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Monika Henzinger

Monika Henzinger (in new window)

'What the MIT is to the United States the Swiss federal Institutes of Technology are to Europe.'

A Google superbrain falls in love with the Matterhorn

Any ‘Googler’ who has wondered how it is possible nowadays to have almost instant access to any kind of information should spare a thought for Monika Henzinger. The enormous success of the search engine Google is due at least in part to the brilliance of this German-born computer scientist who, in 1999, was recruited by Google as Director of Research. She has since developed search algorithms to help web surfers locate precisely the information they need in the boundless ocean of data on the World Wide Web. In March 2005, however, Monika Henzinger left California to direct the Laboratory of Theory and Applications of Algorithms (LTAA) at the Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland. Her office, No. 100, is in the glass-and-steel construction known as the Information & Communication Faculty overlooking Lake Geneva. The number is pure coincidence, having nothing to do with rank or privilege but something to do with her polite refusal to the offer of an office with a view of the lake. Why? The LTAA building has no air conditioning! The occupants of the offices with magnificent
views of the lake and mountains pay for the luxury with copious quantities of sweat during the summer months. For the professor accustomed to American standards at the work place, the decision to forgo such run-of-the-mill technological developments remains one of the unfathomable mysteries of the Swiss.

The interview was conducted by Urs Willmann of the German weekly Die Zeit.

The pictures were taken by Nelly Rodriguez.

UW: What does it take to lure a superbrain from the USA to a university in Europe?

MH: The company of other good professors, and bright students. That is the best incentive a university can offer. Switzerland has been doing it successfully for many years. In the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology Zurich (ETHZ) and Lausanne (EPFL) the Confederation has two real magnets. They are more or less the European equivalent of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) near Boston.

UW: Is Switzerland also a leader in the field of information technology?

MH: Yes. If you consider European universities in general, there are very good professors here and there, but it is not so easy to find a lot of top people on the same campus. The ETH in Zurich is one, however, and the EPFL is catching up fast. There are already a great many talented people here; others are certain to follow.

UW: What does it take to attract top people?

MH: A researcher always has to move ahead. This often means linking one’s own project to the work of other experts, since no individual can expect to have all the answers. Information technology is such a wide field. It is much easier to do good work in a community of gifted researchers than sitting alone in a corner.

UW: Was it the EPFL which sought you out?

MH: Together with my husband, yes.

UW: Your husband is here too?

MH: We each have a full professorship. He’s a computer scientist too.

UW: Now I begin to understand why you did not remain with Google.

MH: Hold on, it is not quite what you think. My husband was a professor at the University of Berkeley for eight years. I wanted to return to Europe. My proposal was that it would be up to him to choose the destination. I promised to accept his decision, wherever it might take us as long as it was Europe. We agreed to limit the choice to the English or German-speaking regions since we both speak those two languages.

UW: So the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne is… in German-speaking Switzerland?

MH: Let’s just say that my husband spent a month visiting the Institute in Zurich, and while there he was approached by the Dean of the EPFL, who invited him to come and have a look at Lausanne. We discussed the idea and realised that our knowledge of French – a difficult language – was not good enough. So we knew we wouldn’t end up in Lausanne. In the end, however, it was the EPFL that appealed most to both of us. So I also applied for a job here.

UW: And there was a position waiting for you?

MH: The EPFL does not operate like a German university where candidates compete for a particular chair, for example, but more like an American university. There are areas of specialisation and the idea is to decide which ones to bring up to strength. Then you look for the top people in those particular fields. Recruitment is thus more a question of overall strategy.

UW: Less so in your case. You seem to have gone with the flow.

MH: Actually we both fancied living somewhere near the Alps. I adore mountains, and although I never really thought about coming to Switzerland, now that I am here I find it enchanting. Our first concern was to find the best university, where we could both be happy. The idea of a nice place to live was of secondary importance.

UW: Please explain what an algorithm is.

Monika Henzinger (in new window)

MH: When I try to explain it to my mother, I compare it to a recipe. An algorithm is made up of instructions that determine how to proceed step by step in seeking the answer to a question. In the computer world the important thing is to tackle all problems in the most efficient way possible, to find the solution in the quickest possible way. At present I am studying a problem that has to do with load distribution in computer centres, the so-called load balancing of search engines. These centres process millions of inquiries a day using a given number of computers. Each inquiry must be answered with data stored in the computer. The challenge is to find the cleverest way of distributing this data in the computer so that inquiries will be answered with maximum speed and efficiency. The more computers the higher the cost. That’s one of the problems I’m wrestling with at the moment.

