A couple of weeks ago I attended a reunion for Stanford CS198 — the program at Stanford that runs undergraduate section leading/teaching assistants for the introductory CS classes there.
I’ve said many times that deciding to be a section leader was probably my best career decision ever — no exaggeration. It’s been instrumental in creating a ton of great leaders over nearly 3 decades now.
We’ve had a couple of other reunions over the past few years — they’ve been amazing to attend because there are just so many incredible and inspirational people who have gone through the program since its inception.
But this particular reunion was special for another reason: it was also a celebration of Eric Roberts, for many years the faculty sponsor of the program, and a huge driver of so much in the 25 years he’s been at Stanford. He’s retiring soon, and so we got to celebrate his many contributions.
6 of us got to offer a few thoughts on Eric’s time at Stanford — former University President John Hennessey, Wealthfront’s CEO Adam Nash, Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer, UCSD Assistant Professor Lilly Irani, current sponsor and Stanford professor Mehran Sahami, and me.
Anyway, it’s a humbling group to be part of (both the speaker set and the program more generally), and I was grateful and honored to have a chance to offer a few thoughts.
Here’s what I wrote (as per usual, about 50% different than what I actually said…):
I was never lucky enough to take a CS class from Eric, but I have to imagine the feeling I’ve got right now is a little bit like I would’ve felt turning in a Karel assignment. Excited & kind of nervous.
But really: this group — Stanford CS, and CS198 in particular — is probably the group of people I am most at home around and most comfortable with in the world. CS198 is the source of many of my longest and best friendships, and the source of my longest and most productive working relationships. And of course an awful lot of that was made possible by Eric. Just in case you think I’m exaggerating, I counted: 2 of my cofounders were section leaders; 5 out of our 7 first employees were section leaders. And 3 out of 12 of the companies I’ve invested in since I’ve been at Greylock. Plus: two of my groomsmen for my wedding. It’s no exaggeration when I say that deciding to be a section leader, and later getting the opportunity to be a coordinator — those are 2 of the most critical turning points of my life.
Looking back on things, I guess I actually got to Stanford in 1989 about a year before Eric came as an Associate Professor, when the also extraordinary Stuart Reges was building the foundations of CS198 — then we all went through the weirdness and dislocation when Stuart left Stanford — but I don’t know if anyone knew then just how lucky we were that Eric was already here, ready to build 198 into something essential and foundational to Stanford Computer Science and to Stanford University itself.
I applied and became a section leader right around the time Eric took over the program — Scott and Astro turned me down the first time I applied but things worked out on my second. Once I was in the program, I really, really loved it, and eventually applied to be coordinator. Didn’t get it — Sandy Nguyen did. Tried again 2 quarters later — nope! Felix got it. Just to be perfectly clear, Eric made the right call both times — Felix and Sandy were both amazing. Still, I loved the program and applied one more time, and still remember when Eric called me to offer me the coordinator job — I was over the moon, and loved every minute of my two quarters with Felix. My two quarters with Bryan Rollins were also fine.
Talking with Mehran, we figure that since Eric has run CS198, more than 25,000 students have gone through the 106s; and that well over a thousand people have been section leaders. And maybe a few dozen of us have been coordinators, although I’m pretty sure we each contributed more than our fair share of Eric’s gray hairs during our terms — or at least I’m pretty sure that Bryan and I did anyway. In a real way, Eric’s work has had an impact on virtually everything and everyone in our industry.
We’ve all learned so much from Eric along the way. About computer science for sure, but also how to find such joy in the science & the engineering, in the learning & teaching & communion of the group. The environment that Eric made possible is one that values students taking leadership and responsibility for the betterment of all. And Eric paid attention to and valued and contributed to diversity long before really anyone else was thinking about it, let alone doing something about it.
Beyond the computer science and beyond the classes, more than anything else, Eric helped create an environment and a community where each of us in it wanted to be as good as we could be, and we wanted everyone around us to be even better. He helped so many of us find our calling and our voice that it’s really hard to even get your head around.
As important as anything else: Eric helped to teach us meaningful, lasting self-efficacy: how to teach each other and learn from each other and value and rely on each other — something that lasts even now.
I am more than certain that CS198 has an incredibly bright future with Mehran at the helm — but I know, too, that we will miss Eric greatly. His intellect and enthusiasm and commitment and warmth and humanity are genuinely special. We’ll all miss him a lot, for sure, but this community of excellence that he helped create, and these relationships we all have together will persist for a very long time, and I just can’t really express how grateful I am for that gift.
Eric, thank you, and good luck with your next chapter.