Long ago (1988) I moved to Berkeley and started sending a monthly "newsletter" to my Boston friends. When I returned to Boston (1993), I continued the tradition for about five more years (or until I had kids). Looking back, I realize that I was actually blogging. Each newsletter contained anywhere from a few to several blog posts. Having been silent for the past decade or so, I've decided to resume these activities. Don't expect anything profound -- I tend to focus on what I find entertaining or amusing and perhaps sometimes informative. We shall see!

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Memo I Didn't Get


As I prepare to leave Harvard, where I have spent most of my adult life, I have had time to reflect on some of the lessons I've learned here as well as those I've perhaps not learned so well. Today's post builds on some remarks I made on May 7 at the (wonderful) SEAS retirement party.

It seems that when you become a Junior Faculty member, you get a memo telling you how to be successful. It says something like, "Keep your head down; ignore everything except your research and maybe your teaching; and whatever you do, don't question anything. And certainly don't ever disagree with anyone who might be involved in your tenure decision."

Well, it seems that I never got that memo, or perhaps, as my clever colleague Jay Harris suggested, I got the memo, but tore it up.

I started violating that memo before I even knew it! One of the first research projects I undertook at Harvard resulted in what I believe to be one of the first web-based flamewars (yes, there really had to be a first one of those). Now, engaging in a flamewar might not be seen as particularly problematic, but this was: A) a flamewar between a brand new junior faculty member (me) and a rather senior and well respected member of my community, that is, someone who would, undoubtedly be called upon to write letters in my future, B) very public (and those of you who have ever written with me know that I abhor the use of 'very'), and C) is still sometimes used in graduate OS classes as an example of, um, something.


Then there were the seemingly absurd situations I found myself in. Somehow I found myself as the only Junior faculty member in attendance at a meeting where a collection of deans and Sr. faculty were debating what we might pitch to Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer for the building that is now Maxwell Dworkin. It seemed that there were two options on the table: a free standing building to replace the Aiken Computation Lab (i.e., Maxwell Dworkin) or an L-shaped connector between two existing buildings. I listened in disbelief as the assembled group seemed to seriously discuss the two options for about forty five minutes.  I finally was unable to stop myself from blurting out that, while I did not know either donor, I was pretty sure that if I were donating money for a computer science building, I'd want an actual building, not a connector. Oops, didn't read the memo. Clearly, someone important thought the connector was a good idea, because as I left, the beloved and highly-regarded Dean of FAS*, Jeremy Knowles, leaned over and quietly said, "Thank you." I will never know who set me up for this, but whoever it was had to know what was going to happen, right?


And then there was the downright terrifying -- standing up on the FAS faculty floor and arguing against the entire Harvard Central and FAS administrations. To fully understand this, you have to have some image in your head about what FAS meetings are like. The meetings are presided over by the President of the University (yes, we have a Dean, but he (and it's always been a he) does not run the meetings of his own faculty). The power (President, Provost, Dean of FAS, Dean of the College, etc) sit at a large round table in the front; the rest of us sit in the gallery. The proceedings are highly orchestrated -- the agenda is largely the same every meeting and means that you have to wade through about thirty minutes (or more) of process before you get to the actual topics for the meeting. If you want to speak, you have to tell someone days in advance (and if there is something controversial, you can be sure that they will figure out which side you're on before the meeting). Most people speak from a written script (i.e., not notes, but the entire statement fully written out). So do not confuse an FAS faculty meeting with a discussion; it is a performance. And here I am speaking against pretty much everyone who will decide my fate at Harvard.

I cannot read from a script. I frequently speak from notes; I sometimes write out my thoughts in more detail, but I do not speak publicly by reading the script. I ad lib, I rephrase, I add things, I leave things out. This is me.


This whole experience is what introduced me to the memo and the dire consequences of it. You see, unless specifically requested, votes in FAS faculty meetings are public (voice vote or hand raise). So, although I, an untenured faculty member, stood up and offered an opinion contrary to the administration (including the person who would, the next year, chair my tenure committee), I had been approached by tenured faculty who said, "I agree with you, but I can't vote against the administration."

This confused me for a long time. Is not the raison d'etre of tenure to allow one to speak one's mind without fear of retaliation? Are our administrators and colleagues not rational adults who can disagree with ideas instead of people? (Note: the aforementioned administrator who would go on to chair my tenure committee gets this as easily as he breathes.) Why do tenured faculty feel that they cannot voice their opinions? And it all comes back to the memo. If you got the memo and spent seven (or more) years following it, you internalize it. So, tenured or not, you learn to stifle your true beliefs and toe the party line.