UW: So how do you manage this ‘balancing act’?

MH: I do my best to prevent a machine from becoming a bottleneck. Just imagine that a really important file is being held in one single computer, with virtually every inquiry directed to it…

UW: And this causes a traffic jam.

MH: The problem may not even be that the computer is slow. The important thing is for the most important files to be copied and held in several computers so that no single one can slow down the whole process. Such a problem can lead to an interesting theory, which – when it results in a practical application – will reduce costs. You can then either deploy fewer computers or you can answer more search inquiries with the same number.

UW: Is your present work the same as when you were at Google?

MH: In California I was concerned more with the quality of the search. I created algorithms that would provide the user with better results. At present I am concentrating on making the whole process more efficient. The good thing about a university is that one can take time to study a problem thoroughly. Whereas in the private sector it is a question of developing good algorithms, here I am able to take a step back and study the whole process in detail.

UW: With no need to worry about the practical side…

MH: Not at all. The problems we study come from the real world! Thanks to close contacts we are aware of the industry’s problems, and we apply ourselves to finding ways to solve them. A university needs this link to the real world and should  always be able to explain the practical application of a particular line of research.

UW: Is the Lausanne Institute attractive enough to draw not only the best professors but also the best students from around the world?

Monika Henzinger (in new window)

MH: It takes time. The reputation of a university has to be built up. It doesn’t happen overnight… it can take ten or even twenty years. The best students from Asia still tend to head for the USA. But the American universities can make mistakes and turn away good people. We have started a new programme where we invite Indian students as early as their third year to come and spend two or three months here working with a professor. This enables us to get to know them, and they us. There is a very good chance that after this experience the student will return to Lausanne and apply to do a doctorate here.

UW: Even in French?

MH: The university’s ‘lingua franca’ is English. And since the Lausanne-Geneva region is extremely international, English will take you wherever you want to go.

UW: One of the results of the diplomatic presence here?

MH: Indeed. But a number of big international companies have their headquarters in the region – Nestlé in Vevey, Philip Morris in Lausanne, Gillette in Geneva.

UW: Could you now say something negative about Switzerland?

MH: We have not yet been able to find a suitable house. House owners seem to keep their homes and pass them down from one generation to the next. In the USA there is a genuine market, but in Switzerland it often seems to work by word of mouth – knowing someone who knows someone who knows about a nice house for sale…

UW: No doubt you want something very special, with a view of the lake!

MH: No, we just want peace and quiet. A place not too far from the university and within easy reach of the children’s school. To that extent, the choice is somewhat limited.

UW: Do you still work for Google?

MH: I am on leave from Google.

UW: What? Do you mean to say you have been given leave to take up a professorship?

MH: Correct, Google is very generous in that way. They don’t like to lose people.

UW: So in fact you are on a sort of vacation!

MH: Yes and no, an unpaid vacation, if you don’t mind. Or at least not paid for by Google. The company does the same for other employees. Anyone who has worked for a start-up company for several years needs a break.

UW: So you can go back at any time?

MH: Yes, that’s the advantage of an unpaid vacation.

UW: But is that realistic?

MH: I suppose not. I am very happy here.

UW: In the age of globalisation, where the world is a village and everyone is networking, does it really matter where you work?

MH: It is true that in Switzerland I have continued to work for the Americans. But it is not the same as when your colleagues are just across the corridor. The time difference alone is a factor! Or you call a fellow worker half way across the world only to find that he is in a meeting. Collaboration is not always easy to organise. And the importance of lunch with a colleague should not be underestimated: someone says something between the main course and dessert and suddenly you have a new idea.

UW: As a Bavarian you are no doubt a good skier?

MH: Not really. My husband is better. I love swimming.

UW: In the lake?

MH: Oh dear no, and risk duck rash? Nothing serious of course, but you have to shower very carefully afterwards. I have gone swimming in the lake, but I much prefer a public swimming pool. There is nothing comparable in California. There are plenty of fitness clubs, but you rarely find such lovely public swimming pools as in Switzerland.

UW: Where do you live now?

MH: East of Lausanne. Just an hour from the mountains. Easy access for hiking. I love Zermatt and I am a great fan of the Matterhorn.

UW: How many times have you climbed it?

MH: Never. But I did climb the Breithorn next to the Klein Matterhorn, before they built a cable car. I was just 14 years old. The only 4,000 metre peak in my cap!

UW: So you wouldn’t do it again?

MH: No, two years ago we were involved in a terrible traffic accident. I had eleven broken bones in my feet.

