New dean finds a lot to love about the iSchool

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Anind Dey had a great job at Carnegie Mellon University and a great life in Pittsburgh, so why would he ever leave? Becoming the dean of the University of Washington Information School, it turns out, was just too good to pass up.

“I can’t point to one reason,” he said. “I can point to about eight.”

The quality of the iSchool’s faculty was at the top of his list, along with the interdisciplinary nature of the school and its strength and prestige. For the son of two public schoolteachers, the chance to make an impact at a large, public university was appealing. And as a native of Salmon Arm, British Columbia, he felt the allure of returning to the Pacific Northwest.

“Getting close to home – that’s a big part,” he said. “It’s not Canada, but it’s about as close to Canada as I think I’ll ever get.”

Dey, who took over as dean of the iSchool on Jan. 2, served for the past three years as director and chair of Carnegie Mellon’s prestigious Human-Computer Interaction Institute, where he had been a member of the faculty since 2005. Dey found a home in HCI after earning his master’s degree in aerospace engineering in 1995 and his Ph.D. in computer science in 2000, both at Georgia Tech. His earned his undergraduate degree in computer engineering at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, and it was an experience as an undergrad that launched his career in applied science.

“I was visiting a company out in Montreal, part of an engineering conference for students, and they just had the coolest technology ever. I said, ‘I want to go work for them,’” Dey said. He was dazzled by a flight simulator on display at the conference.

“It was the fact that you could use technology to make experiences so real,” he said. “When I was in the flight simulator, I felt like I was in a plane. I felt the ground shaking, I felt movement, I felt the takeoff. The fidelity just blew me away. I said, ‘That’s what I want to be doing.’”

He returned the next day to find out what it would take to get a job working on projects like that flight simulator and was told he should leave Canada and pursue a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering. That advice led him to Georgia Tech, where his research focused on rocket science, including a project where he programmed a full-size helicopter drone to take off on its own, locate a person in the woods and then drop off rations.

“It was a little scary the first time I tried to get the helicopter to control itself, because it was at least three or four times the size of me,” Dey said. “It was good, but I realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

It was the aftermath of the first Gulf War, and the military-oriented work Dey was doing didn’t appeal to him. A change of heart led to a change in plans, and he decided to pursue a Ph.D. in computer science instead of rocket science. His doctoral studies focused on context-aware and ubiquitous computing – the technology behind the same kinds of realistic sensory experiences that enthralled him years earlier. He was interested in designing technologies that interact with people in useful and interesting ways, making HCI a perfect fit.

“I love that HCI is so applied,” Dey said. “Everything you’re doing, the idea is that you’re trying to impact somebody’s life really positively. There’s nothing better than working on problems that you are passionate about.”

Dey hopes to continue his research at the iSchool after he settles in as dean. He is part of a wave of HCI talent the UW has attracted in the past year, including Dey’s wife, Jennifer Mankoff, who joined the faculty in the UW’s Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering in the fall. Other recent additions to the UW faculty include Alexis Hiniker at the iSchool, Jon Froehlich in CSE, and Leah Findlater in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering. The cluster of hires across departments illustrates the strength HCI draws from a variety of disciplines.

“I don’t know of another field where you’re bringing in people from such different areas that are working together to solve interesting problems,” Dey said. “You have psychologists and designers and computer scientists and engineers, and it’s the interdisciplinary nature that really gets me excited because you can solve problems that I couldn’t solve on my own.”

Dey hadn’t planned to go into administration, but he reluctantly agreed to step in when his department needed new leadership in 2014. He found that he enjoyed solving problems on the administrative side of academia just as much as he enjoyed research and teaching.

Being director of CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute also had the side benefit of preparing him well for leadership of the iSchool. Dey said he would be arriving without any sweeping changes in mind. He planned to begin his deanship with a “listening tour” to learn more about the school, its people and its culture.

“What I’m hoping to hear is about what really works well, what makes the culture successful, what makes the iSchool successful, and that’s from the students, staff and faculty,” he said. “I know that there are some pain points, but Harry Bruce is passing off the school in incredible shape. So I want to come in and see, what do I think is working well? What do I think can be improved? Where are there interesting opportunities? What are the opportunities for the iSchool to collaborate with other schools and departments on campus that would help raise the profile of the iSchool?”

That will be enough to keep Dey busy, but he has other interests outside of work. He’s a self-professed news junkie and a big sports fan. He’s lukewarm on the Pittsburgh Steelers, so Seahawks fans probably need not worry about him going around in black and gold on Blue Fridays. His true allegiances lie with the National Hockey League’s Pittsburgh Penguins, who made a title run earlier this year.

“I’m a huge Penguins hockey fan, so having the Penguins win the Stanley Cup last year has been awesome, and the fact that Seattle is now in the running for an NHL team is super exciting to my family,” he said.

And there are other advantages to returning home to the Northwest, including plenty of outdoor recreation options to enjoy with his wife, his 14-year-old son, Kavi, and 12-year-old daughter, Nisha.

“As a family, we do a lot of outdoor stuff – biking and camping,” he said. “When I’m not working, my life revolves a lot around my kids. We’re big skiers, and skiing on the East Coast is not fun. I’m looking forward to doing some real skiing.”