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Silicon Valley loses an angel

June 8, 2009 20:04 IST

Silicon Valley loses an angel

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In a life that spanned just 47 years, Stanford University computer science professor Rajeev Motwani managed to profoundly change the world.

Or, as Google co-founder Sergey Brin wrote this weekend, in an emotionally charged tribute on his personal blog: "Today, whenever you use a piece of technology, there is a good chance a little bit of Rajeev Motwani is behind it."

It was the first update on Brin's blog in nine months.

Motwani died in a freak drowning incident. His body was found in the backyard swimming pool of his Palo Alto home in California on Friday. There was no official word about the cause of his death.

Born March 26, 1962 in Jammu & Kashmir and raised in Delhi, Motwani graduated from IIT-Kanpur (B. Tech) in 1983, before immigrating to America, where he earned his PhD in computer science at the University of California - Berkeley in 1988.

In the years that followed, Motwani became a legendary Stanford University computer science professor and a Silicon Valley icon, most famous for his pro-active mentoring of Stanford grad students Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who went on to found Internet behemoth Google.


Image: Rajeev Motwani
Photographs: the web site of Rajeev Motwani
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His support of Google only scratches the surface

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Of Motwani's mentorship, Brin wrote in his blog, "In addition to being a brilliant computer scientist, Rajeev was a very kind and amicable person and his door was always open. No matter what was going on with my life or work, I could always stop by his office for an interesting conversation and a friendly smile. 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 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."

But his support of Google, while vital to that company's ultimate success, only scratches the surface of Professor Motwani's innumerable contributions to humanity.

Every day, oftentimes without our knowing it, his revolutionary work on databases and data mining and web search and information retrieval affect our rapidly digitising lives.

First known throughout the global computer science community for his ground-breaking research in theoretical computer science, Motwani -- along with Brin, Page and another computer scientist -- was one of the co-authors of two seminal 1998 papers on the PageRank algorithm, which later became the basis for Google's search techniques.


Image: Google co-founder Sergey Brin arrives at an event in 2008.
Photographs: Rick Wilking/Reuters
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A gregarious, brilliant and helpful scholar and instructor

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Furthermore, he wrote two influential computer science text books (including the seminal Randomised Algorithms) and won the Godel Prize in 2001 for his work on the PCP theorem and its applications to hardness of approximation. Throughout his distinguished career, he received the Arthur P. Sloan Research Fellowship, the National Young Investigator Award from the United States National Science Foundation, the Bergmann Memorial Award from the US-Israel Binational Science Foundation and an IBM Faculty Award.

As director of graduate studies at the Stanford University computer science programme, Motwani also started the Mining Data at Stanford project (MIDAS), which aims to develop innovative data and management concepts, and is by all account a tremendous success.

In recent years, he showed more and more interest in entrepreneurial studies, and how the field could be tied-in with computer science studies. Testimonies from former students show him to be a gregarious, brilliant and helpful scholar and instructor.


Image: : Larry Page, co-founder and president of products at Google
Photographs: Photograph: Felix Ordonez/Reuters
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A benevolent and generous angel investor

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Outside of the classroom, Motwani built a name for himself as a benevolent and generous angel investor. Passionate about Silicon Valley start-ups, he was an essential early investor in online payment site Paypal and a special adviser to Sequoia Capital, a venture capitalist firm known for funding fledgling tech companies, like Cisco Systems, Oracle, Apple, YouTube and Google.

He sat on the boards of several Silicon Valley success stories, such as Google, Kaboodle, Mimosa System and Adchemy, among many others. He was also active in the Business Association of Stanford Entrepeneurial Students (BASES).

News of his untimely, tragic passing -- believed to be a case of accidental drowning at his Atherton, California home -- has sent shockwaves through the highly-connected Silicon Valley tech community. Condolences and remembrances rapidly spread through cyber-space, on blogs, in e-mails and on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Above all else, gratitude for his contributions and a tremendous sense of loss were the pre-eminent emotions, as techies, entrepreneurs and other assorted whiz kids shared heart-touching stories about Motwani's advice and tutelage, which many claimed has profoundly affected them, both personally and professionally.