This is a disaster in all organizations, but a particularly nasty one in an academic setting. After all, we are researchers -- we are supposed to question everything. If one were never to question the status quo, the earth would still be flat, the sun would revolve around the earth, and the earth would sit on the back of a turtle. Now one might argue that our leaders have clearly thought through all such possibilities and therefore, they will always have the right answer, so there is no need to ever disagree with them. I don't buy it. We are human and being human means that we are, in fact, fallible. If a leader or group of leaders cannot entertain the possibility that they are wrong (and create an environment where people feel free to suggest such possibilities without fear), then how can they possibly expect anyone else in the organization to do so?  If my boss is always right, how can I ever go to him/her and say, "I made a mistake."


Thus, living by the memo means that we create organizations without transparency, organizations that hide things from within and without, and maybe even from themselves. This is the hallmark of an organization that cannot move forward and cannot improve. So, unless stagnation is acceptable, we must all tear up the memo.

* FAS = Faculty of Arts and Sciences. If you aren't in academia, this basically includes Harvard College, the graduate school of Arts and Sciences, the School (or Division) of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and the Harvard Extension School. In other words -- everyone except the professional schools, such as the Law School, Medical School, Business School, etc.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Thank You -- On Leadership

Last night (or more precisely March 4, since I"m not sure how long it will take me to finish this) my students and colleagues threw me an amazingly wonderful retirement/going away party. You see, while I will, in fact, be moving to Vancouver and the University of British Columbia this fall, I have been at Harvard sufficiently long and am sufficiently old that I am retiring from Harvard.

Update: It did, in fact, take me a long time to finish this. In the meantime, one of the people I mention below, Gerald Scorsone, passed away. This post is now dedicated to Sporty -- for showing me how to turn a business into a family; for teaching me the value of good, hard work; and for teaching me how to treat my colleagues and customers.

Over the past 25 years, I've been lucky enough to have amazing students, wonderful colleagues, and  fabulous associates from all over, and many of them gave up their Sunday evening (pre-Oscars) to come celebrate with me. To one and all I am truly grateful.

It's a bit daunting to try to respond on the spot to the amazing messages so many people sent, so I thought I'd try to write up some of the thoughts that I couldn't quite put into words last night, drawing on the themes that emerged from the heartwarming messages so many of you sent.

Some of the words I heard that really stuck out to me were: kindness, role model, and community. In my mind, those all played into another word that both Radhika and Harry mentioned, leadership. So, before thanking many of you, let me reflect on leadership for a moment.

On Leadership
In my mind leadership is about three things: A call to service, caring, and a willingness to do unpopular things. I have been fortunate to have had amazing leaders as teachers, friends, bosses, colleagues, etc.  Not all of these lessons are specifically about leadership, but being a good human being is fundamental to being a good leader. In rough chronological order:

(Peter) Gerald Scorsone: Gerald, or Sporty as we sometimes called him when he wasn't around, owned the hotdog stand (Peter's Charcoal House) where I worked as a high school student. It wasn't until I realized I was the same age he was when he was my boss that I understood what a remarkable leader he was. Somehow, and I still haven't entirely figured out how, he managed to make a bunch of unruly teenagers work our butts off for five-cent-an-hour raises and the right to wear a blue bandana. I kid you not -- earning my blue bandana was a bigger deal than earning my black belt in karate. Those of us in blue bandanas ran our shifts -- the heady feeling of authority for a 16-year-old, which really meant you stood in front of a hot, open grill for 8-10 hours serving up hotdogs, hamburgers, sausage patties, and the like.

My suspicion is that the way Gerald managed to engender such hard work and loyalty was a combination of high expectations -- how you treated customers, how much pride you took in your work, how clean you kept the counters and dining room -- and responsibility. We handled people's food and money; we represented our home towns when busses of tourists came by; we waited on children being bussed to the town pool. Largely, for long parts of the evening and/or weekends, we were on our own.

Lessons: High expectations, trust, and responsibility.

Jan Gauthier: Jan was my college roommate. And she taught me one of life's most important lessons.

Lesson: If you think highly of someone, they shouldn't be the last to know.

David Green: David was the manager of the Harvard Band during my Sophomore and Junior year. The Harvard Band was a somewhat musical, but most definitely wild, raucous and unruly. organization. We sometimes performed shows that were of questionable taste. On those occasions, the band sometimes received nasty-grams pointing out our bad behavior. It would have been easy to toss such letters. Instead, David answered every one of them. And my impression is that in more cases than not, David transformed each critic into a band supporter. Again, I'm not sure how he did it, but I noticed.

