my in box I found an extraordinary letter from John Hennessy, Stanford’s President (and a wonderful CS professor and entrepreneur) about the current economic situation and the implications for Stanford. The letter speaks for itself, I think, but I’ll preface it by noting a few things. First, John’s proactive & candid openness is incredible and wonderful to me. Happily, there seems to be a lot of that going around lately. Second, the economic situation is very bad, expanding, and touching everyone. It’s going to get much worse.

Still, I can’t help but feel like we’re all developing ways to talk about challenges like a community of adults, whether they be in commercial terms like we have at Mozilla, in the academy like this note, or in our government with the new administration. That’s something we can build on.

Dear Alumni, Parents and Friends:

Many of you have contacted me over the past few months with questions about the recent shifts in the economy and how the University is affected. I would like to update you on our response to these challenges.

Financial Aid Commitments Still Secure
The questions came to me even before the academic year was under way, from parents moving their sons and daughters into their residences this past fall: Given the state of the economy, would the University be able to meet its commitments to financial aid? Would we be able to help in situations where decreased home equity might preclude a loan they were counting on to help pay tuition? How would we deal with job losses by a family member? Our response: We will stand by our commitments and, yes, we will reconsider the financial aid needs of any family negatively impacted by the economic downturn.

The questions continued through Reunion Homecoming Weekend as the Dow Jones average dropped approximately 25 percent further. How was the University’s endowment affected? What would this mean for financial aid, for operations and for the capital facilities projects already under way?

The Tightest Financial Outlook in Decades

Let’s start with the endowment. We weathered the period through early summer comparatively well, achieving an overall return of 6.2 percent for the year ending June 30, 2008. Since then, the endowment has declined steeply, although somewhat less precipitously than the market indices. In addition, sponsored research, our second largest revenue source, has been declining in real terms over the past several years, and given the challenges in the federal budget is unlikely to improve quickly. Tuition, our third major source of revenue, cannot be raised significantly out of fairness to our students and their families. All of these factors contribute to the tightest financial outlook we have seen in decades.

Fortunately, Stanford entered this period in a relatively healthy financial position, bolstered by several years of revenue increases, generous gifts from alumni, parents and friends, and remarkable growth in the endowment, which for the first time ever became the University’s largest source of revenue.

To manage our finances going forward, we anticipate reducing the $800 million general funds budget – which pays for most of our faculty and staff salaries, central administrative operations and non-research expenses – by 10 to 12 percent over the next few years. Declining federal research dollars could double the total revenue loss across the University. We cannot achieve these reductions without some significant and permanent cutbacks.

Cutting Costs Wisely
As we implement these budget cuts, we will do so with several principles in mind. First, we will focus on preserving the investments we have made in our faculty over the past decade. Likewise, we will maintain our commitment to both undergraduate and graduate students. The excellence of the University depends on its people, and we will do our best to maintain the quality of our faculty, staff and students as we make adjustments.

Second, we will review our capital projects. We are in the midst of a major capital program that includes some vital construction projects. Halting projects in mid-construction, even temporarily, would cost us more money in the long run. But not all our projects will be built according to the original schedule. We will reexamine projects that incur significant amounts of debt.

Third, through support from The Stanford Challenge we have launched a variety of efforts to address the most challenging problems facing humankind: sustaining our planet for future generations, enhancing peace and stability around the world, exploring the potential of stem cells for autoimmune diseases, improving K-12 education in the United States, and finding new ways to generate energy that will not increase greenhouse gases. These are critical initiatives, and while we must adapt our efforts to present circumstances, we will not shy away from our long-term responsibility to lead in finding solutions for these problems.

Trust in Our Stanford Community
We know we are not alone in dealing with this financial shockwave; some of you will experience situations far more difficult than we see on our campus. My sincere wish is that those whose lives have been disrupted will find firmer footing in coming months. In any crisis, we look to the people and places whose connections sustain and strengthen us. I hope that your place in the Stanford community provides such nourishment for you.