Image: Image: A visitor places her hands on a
Photographs: Yuriko Nakao/Japan.
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'Rajeev was part of the fabric of Silicon Valley. He was part of the fabric of Stanford'

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David Hornik, noted blogger and technology investor (August Capital) wrote on his personal blog:

"You would be hard pressed to find a more connected or more informed professor, technologist or investor than Rajeev Motwani. He worked tirelessly, meeting anyone and everyone who requested an audience with him. Students sought his advice on grad school. Entrepreneurs sought his advice on financing strategy. Investors sought his advice on technology trends. We all just wanted a little bit of Rajeev's time."

"And he always seemed to have that little more to give us. For those of you who didn't know Rajeev, you might get the impression that he was your typical Silicon Valley insider -- loud, brash, full of bravado. He was anything but. Rajeev was soft spoken and gentle. He was self-confident but didn't feel the need to prove anything. He didn't speak to hear his own voice. And he didn't need to be the centre of attention. Rajeev just wanted to be helpful. And he was. To so many of us."

"Perhaps that is why so many of us thought of Rajeev as a friend. It is one thing to be friendly with someone in the business world. It is another thing altogether to consider them a friend. Rajeev genuinely liked people and people genuinely liked him Rajeev was part of the fabric of Silicon Valley. He was part of the fabric of Stanford."


Image: Stanford University
Photographs: Courtesy Stanford University
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'There wasn't a start-up he didn't love'

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Om Malik, top tech writer and editor of the blog GigaOM, wrote:

"Success never came in the way of Rajeev's quest for knowledge and innate desire to help others. There wasn't a start-up he didn't love. Like his chosen specialisation of search, Rajeev was searching for the unknown. He was still active as a professor and was teaching a couple of classes as recently as the last semester We should all learn from Rajeev -- he left behind a legacy of doing something for others all the time. Perhaps that is why we remember him so fondly -- caring and giving."

Dave Morin, head of Facebook Platforms, simply stated simply:

"Rajeev was a heralded mentor, advisor and investor to countless start-ups in Silicon Valley, many related to the work we do at Facebook with Facebook Platform."

Dan Gould, co-founder of Newroo, wrote:

"He helped us improve our algorithms and ideas and introduced us to Ron Conway and to other folks which led to the acquisition of our startup. I ran into him several times since and he was always both kind and brilliant. I had hoped to work with him on a future project. While that's not to be, I imagine dozens of other computer scientists-turned-entrepreneurs can tell the same story."

Finally, Google co-founder Brin wrote in his blog:

"Rajeev remained a friend and advisor as he has with many people and start-ups since. Of all the faculty at Stanford, it is with Rajeev that I have stayed the closest and I will miss him dearly. Yet his legacy and personality lives on in the students, projects, and companies he has touched [Motwani] played a big role my research, education and professional development."


Image: Larry Page and Sergey Brin, founders of Google.
Photographs: Jacob Silberberg/Reuters
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Leaves behind his wife and two daughters

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As for the specifics of Motwani's death, details are still awaited. It's been reported that Motwani was found dead in his pool in the backyard in his Atherton home on June 5, 2009, possibly after having accidentally fallen in, but the cause of death is not certain. Autopsy results are expected this week.

Quoting friends of the family, Reports said that Rajeev was not able to swim, and for years had planned on taking lessons.

Motwani, who attended St Columba's School in New Delhi, reportedly alongside Bollywood legend Shah Rukh Khan, leaves behind his wife Asha Jadeja and their two daughters, Naitri and Anya.

A dedicated family man, an indispensable Stanford University professor and an irreplaceable piece of the Silicon Valley ecosystem, Rajeev Motwani will be missed.


Image: Rajeev Motwani
Photographs: The web site of Rajeev Motwani
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