Lessons: Learn from your critics. They will be honest with you in a way no one else will.

Nathan (Nat) Goodman: Nat was a Professor while I was an undergraduate, a consultant and then employee at the first company I worked for after college, and finally, he recruited me as Kendall Square Research's first non-founder employee. He ended up becoming my boss, mentor, and friend. I remember all his pre-meeting 1:1 conversations -- making sure that the meeting itself was really just the formalization of what was accomplished during pre-planning. This meant that meetings were short, productive, and rarely surprising.

Lessons: Don't catch people off guard; prepare well.

Henry Burkhardt: If you've heard all my tales of Kendall Square Research, you might be surprised to see me list Henry here, but I learned a lot from Henry. First, he was the most intellectually energetic person I ever met. Although sixteen years my senior at the time, keeping up with him on a business trip was exhausting. His mind was always racing at a gazillion miles per hour and he never got tired. However, he taught me that kindness is a good antidote to the arrogance of youth. Some of you may have heard me tell the "Worker Bee Brand Honey" story or, perhaps, you lived it with me (that would be you Linda and Fred). It's a story I tell frequently to demonstrate how appallingly arrogant one can be in one's youth (the one here would be me). Rather than get angry or punish me in any way, ultimately, Henry and company sent me to "charm school" (a management training program). Indirectly, this changed my life. One of the exercises we did there (the Myers Briggs) got me thinking about a career path better matched to my temperament, and we all know how that turned out. Being a professor was so clearly the right job for me.

Lessons: The youth know not what they do; treat their arrogance with kindness. Energy and enthusiasm are not just for the young.

Keith Bostic: This would be my husband, not the football player. He lives his life by what is arguably up there with Jan's for life's most important lessons. I still struggle with this one at times, but I know enough to repeat it to myself frequently at just the right time.

Lesson: There is no end to the amount of good you can do in the world if you don't care who gets credit for it.

Harry Lewis: I couldn't decide exactly where in the chronology to insert Harry -- he was my undergraduate advisor, wrote me letters for graduate school, convinced me to consider Harvard, and has been my colleague, mentor, and friend for the past 25 years. Pretty much everything I know about being a professor I learned from him, from how to create a curve to how to lecture to how to manage a staff of teaching fellows. More recently though, he taught me what leadership looks like: it means caring, taking a position, getting the facts right, stating the unpopular, writing well, and most importantly being able to disagree politely and respectfully with people you love and respect.

Harry and I do not always agree. Sometimes those disagreements were in public. But never did our differences of opinion cloud the deep seated respect and affection we had for each other.

Lessons: Care. Back up caring with action. Disagree with ideas not people.

Barbara Grosz: Barbara came to Harvard in 1986 and helped to recruit me when I joined in 1992. I attribute the wonderful collegial faculty culture we have in computer science at Harvard largely to Barbara. I remember being questioned one time by Larry Summers why we might not want to hire more combative faculty (that wasn't the precise language) -- I explained that our faculty disagreed a lot, about many things, but we did it with respect and in a constructive fashion and we were not about to give that up.

Lesson: Good culture doesn't just happen; it requires vigilance and nurturing.

Steve Hinds: Steve was the headmaster of The Meadowbrook School of Weston, where my kids attended middle school. He was headmaster there for over 25 years and was much beloved, for obvious reasons. He lived their mission: to know, love, and challenge every child. I think he also knew every parent. He made each of us feel like a crucial member of the community. But most of all, Steve taught me that hugs were entirely professional and could be a part of a school culture. I still cannot watch this video or hear the music without tearing up.

Lesson: Hug people. (Not in that creepy sexually harassing way; that friendly, caring way.) 

Clem Cole: Clem and I were President and Vice-President, respectively, at USENIX when it underwent one of its most important and painful transitions. Clem was firm that he was not going to leave his final term as President without addressing the extraordinarily challenging problems facing the organization, even if it meant hurting people and/or losing friends.

Lesson: When action is called for, take action.

Karl Haberl: Karl is my manager at Oracle, and I frequently refer to him as the best manager I've ever met. Seriously. Karl is the Senior Director for the east coast labs, a small office relative to the one in CA (the mothership). Although that sometimes makes his job difficult, he protects his people, he listens, he advocates for us, he laughs with us, he doesn't take himself too seriously, and he's warm and compassionate. When I received a cancer diagnosis, while simultaneously locking myself out of the conference room in which I'd been at a meeting, it was Karl who took one look at me, asked what was wrong, gave me a hug, and asked what he could do.

