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From Stanford University President to Chairman of Alphabet/Google

RISC pioneer John Hennessy’s side hustle gets serious

2 min read
Former IEEE Medal of Honor winner John Hennessy.
Photo: Gabriela Hasbun

When John Hennessy announced in 2015 that he was stepping down as president of Stanford University the following year, he said, "The time has come to return to what brought me to Stanford—teaching and research."

Turns out, you can’t keep a guy like Hennessy down on “The Farm,” at least in that small of a corral. Hennessy this week was named the new chairman of Alphabet, the parent company of Google. Eric Schmidt, who joined Google as CEO in 2001 to provide “adult supervision,” announced in December that he was stepping down.

Hennessy, meanwhile, has been on the Google/Alphabet board since 2004. He also serves as a director at Cisco Systems, the Daniel Pearl Foundation, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. But his main gig over the decades has been as a professor—and then dean of engineering, provost, and president before going back to professor—at Stanford University. (He’s also heading up the Knight-Hennessy Scholars, a new program aimed at funding graduate students trying to help the world.)

I’ve spoken to Hennessy a number of times over the years as his career evolved—always a great interview, for Hennessy is known for his sense of humor, and his willingness to be blunt on occasion. A pioneer in reduced-instruction-set computing (RISC), Hennessy told me in 2002 that his “career parallels the coming of age of computer science.”

Hennessy built his first computer, a machine that played tic-tac-toe, back in the 1960s, when he was 16. As a Stanford professor in the early 1980s, Hennessy worked with Forest Baskett and Jim Clark on the chip that became the Geometry Engine and launched Silicon Graphics. He then designed a VLSI chip that proved the concept of the RISC architecture and helped launch MIPS Computer Systems to commercialize the technology.  He also helped start Atheros Communications, now part of Qualcomm, and wrote several books.

In the current vernacular, this is a guy who has always had a side hustle. And while he took short sabbaticals, or sometime dialed back his Stanford job to a more part-time commitment, he never actually left Stanford, moving between teaching and administration, and becoming president in 2000. As president, he set out to shake up higher education by focusing on remote learning over the Internet. He told me about these plans in detail in 2012.

Hennessy stepped down as president—and back into his former post as a professor—in 2016. He said in 2002, shortly after taking the job, that "the great thing about being a university president is you can keep that most wonderful of titles—professor. So you are able to go back to teaching and working with students.”

And perhaps a side hustle or two—like the chairmanship of Alphabet.

Updated 2 February 2018

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