As always, I am happy to hear from you. Send your comment, suggestion or question to me at or to Howard E. Wolf, ’80, vice president for alumni affairs and president of Stanford Alumni Association, at


John L. Hennessy

Nov 08


I’ve had the good fortune to visit the Stanford CS department twice this week — on Monday I visited with some of the current section leaders to talk about Mozilla some, and last night I was on a CS careers panel with my very good friends Schrep & Mauria and got to see Mehran & Jay as an added bonus.

It’s been interesting to be back — both incredibly familiar and pretty foreign to me. [As an aside, I have different feelings when I engage with the — I think maybe it’s because I’ve gotten more involved with Diego & Bob & George and design later in my life, and am increasingly interested in those sorts of problems — so I associate undergraduate CS education at Stanford with some exceptionally strong (and fond) emotions that come along with growing up in college.]

On the incredibly familiar side, I understood all the language; I recognized section leaders pulling a huge stack of papers out of their bags; using the time before the class to grade those programs; talking about whether something deserved a “check” or a “check plus.” I recognized the tiredness that comes from going all the time, but also the common fun & shared interest of the section leaders. And while I guess my time at Stanford pre-dated Joss Whedon, I even recognized the feeling when they all started talking about how much they love Dr. Horrible. And of course, of course, I remember looking forward and wondering what life in the world was going to look like, how I was gonna convince someone to give me a job I probably wasn’t really qualified for, and, really, what the hell people at work did with all their time.

On the unfamiliar side, holy cow these students know so much today, about so many things that are important. In 1995 when Bryan and I were both getting ready to start at Trilogy, I think we had a pretty good idea of what companies like Apple and Intel and HP did, but beyond that, not so much. But the students I talked with yesterday & Monday are incredibly informed. They understand the differences between Firefox & Chrome & Safari & IE, and even the implications of those differences. They understand how the Facebook platform works — many have written Facebook apps or web apps that are already in the world. And they understand more than I would have imagined about open source, which makes me hugely optimistic.

They asked lots of great questions. Some were super-specific, about things like what we’re going to do with Ubiquity over the next year, how we think about competition with Chrome, what it is, exactly that product managers do. (That last question I told them they’ll be asking for a pretty long time.)

But also things like how to decide what job to take? How to measure success? How much risk should I take right now? Does it matter if I do systems or AI or HCI?

And, of course, all of us older folks on the panel found ourselves saying things like “well, you won’t really get this now, but…” or “it took me 3 jobs to really figure out anything about that”. But the coolest thing, really, was that everyone on the panel agreed that the single most important thing was to not over-think it, to do what makes you engaged and interested — to do, in Tom Kosnik’s words, “things that make your soul sing.” And more importantly, to do things that matter to people, that change the world, that make things better. And even with all the economic doom around (more on that in my next post), that message of small groups of people getting together to change the world really resonated and made sense.

So with distance now, some things are clearer, some things not so much — that’s a characteristic of being human, I suppose. But I’m excited about this next group of people who are ready to change the world.

Nov 08

Downtown Owl, by Chuck Klosterman

Not a bad novel — quirky look at a quirky town somewhere in North Dakota. Entertaining enough, but with Klosterman, I really like his essays a lot more.

Nov 08

Chandler Changes

I’ve been involved with OSAF since before its inception — my relationship with Mitch (and his investment in Reactivity) led us to collborate on a bunch of different things (and to become close friends), and building a new, modern sort of PIM was one of them. So over the years, I’ve been on the Board of Directors, helped with some thinking and recruiting, things like that.

Sheila’s got a new post up about changes to OSAF — and the move to a mostly volunteer organization. As part of the transition, it’s made sense for Mitchell, Katie and myself to step off the board, and to bring in some exceptionally interesting and talented new members.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the results of the last few years at OSAF have been mixed — with significant contributions coming in the areas of CalDAV (yay!), and thinking about user interface for task management — but without as much implemented as everyone would have liked. For the record, the chronicling of the project in Dreaming in Code, was not, it seemed to me, quite fair or accurate, and I feel that there were significant missed conclusions in it.

The recent 1.0 release is significant and has many diehard users.

I’m proud to have been associated with OSAF and the leadership there, including Al, Mitch, Katie, Sheila and many others, and I’m happy that there’s a new, stronger board in place to be stewards going forward. I’m looking forward to watching what comes next. Congrats to Sheila, Jared, Andre, Alex & Eugene!