Lessons: Take care of your people. Be human.

Ari Betof: Ari is the headmaster of my kids' high school, Boston University Academy. He's in his third year at the school and has been a steady and thoughtful force for positive change. Change is always hard, and Ari has a knack for knowing just how quickly and how far one can push for change, without developing organizational antibodies.

Lesson: Change is a process with a natural time line. Pushing too quickly doesn't work.

Radhika Nagpal: Radhika has been my colleague for the past fourteen years. In this time, she transformed personal injustices into a continued force for change -- childcare, gender equity, holding bad actors accountable. Sometimes, being polite and quiet doesn't work. When that's the case, one needs to be willing to be impolite and loud. Repeatedly. Consistently.

Lesson: Be the squeaky wheel. Those who sit idly by while bad things happen are part of the problem.

Nitin Nohria: Nitin is Dean of Harvard Business School and I have been extraordinarily fortunate to be spending my sabbatical year there as a visiting professor. As a visiting faculty member, I see copies of the email that Nitin sends out. When things happen, e.g., Charlottesville, MeToo, taxes on graduate student tuition, he speaks out. He does so quickly, thoughtfully, compassionately, and intelligently. Each email exudes leadership; they simply make you want to follow this man. He engages his faculty in difficult conversations. And, when necessary, he apologizes.

I have always joked that the most important thing I can teach Harvard students is how to say, "I was wrong," "I don't know," and "I am sorry." As a leader, how can you possibly expect people to come to you and admit they have messed up, if you act as if you've never made a mistake? We are all human. We all make mistakes. Acknowledging when you do takes courage and is a sign of leadership. Becoming defensive is a sign of weakness. The vast majority of people I see in leadership positions, respond to errors with, "But ..." That is cowardice.

Lesson: Speak. Admit when you are wrong.

Eddie Kohler: I can hear it now, he's chortling that he's on this list. Eddie has been a breath of much needed fresh air, because Eddie is willing to speak up when the emperor has no clothes. So many times, I've seen him simply cut to the heart of a matter, whether to suggest that people should apologize to those who've been wronged or to explain that we're asking the wrong question. He and I don't always agree on everything (in fact, we disagree a lot), but I always learn something important when we do.

Lessons: Speak up. If something seems nonsensical, it probably is.

And now, the Thank You part.

To all those I've already mentioned, thank you for sharing your leadership qualities with me and teaching me to be a better human being and a better leader. (Writing this reminded me of writing the acknowledgements in my Ph.D. dissertation.)

In no particular order:

Thank you to John Wilkes, then of HP, for supporting me and my colleagues in the early days of Systems at Harvard.

Thank you to Bob Sproull, then of Sun Microsystems, who also provided unwavering faith and unprecedented financial support to a struggling faculty member who wanted to take on projects far outside her wheelhouse.

Thank you Farnum Jahanian, for inviting USENIX to the table as a player in the CS publication community, for recruiting me to CSTB, for always treating me as a peer, even when you, yourself, are peerless.

Thank you Ed Lazowska, for being as excited (if not more so) about my move to the Pacific Northwest as my UBC colleagues.

Thank you to my colleagues at the USENIX Association and all those who served with me on the USENIX board.

Thank you to past Harvard graduate students who thought enough of your time at Harvard to want to get your organizations to fund my research: Keith Smith, Cliff Young, Kim Hazelwood Cettei.

Thank you to all past and present members of the Charles River Women's Soccer Team (aka The Chucks), for being the most incredible and amazing group of women I know. I describe our team as having shared all of life's ups and downs -- births and deaths, weddings and divorces, illnesses and healing. You have always been there for me and for each other. I will look to carry the chucks' spirit to Vancouver. In the meantime: No injuries, have fun, and if you can score a few goals, please do!

Thank you to all of you out there whose identities I don't know -- you've been asked to write letters: for my promotion to Associate Professor, my promotion to Full Professor, my Canada 150 nomination, my ACM Fellow Nomination, and probably a bunch of other things I don't know about. I wouldn't be here without you.

Thank you to all my colleagues in Harvard Computer Science. It has been my honor and privilege to work with you, learn from you, lead you (if you've been here long enough to have survived Margo as Assoc. Dean), annoy you, and ask you to hold our institution to the highest standards possible.

Thank you to my colleagues at Oracle Labs -- you nudged me in new directions, put up with my ridiculous travel schedule, and make me laugh. A lot.