UW: Please, tell me about it.

MH: We were rammed from the side by a drunken truck driver, in Austria. Then my husband lost control and we crashed into another car. Even so we were lucky. The truck ploughed head-on into the car behind ours killing a woman, a mother of three. I was the only casualty in our car. My feet have never been the same since.

UW: What is the Swiss algorithm, the recipe for the Confederation?

Monika Henzinger (in new window)

'The Swiss said to themselves: we are a small country, what is the best way to compete successfully with the biggest.'

MH: I only know the area around Lausanne, so I am not really in a position to give an opinion on the country as a whole. One thing that is certain is that the Swiss are very good adapters. They seem to have said to themselves: Okay, we are a small country, what is the best way to compete? The EPFL for example decided to focus its efforts on developing computer science and biotechnology. They said to themselves: let’s develop two areas of expertise where we can be leaders, especially since there are a lot of pharmaceutical companies in Switzerland, and they depend on a local pool of competent scientists. And of course it makes good sense to become a leader in information technology, which is the key to the future. Many jobs are being created in this field in the USA. And that is precisely what we want to do in Switzerland, which is why we are investing specifically in information technology.

UW: What sectors are already benefiting from the expansion in information technology?

MH: Many small start-up companies. And of course Switzerland’s banks. The banks are recruiting a lot of computer experts to analyse and manage their data and provide their clients with the necessary security. The financial institutions are ready employers for people with PhDs in computer science.

UW: How many native countries can you bring along when you move to Switzerland?

MH: What do you mean?

UW: Can you remain German for example?

MH: When I lived in the USA I remained German.

UW: There are certain limits to the popularity of Germans in Switzerland.

MH: That depends. Here, we are in western Switzerland and I do my best to speak French, even if words at times fail me. No doubt if I were to speak just English or German all the time I would be less welcome. But people see that I am making an effort. In most cases I am able to make myself understood, even if the grammar is not entirely orthodox. Since I am able to communicate, people have no difficulty accepting me as a foreigner. In the USA on the other hand, I never felt quite at home. That’s one reason I wanted to return. I see myself as a European.

UW: But here you’re in Switzerland, not Europe.

MH: It’s seems pretty European to me.

UW: But we’re not in the European Union.

MH: That’s another thing that is alright about Switzerland.

UW: Why? Do you hate bureaucracy?

MH: That’s not the point. What is important is for people to be able to identify with the state. In the USA they call it, ‘To care for the country’. The Swiss feel the same way.

UW: Unlike the Germans?

MH: Yes, because to some extent Germans feel that all the important decisions are made in Brussels. They realise they have handed over responsibility in certain areas to the EU, even though it may not necesarily have been good for Germany. The Swiss in contrast feel they are still in control of their own destiny. If Switzerland were to join the EU much of this feeling would be lost. There are rural areas of Switzerland where the population is very conservative. There is no reason to antagonize them, which is what would happen if Switzerland were to join the EU. One has to keep them involved somehow. They need to feel that when they vote they can influence the course of events.

UW: You take the Swiss seriously – which not many Germans do!

MH: Don’t forget there are many more Germans, over ten times as many as there are Swiss.

UW: The Germans love Switzerland. Most have been here on vacation. They love the dialect, the lilting accent. As for taking the Swiss seriously: that’s a different matter.

MH: Presumably it has something to do with size. I had no definite image of Switzerland before I came, but this small country has made a great impression on me. In Germany I rarely had the feeling that people still care for their country. They are more likely to be wondering, what can the state do for me? How can I take advantage of the government?

UW: How do you define ‘Heimat’?

MH: To me ‘Heimat’ is the place where you grow up. It is also the place where you feel most at home. If I were to live here for twenty or thirty years this too would become my ‘Heimat’ to some extent. I never had the feeling of being at home in California. In Lausanne I feel much more at ease, after just two years.

The interview was conducted in German and translated into English by Eric Edgell-Grimley.

Monika Henzinger was born on 17 April 1966 in Weiden, a town of 45,000 inhabitants in Bavaria. She lived there until completing secondary school, after which she studied computer science first in Erlangen, then in Saarbrücken. At the age of 26 she took her doctorate at Princeton University before taking up a position as assistant professor at Cornell University in New York State. In 1999 she moved to Silicon Valley to work for the internet search engine Google. Since 2005 Monika Henzinger has been a full professor of information technology at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL). She was singled out for a European Young Investigators Award (EURYI) that same year. She lives with her husband and children in the vicinity of Lausanne.

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