Executive Vice President, Platform Division, Akamai Technologies, Inc.
Robert (Bobby) Blumofe admits that his predecessors did not provide math/science role models. “My father was in charge of production at United Artists and then Director of the American Film Institute West. On the other side, my mother’s father was Jack Benny.” But, when his older half brother was an undergraduate at Stanford taking Computer Science courses, Bobby at age 10 picked up programming on his HP calculator and things clicked. Teaching himself Basic, he wrote programs for fun in elementary school. Although he was a tinkerer with radio-controlled airplanes and the like, his programming went on hold until he was an undergraduate at Brown University.
At Brown, Blumofe returned to programming, learning C and more languages, ultimately earning a spot in the graphics research group of Prof. Andreis (Andy) van Dam, the Thomas J. Watson, Jr. University Professor. Blumofe had his first experience with research and writing reasonably large-scale programs and he credits Andy with playing an important role in pointing him in the direction of MIT.
During a year away from Brown, Andy got Bobby a job as a programmer at a local startup in Providence called Cadre Technologies. There, Bobby was taken into the fold, working with the founder, Lou Mazzuchelli and a talented group. “I got a ton of great experience, and I value those friendships to this day,” he says. “That turned out to be an amazing experience.”
Super-focused on his return to Brown, Blumofe got back into math and theory— including a class taught by Jeff Vitter who taught from manuscripts by Don Knuth for his book Concrete Math. Although challenged by this material, with persistence, Bobby gained satisfaction while studying the proofs and solving problems. “There’s amazing creativity and elegance in complexity theory and the analysis of algorithms,” he notes. He was hooked and continued with theory classes even reading research papers.
On graduating from Brown, Bobby Blumofe was still not set on graduate school or MIT. He could have been happy returning to Cadre Technologies and had little confidence in getting accepted. But, his growing interest in theory and research, was enough to convince him to apply to Stanford and MIT. Accepted to both, Blumofe credits his references, “Clearly Andy van Dam, Jeff Vitter, and Lou Mazzuchelli, wrote some great letters for me, and I’m forever grateful.”
What tipped his decision? Blumofe says, “My decision to go to MIT over Stanford was largely driven by what I found in visiting the two. Maybe it was just timing, but at MIT, visiting the theory group, there was an energy, level of activity, and collaboration that I didn’t see at Stanford. It was really exciting to think that I could be part of that activity, working with these people, solving problems and writing papers.”
Blumofe reflects, “MIT is intense, it’s high energy, it’s in your face” — not necessarily for everyone — “but more than anything it’s the most incredibly talented group of people that I’ve ever come across.”
In fact, he found all these things at MIT and notes that he found it important to balance with another activity—like a hobby or sport. He got into hockey – even though he had never played before — because the theory group had an active intramural team. Tom Cormen, who was just completing his work on the textbook “Introduction to Algorithms” (along with Professor Charles Leiserson), convinced him to start playing.
This turned out to be a good thing, as Blumofe made a number of friendships through hockey — including his now wife Cynthia Breazeal, then a graduate student in the AI Lab. Their friendship blossomed years later and they now have three sons. (Read about Cynthia in this issue, page 74).
He also worked with Charles Leiserson, his advisor as a graduate student in the theory group. He says about him, “Charles is all energy, all enthusiasm, all the time, and I’ve never met anyone who cares more about the development of his students than Charles. He loves what he does, he loves his colleagues and students, and it shows. When you’re working with Charles, it always feels like whatever you’re working on is the most important, most impactful, most interesting, and coolest thing that anyone could possibly be working on.”
Blumofe notes that Leiserson’s attention to detail rubbed off, not only teaching him about research and problem solving, but how to write and present ideas and solutions – skills he uses daily in his professional life — down the road at Akamai Technologies.
Bobby Blumofe joined Akamai in August 1999 when the company was about 10 months old. He says his decision had to do with the people, namely Tom Leighton, Akamai’s founder and now CEO and Blumofe’s former teacher and reader on his thesis. And, the other people were equal pulls including Charles Leiserson and Bruce Maggs, then VP of Engineering at Akamai. Although he knew Akamai at the time had something to do with large-scale distributed systems, using theory and algorithms to solve large-scale problems, he knew that he wanted to work with this group of people. “I knew that so long as I stayed near these people that great things would happen.”
Although he is no longer developing algorithms or proving theorems, Bobby uses the problem solving skills every day as an executive at Akamai. “I learned how to analyze a complex system, find useful abstractions that focus attention on the core elements that drive the system, use those abstractions to develop solutions, and then implement those systems while accounting for all of the non-core elements and real world constraints.”
He says that this approach works not only for technical systems for human systems. And, in large-scale systems, the human element is often the most important, so it must be treated as core in order to ensure that the solutions implemented are aligned with the interests and motivations of the people involved.
In fact, Blumofe notes, “If there’s been any guiding principle in my career it’s that if you surround yourself with great people, then great things will happen, and it’s at MIT that I met so many great people.” And, applying the same principle, Bobby Blumofe credits his relationships and experiences that got him to MIT — all making it possible for him to be at Akamai, where, he notes “again I’m surrounded by extraordinary, talented people who make my job such a joy.”