Thank you to my family. The T's let me drag them all over the world before they started school. As the T's got older, Keith took care of them while I raced around the world. Whenever I need to make an ethical decision, I ask if I could explain my decision making to you. You keep me behaving in a way that makes it possible for me to be the professor, spouse and parent I wish to be.

Thank you to Harvard's Women in Computer Science, and particularly Amy and Anne who started it all. You have transformed Harvard Computer Science in dramatic ways; you have created a community where there wasn't one; you have inspired countless women in all walks of life; you are amazing and wonderful.

Thank you to my tribe -- you are the women I drink coffee with, scheme with, complain to, brag about my children to -- you are always there and I love you for it. I will miss you and will come back to Cambridge and track you down if you don't come visit in Vancouver! Carol, Cathy, Diane, Ellie, Gabriella, Heidi, Kimia, Isabella, Leslie, Linda, Liz, Liz, (yes two), Lynn, Nancy, Penny, Ursula. And my electronic tribe: Cynthia, Diana, Donnalyn, Elaine, Mary, Sam.

And last, but certainly not least -- my students. You are the reason I get up in the morning. You make me be my best self. I am humbled to have been part of your educational journey and am excited to be among your biggest cheerleaders.








Thursday, March 8, 2018

On Motherhood

What I write here is based on my personal experience. Your mileage may vary, but I still claim that what's here is good food for thought, even if you don't completely buy into it.

So much of motherhood seems to revolve around those infant, baby and toddler years. While those years are challenging and exhilarating, I am today, entering the parent-of-adult-children domain. That seemed a good time to reflect back on parenting teenagers. I find my teenage children to have been challenging, fascinating, and rewarding in very different ways. And like those early years, they provide lots of room for parental growth as well. In fact, I believe that the teenage years require a deeper, more challenging, commitment than those early years.

In the early years, love and good intentions (and perseverence) really do go a long way. In the teenage years, those are the very things that get you in trouble. Instead, it seems to me that one needs to temper one's love with the ability to be wrong, the ability to realize that your children are not you -- they may develop different values and a different outlook on life -- you can either accept them or alienate them.

I am always careful to avoid posting things that will annoy or embarrass my children. I fear that this one may cross the line today, but I post anyway, because I believe that at some point, each of them will get it and realize that it is neither embarrassing nor annoying.

I've been working on this for years, waiting until I might post it without incurring the wrath of the children.

Being a Mom Means:

