Edouard Servan-Schreiber, Ph.D., Computer Science
Edouard Servan-Schreiber, Ph.D., Computer Science

“After graduating from Carnegie Mellon with my B.S. in mathematics and computer science, I worked in consulting, traveled in Asia, did my military service in France, before wishing to return to academic endeavors. After considering carefully my options, Berkeley stood out for its exceptional “value proposition,” as the business world likes to say — stunning academics and fabulous quality of life.

Berkeley offered a balanced environment in which to live and grow, along with the best academic environment. I considered, of course, all the usual suspects. But among the veterans I interviewed when making my choice, the Cal alumni had a particular sparkle in their eyes which hinted that their years at Cal were among the best of their lives.

As I settled into Berkeley, there was some surprise indeed about finding so much activism about all sorts of things. To my European mind, it seemed like any topic was valid for becoming an activist, which was awkward to me. But the most important aspect of Cal life was being exposed to so many walks of life. Students came from all kinds of backgrounds, and were all good at what they were doing. This was not just a good engineering school. If I met a social historian, she would be a stunning historian. I lived at I-House, which was a natural home to all the foreigners settling in Berkeley, and a nurturing house for lifelong friendships. I participated in a rock band after only 2 months, with 3 friends I met on stage at the I-House.

International House
I-House, a multi-cultural campus residence and program center at UC Berkeley.

Being a student at Cal made me feel like I was in the center of the world. Bill Clinton would visit and have dinner at Chez Panisse. The Dalai Lama showed up to make his case. Nobel Prize winners would make talks on a regular basis. The Secretary of State came for a talk on US foreign policy. Any topic of fancy could be nurtured with world-class material. And even if the work was intense, it made sense to everyone to do a lot of that work in cafes. Professors would give their office hours in cafes which I thought (as a Parisian) was the pinnacle of civilization.

My work ended up being very interdisciplinary, on the border between economics and computer science. Crossing the bridge between the two departments, and finding faculty who were prepared to support this effort turned out to be remarkably simple. I thought it was remarkable that many of these professors knew and appreciated each other, and this made interdisciplinary work very interesting to them.

What mattered most in completing the program was having an advisor who really cared to see me finish. A Ph.D. can be daunting, and it is easy to get distracted or discouraged. My advisor, Christos H. Papadimitriou, was very effective in keeping me focused and enthusiastic through the troughs of motivation. Thanks to him, I was able to finish. His interest in solving problems in other fields has influenced my career, as my work consists mostly of applying the skills I learned at Berkeley in a wide range of business settings where a computer scientist would not generally be expected.

Cory Hall, home of the internationally renowned Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) at UC Berkeley. The building was named for Clarence L. Cory, the University’s first professor in mechanical and electrical engineering. Cory had graduated from Purdue in 1889 at age 16, the youngest person at that time to ever receive a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He went on to study electrical engineering and earned a master’s degree from Cornell in 1891 before coming to UC. Here, he established the electrical engineering program in 1892 and also founded the university’s first electronics lab.
Cory Hall, home of the internationally renowned Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) at UC Berkeley. The building was named for Clarence L. Cory, the University’s first professor in mechanical and electrical engineering. Cory had graduated from Purdue in 1889 at age 16, the youngest person at that time to ever receive a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He went on to study electrical engineering and earned a master’s degree from Cornell in 1891 before coming to UC. Here, he established the electrical engineering program in 1892 and also founded the university’s first electronics lab.

I taught at least half of my time at Cal. As a graduate student, teaching undergraduate courses can easily feel like a chore, but in retrospect it was an incredibly useful and enriching experience. After reading so many things about teaching and learning, it was extremely enlightening to be in the position of teacher. One of the most powerful insights was that the best way to learn something well is to be forced to teach it, but don’t tell anyone!

What I learned from writing a thesis is that finishing is hard because a lot of the real work lies in the finishing. I may feel like my proof is bullet proof…until I write it up. Only then will the holes in the reasoning and flaws appear.

My dissertation, “Communication in Hierarchies: Explaining Deadlines,” essentially demonstrates that whenever a large organization tries to work for a common goal, it is inevitable to work with deadlines. It may feel obvious, but it has an important subtlety. This problem is about what information can be shared by all the individuals in the organization without overwhelming their capacity to manage information. It turns out that the best “bang for the buck” in terms of information sharing is sharing a common clock, which allows everyone to synchronize their efforts.

The ways in which my graduate degree has helped beyond Berkeley are simple. First of all, my degree gives me an indisputable legitimacy. Secondly, I actually learned things which are not so easy to learn. Knowing hard things means I can contribute to the world in interesting and unusual ways, and the legitimacy allows me to be heard.

My current work consists of advising, and doing, predictive statistical models for companies which harbor and collect massive data without usually knowing how it can help them in their business. I converged to this position through focus and chance. After Cal, I co-founded a company selling prediction markets technology. This led me to lead a small market research institute which specialized in combining insights from interviews and data analysis. Then I met my current boss, who used to teach MBA’s, who told me she was looking for people who understood data and statistics but had a real sense of business value. It seems I fit the bill and I’ve been really enjoying myself since. It gives me a unique ability to see companies in different countries, different industries, and to see the amount of common ground they all face. My task is to advise them, and often demonstrate to them through proof of concepts, how data analysis and predictive modeling can significantly help their business.

I really enjoy feeling that my skills, which many call esoteric and obscure, can help major companies build and serve things we all want, like cell phone service, and cars. Ten years from now, I’ll either be doing the same thing, or sailing around the world…, another skill I learned in Berkeley.”

Photos: Edouard Servan-Schreiber photo courtesy of Edouard Servan-Schreiber, Cory Hall photo by Lisa Harrington, I-House photo and “common clock” graphic by Patrick McMahon.


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About Dick Cortén