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CMU CS professor spreads her wings

Jeannette Wing, the head of Carnegie Mellon’s computer science department, is leaving the university after 27 years. (credit: Courtesy of Jeannette Wing) Jeannette Wing, the head of Carnegie Mellon’s computer science department, is leaving the university after 27 years. (credit: Courtesy of Jeannette Wing)

Jeannette Wing, head of Carnegie Mellon’s computer science department since 2004, announced that she is leaving the university in January to take a job as the head of Microsoft’s international research labs.

Wing, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has been working at Carnegie Mellon for the past 27 years. She began her college career at MIT as an electrical engineering major; Wing said she only became interested in the field of computer science when she took a required course in the subject and “fell in love with it.”

According to her page on the computer science department website, Wing’s general research interests are “in the areas of trustworthy computing, specification and verification, concurrent and distributed systems, programming languages, and software engineering.” She has served in a number of roles since coming to Carnegie Mellon, including associate dean of academic affairs and head of the computer science Ph.D. program.

Wing said that as the head of the computer science department, she oversees all of education and research the department’s faculty and students participate in.

“Certainly I help manage the education programs, the Ph.D. program; [I] help manage the undergraduate program,” she said. “As far as the research goes, it’s really helping to guide the faculty in looking out for new research directions and hunting opportunities, so basically I stay in the background and cheer the faculty on and support them in any way I can.”

According to Randy Bryant, the dean of the School of Computer Science, Microsoft has been “wooing [Wing] on and off for all this time, and I guess this time they finally convinced her to go.” Bryant has known Wing for over 30 years; they were graduate students together at MIT and, after graduating, arrived at Carnegie Mellon within a year of each other.

Bryant praised Wing for her leadership ability within the computer science department: “Her first impression she gives of you is she’s just full of energy and excitement. She just gets everyone fired up, and everyone really believes in her.”

Bryant also highlighted Wing’s positive influence as the head of the computer science department.

Between 2007 and 2010, Wing briefly left Carnegie Mellon to serve as the assistant director of the computer and information science and engineering directorate at the National Science Foundation (NSF).

When Wing came back, Bryant said, she used what she had learned at the NSF to “try and bring in some new faculty members who would be doing work in areas different than what we were doing.” As an example of this, Bryant pointed to the hiring of Emma Brunskill, currently an assistant professor of computer science.

Frank Pfenning, a professor of computer science and a colleague of Wing’s, agrees with Bryant on the pleasures of working with her: “There are many attributes that make it exciting to work with her; I think one of her strongest attributes is her dedication, her energy and her enthusiasm and, in scientific terms, her total commitment.”

Pfenning, too, has worked with Wing for many years. As department head, Pfenning said, Wing was adept at gauging the department’s needs and allocating resources. “She has a complete sort of sense for what the department needs and what we need as we’re moving forward. She’s very good at setting priorities and making sure these priorities are put into practice,” he said.

Generations of Wing’s students have known her as the “dragon lady,” based on a photo of her performing a Chinese sword dance that she learned in Xi’an, China. As department head, Wing is still interacting as much as she can with students.

This semester, she co-taught 15-150, Principles of Functional Programming. Wing said she enjoys the class because of her long-standing interest in functional programming. “It got me into computer science. I love the material; I just want to convey my own passion for this material to the students.”

When asked what advice she would give rising computer science students at Carnegie Mellon, Wing said, “Follow your passion. Find something that you’re really interested in and go for it. Believe in yourself. The students are smart here; there should be no lack of confidence.”

Pfenning and Bryant say Wing will be sorely missed. “Of course it’s a big loss to CMU. It’s impossible to replace her, that’s for sure,” Pfenning said.

“I think she’s been very inspirational to people; we’re really sad to see her go,” Bryant said.

Wing is sad to go, but excited to take on the challenges Microsoft will offer her. “I will always love Carnegie Mellon. Carnegie Mellon is my family,” she said.