  • Not flinching even though your stomach churns when you learn that the foreign country your 14-year-old will be visiting tomorrow experienced a 5.8 earthquake.
  • Nodding goodbye at the airport as you bid your firstborn adieu for a 10-day adventure with his teachers and classmates, because hugging him would embarrass him to death, even though, when alone, he's willing to admit that he'll miss you.
  • Watching the clock and realizing that your child is now navigating an airport he hasn't seen since he was 10-weeks old -- only this time, he's with teachers and friends, not you.
  • Knowing that there is nothing you can do or say to ease the pain of middle school social challenges.
  • Being at home while your child lives it up and has the adventure of a lifetime in a foreign country.
  • Letting a child mess up and suffer the consequences, regardless how just those consequences seem.
  • Watching a child fail without offering to help, because only through failure can s/he learn.
  • Making your child spend three days at a place she'll hate, eating food she doesn't like, with strangers, in the rain, because it will help her grow and adapt.
  • Letting your child make decisions, without comment or judgment.
  • Hearing, "I don't want to talk about it," and letting it go, even though you want to hear about "it" with every fiber of your being.
  • Watching your child shed tears of love and loss as s/he leaves a community.
  • Not knowing all your child's friends.
  • Stifling that gasp when you see your children from afar and realize they look much more like young men/women than children.
  • Knowing when it's OK to touch your children and when it's not, and resisting the urge when it's not, even if you desparately want that high five, handshake, hug, or other sign that you matter.
  • Knowing enough to say, "Is there anything I can say or do that will help or should I just shut up?" and then just shutting up (because the answer is always, "No, you should just shut up.").
  • Asking permission before telling their stories as if they were your own. Your stories of parenting are your child's stories of life -- let them set the access controls.
  • Letting your child struggle to accomplish something, because helping him/her doesn't actually help him/her learn.
  • Saying, "OK," when your child says, "Yeah, I can navigate the public transportation; you don't have to do it with me."
  • Pretending not to exist when you chauffeur your teenage children and their friends around.
  • Knowing that even though your 15-year-old says he doesn't want to do anything for his birthday, making his favorite food is still the right thing to do.
  • Struggling about how much to pry when they tell you they were "hanging out with friends" after school.
  • Swallowing that, "I told you so," or "What did you think would happen," before the tiniest bit of it escapes from your mouth.
  • Telling your daughter how much you love her for her hard work or brains or cleverness or humor instead of for being cute or nice or good.
  • Asking permission to attend events or do things, instead of assuming you get a choice in the matter.
  • Biting your tongue while your child's friend chastises him/her for behavior you've been trying to change for years.
  • Letting your child be really, really angry at you.
  • Wrapping your head around your 15.5 year old spending a month in China ...
  • Not reading your child's college essay
  • Watching your daughter independently make her way through the dark night to the bus that will carry her and her 7th grade classmates away from you for the next week.
  • Telling your child, "I'd like you to think more about whether you are exercising good judgment," instead of yelling, telling him/her that s/he is wrong, or punishing him/her.
  • Learning to recognize the subtle indications that you're doing a good job, such as when your teenage child wants you to know the good things that happen to him/her; when your child is in trouble and wants to talk to you first; when your child initiates a discussion with you about sex or drugs; when you overhear your kids describing you as "strict, but fair." (I have not experienced all these, but for those I've not experienced, I've heard from other parents and frequently pointed out that these are the things that tell them they are doing a great job.)
  • Letting your children make their own decisions rather than deciding what's best for them.
  • Savoring each and every hug, while accepting the fact that the next one might be a long time away.
  • Realizing that it is your existence as a parent, not your existence as a person, that your children despise.
  • Watching the clock as your "baby" flies to a foreign country without you, waiting somewhat impatiently for the first pictures letting you know that she's OK.
  • Honoring the request that you not read your child's personal statement, no matter how much you want to read it nor how much you think you can read it and pretend not to have.
  • Praising the hard work that went into accomplishing something, not the external award acknowledging it.
  • Paying enough attention to your child's friends' accomplishments and behavior so that when parents congratulate you for your child's behavior or accomplishments, you can sincerely return the compliment.
  • Accepting that your children have adult friends you don't know and acknowledging that this is a good thing.
  • Trusting your child when s/he says, "I'll take care of it."
  • Telling the people who care for, teach, and love your children just how grateful you are.
  • Collecting your own friends as your children make their way through a series of daycare centers and schools.
  • Facilitating your child's transition to managing his/her own medical care.
  • Treating your offspring's significant other as an independent adult, not just an extension of your child. 
  • Dealing with the sheer terror when you hand over the car keys for the first, second, or Nth time.
  • Recognizing that once your children leave home, you are allowed to have a life, even if the particular choices make your children sad. Then being willing to talk about those choices and try to make their reality work for everyone.
  • Truly wrapping your head around the fact that your child is now officially an adult.
  • Letting those you care most about in the world, those for whom you would, without a thought, lay down your life, fly free and grow up.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Reflections on Healing

I genuinely hope that none of you ever need to refer back to this blog post. However, if you are a University administrator, a faculty member, or perhaps any member of an academic community, read this. Heck, if you're a member of any community, read it. But, if you do, remember that this is my experience; your mileage may vary; but still, I am guessing there are some parts here that can be useful to others.

It's been just over three months since Alex died. Alex was an undergraduate, a senior, who had been part of my research group since the beginning of last summer. Alex was a math and philosophy concentrator (major), who loved computer science, took all our most challenging courses, and loved nothing more than sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm with those around him. He was a teaching fellow for several of our courses, two of which I taught. He also took operating systems from me. He was, most definitely, one of my students.

It was Sunday evening. I was reading email. An astute colleague had seen an article in our school paper, the Harvard Crimson, and noticed that it was about a student who had TF'd a course I taught. He sent a link to the article. I saw the words "heartbreaking loss" and the name "Alex Patel," and fearing the worst, started crying out, "No! No! No!" But indeed, it was yes, yes, yes; Alex was gone.

So, what do you do? You've lost someone you cared about, someone for whom you felt responsible. Someone you just saw on Friday and had asked how things were going. You saw he was somewhat subdued, but he assured you he was doing well; his thesis was going well; he smiled; he laughed. And now he's gone. And you know. You know that as much as you want to run and hide, there is a research group -- your group -- your students, and they are already suffering or will be suffering as much as you are. What do you do?

