Steve Carr talks about the Ken Kennedy Factor

CS PhD alumnus Steve CarrSteve Carr, Chair of Western Michigan University’s Department of Computer Science, said he only opted for graduate school because his immediate job prospects as a senior were unappealing.

The Rice CS Ph.D. alumnus said, “The work I was qualified to do seemed boring, and the jobs I had lined up were ones I couldn’t imagine doing for more than six months. But I’d had an undergraduate research experience at Michigan Tech that was really interesting, so I decided to go to grad school to work more on compiler optimization.”

His undergraduate research professor recommended the University of Illinois and Rice University, the top two schools for compiler optimization research. Carr knew little about Rice, but his professor knew Ken Kennedy and recommended Carr seriously consider moving to Houston to work with Kennedy.

“I didn’t want to be a number at a big university,” said Carr. “My undergrad school had around 7000 students and Rice was about half that size, but it provided plenty of opportunities for me and was exactly what I expected.”

He enrolled in the Ph.D. program to see where that led and still intended to take a job in industry, but his career interest shifted around his third year at Rice. Carr said Kennedy’s influence inspired him to be a professor and work with students.

“When I look back, Ken Kennedy was the perfect adviser for me. He took care of his students, defended us, supported us, let us go through whatever we were going through and was always there for us.

Carr said he felt challenged by Rice’s high end graduate program and might not have finished if not for Kennedy’s influence. “When I was doubtful, he was supportive,” said Carr. “Ken Kennedy realized and understood a lot of my lack of progress was due to circumstances outside of Rice. He just believed in me. I know that he did.

“When I considered taking some time off from grad school, he found people who would hire me. I didn’t end up taking that time off but he didn’t try to talk me out of it, just said ‘if that’s what you want to do, I’ll help you find a way to do it.’”

As a professor, Carr models his style of graduate student advising on the methods he learned from Kennedy. Instead of micromanaging his grad students or intervening in their research, he tries to provide a supportive environment for them then trust them to make the right decisions and simply do the work.

Carr then realized his style of advising and supporting students could be applied across the department.

“When I started out as a professor, I never wanted to be a department chair,” he said. “But after achieving full tenure, I took mentorship roles with other faculty and enjoyed that. Before Western Michigan recruited me to be their CS department chair, I’d had an opportunity to serve as interim chair at Michigan Tech, to see whether I liked it.

“Now I feel the chair is there to help other faculty and students be successful, and that’s why I like it and continue to do it. I like helping faculty and students achieve their goals.”

As department chair, Carr has a unique view into the role of CS across a university. He’s worked in CS departments housed in Science and the Arts as well as in Engineering and feels it is neither of those, but can impact any discipline on campus.

“It’s more like its own thing, ubiquitous and affecting everything. CS has such potential to be a strong force in any university; I’ve seen people who work on projects close to the humanities, close to science, close to engineering, it is truly ubiquitous.”

Carr has spent most of his career at universities that were trying to build or improve their research programs, and Western Michigan recruited him to improve the department’s research production.

While helping colleagues grow their own research teams, Carr’s early research interest in compiler optimization led to projects in memory hierarchy management, dynamic program analysis, program locality analysis, code generation for embedded systems and cooperation between architecture and compilers. His current research centers on pedagogy for computer security, software security and file-system security.

Carr’s passion for research is matched only by his passion for the students and faculty in his department. “Whatever issues they face, if I can make it possible for them to achieve their goals or make it possible for them to try, that makes for a good day.”

He advises new professors to trust their graduate students. “Most people who are getting a Ph.D. are driven and want to do well. They want an environment where they can do the thing they want to achieve. Ken Kennedy taught me that, not by telling me but by doing it.”