As you read the rest of this, know that we're doing OK. None of us got much research done the end of last semester. I'm sure some grades suffered. But that's not important; what is important is that we're all still standing. We are closer than ever before. We try to do more fun/social things together. We have a special relationship with Alex's family. We have a copy of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations in the lab -- it was one of Alex's favorite. I stop down in the lab more often. We are all perhaps a bit kinder and gentler. And we are all a lot older. These things just age you in ways nothing else can. We are changed, but by and large, I think that we have all healed or at least, are well on our way through the healing process. And that's what the rest of this is about -- how we got from devastation to healed. What worked and what didn't. What people did that was amazing and wonderful. What people might have done that might have helped. But mostly, it's about the journey from October 22 to January 31.

What you know and what you don't know

Having read the article in the Crimson, I knew that some of my students, the undergrads, would probably already know. However, the graduate students, who are not as closely tied into the community probably didn't. That's not a good thing. So, you compose email to your group. Rest assured, nothing in your professional career has prepared you for writing this email; in fact, nothing absolutely nothing has prepared you for any aspect of this experience. You are on your own.

I used the subject line "Devastating News" to prepare the reader for what was inside. The note itself was short and to the point:

I hate to deliver bad news via email, but the following has hit the Crimson and if I can do anything at all to ease the shock, i wish to do so. 

I am simply devastated beyond words to report that Alex, as in our own Alex, died this weekend. 

I have absolutely no details at this point. 

I will be in shortly after 8:00 tomorrow and expect to make the 9:00 provenance meeting short. Anyone who wants to hang out together and just be with our group should come up to my office. 

Hold your friends just a bit closer this evening. 

- Margo 


Tips for administrators or the people who deal with these situations:
By the time I found out, it was too late for me to attend the memorial that was being held at the house (dorm) with which he was affiliated. So, I missed an opportunity to begin my own grieving and healing and spend time with others doing the same. Historically, the faculty are notified at the same time the students are, but this time, the students were notified and the faculty weren't. In my opinion, this was an enormous mistake. No administrator can possibly know which students will be affected and therefore, which faculty may have affected students in his/her class the next morning. The faculty absolutely need to know.

Next, I entered information gathering mode. The Crimson article was written by a reporter I knew. I sought her out to find out if there was any other information she had. She didn't.

I had met Alex's father once, and wanted to reach out to him. So, I ended up in an email exchange with the Resident Dean (Adam) of the house (dorm) with which Alex was affiliated. Adam was quite helpful -- I indicated that I would like to reach out to the family, but more importantly, I indicated that I needed to have professional resources on the ground in Maxwell Dworkin to support my group. Adam put me in touch with the right people. I knew enough to know that this was bigger than me and that I needed help to support my people; not everyone would have known this.

Tips for the mental health professionals called in:
There are a group of people who need you and may not know they need you. In general, telling highly self-sufficient people who are typically in authority to "reach out if they need help," doesn't really do much. Gentle outreach that offers condolences, tells the right people who you are, what you can do, how to contact you, etc is probably a good idea. I know they did this quite well for the family, for which I remain eternally grateful. But there is family within the University community as well, and it's important to reach out to them.

Then there were many phone calls Sunday evening. I don't think I can even remember them all now, but I appreciated each of them -- the colleague who let me cry; the member of my group who checked in to tell me that he and others had been with Alex the prior evening. The human connection, even if it ended up in silence over the phone was really important.

Then came Monday -- I tried to spend time in our lab -- I figured it was either going to become a barren wasteland or a hub, and I wanted it to become a hub. It did. It's where I greeted most of the group in the morning with a hug. Even my students who don't tend to hang out there, came by so we could all be together.

Tips for anyone going through something like this:
Be thoughtful about the places and physical reminders that might be trigger points. Don't let things "just happen," plan for them.

By this time, I'd been in touch with mental health services and had requested that someone come and join my group for our weekly meeting on Friday. I figured that way we wouldn't disrupt our schedules, we knew everyone would be able to attend, and we'd all have started processing, so that we could make the use of the services. That said, I'd exchanged email with these folks enough that when one of my group was showing signs of guilt, e.g., "I should have seen this coming," I was able (with permission) to get an almost immediate appointment for him/her.

Tips for anyone going through something like this:
Know the limits of your own expertise. I can say things like, "This is not your fault," but I am not a trained professional and I know that. It would be nice if we didn't need to ask for help, but this is one of those times to put ego aside and call on the professionals.

Many of the things that followed are a bit of a blur, but some of the things I or others did that mattered were:

  • I connected with both of Alex's parents. We talked. I let them know that Alex had been loved, respected and admired, that there were people here who knew and cared about him. They both wanted to come to the lab and meet the group, be with the people who had formed this part of Alex's community.
  • I became an honorary member of the Philosophy department. Philosophy is a small department; they know their students, and they knew how much this was going to affect them. So, they scheduled a department memorial, and since they knew Alex had been in my lab, they invited me. In fact, three different people in the department personally reached out to invite me. This was a big deal. Although I was unable to attend their gathering, I felt I had another community with which to grieve.
  • Computer Science was a bit slower to respond -- after learning of the Philosophy gathering, CS did pull something together. It would have been nice if we'd had the forethought to do this without first having Philosophy do it. We scheduled it at a time that was convenient for the faculty, but I'm not sure that it was convenient for students; I think we could have done better here.  That said, it was a lovely gathering. Alex's family joined us. There were tears and there was laughter.
  • A couple of my colleagues made it a point to stop by my office regularly, just to say, "Hi." My son stopped by more than he otherwise might have. I appreciated these things a lot.
  • One colleague sent flowers to our lab; the CS faculty also sent flowers. They were much appreciated.
  • I had to go to London about ten days after Alex's death and a bunch of other not-so-good things were happening in my life. A colleague with whom I hadn't spent a lot of time previously spent a long walk through the streets of London talking with me - mostly about other things, but it was a warm conversation that was much needed. I don't think he had any idea how profoundly valuable that was (I got a chance to tell him so recently).
  • There are other things for which one is never prepared: how do you hand off Alex's work to another member of the team? Got me. Fortunately, one of my team stepped up -- I remain grateful.
What I learned (tips for many):
  • Different venues provided an opportunity for different people to break down and "let it out." For some, it was 1:1 meetings with me; for others, it was our group meeting with the mental health professional; for still others, it was the memorial. For me, it happened while sitting alone in my hotel room in London, listening via Skype to the Memorial Service taking place in Cambridge. I was so sad not to be there in person, but I have to say, the Skype connection was amazing and being able to weep in private had its benefits.
  • The small gestures people made to simply be present made huge differences: the stops by my office, the willingness to talk, the hugs -- they got me through this.
  • Many of us were able to avoid the guilt feelings that often follow a suicide. Personally, I know and knew at the time that Alex knew I cared for him. I can't begin to understand his decision making, but I do know that he knew there were people who cared for him. I believe many in my group knew that too -- Saturday night Alex had been with several members of my group working on a problem set. Their last interactions with him were hugs good night. While that's not the same as having been able to say, "Goodbye," it was a warm human connection that they shared, and my impression is that this provided solace, even though it also fostered those early feelings of disbelief.
  • It would have been nice if the folks from mental health services checked up on my group -- just knowing that they were paying attention to what was happening in the community would have been helpful. Instead, it felt like the onus was entirely on us -- so while "making help available" is useful, demonstrated caring from people who are supposed to know more about this than I do would have been good.
  • Administrative silence was painful. Other than the Dean of Harvard College, who sent mail  notifying students of the death, and only after I exclaimed that, "I have to tell my faculty," sent mail to the faculty, no administrator made any public statement. In an era when mental health crises are on the rise at Universities, they were silent. Administrators who speak out about how my students spend their Friday and Saturday evenings said nothing. There was no message to our community saying, "Help is available," or "If you see someone struggling, say something." Nothing. This was a disservice to me, to my group, to our students, and to the entire organization. In times like this, real leaders speak up.
  • Alex is always with me. I can now say his name without getting choked up. I miss him.
Thank you.

If you read this far, thank you.

To the members of margo-group, PRINCESS, and my CRCS staff, thank you for joining me in this journey; I couldn't have gotten through without you.

Thank you Eddie, Steve, David, Harry, Salil, Meg, Matt, Hannah, Ellie, Ned, Jenny, Julie, Marie, Nicole, Joe, Cathy, Virendra, Warren, for understanding what I was going through and being present.

Thank you to all the wonderful students, past and present, who reached out to me and/or made the trip to Cambridge for the memorial, Noah, Gray, Albert, Mehdi, Dan, Nikhil, Tez.

Thank you to my CRA colleagues and my Lincoln Labs colleagues, particularly Mark, who knew what my group was going through when we were supposed to be evaluated for Darpa's BRASS program. Alex had built our entire test infrastructure for the risk reduction release that was tested beginning October 23. You silently did what needed to be done and let us do what we needed to do.

Hugs and thanks to Hiren and Anna, to Jacqueline and Dev, for letting me be part of your process.