Partha Ranganathan came to Rice in the late 1990’s from IIT – Madras. Since his Rice graduation in 2000, he has risen through the corporate ranks, becoming a Chief Technologist at HP and their youngest-ever Fellow. Partha has a long list of awards and accomplishments, the most recent being his election as Fellow into the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). The press about him is numerous, with coverage by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and it seems like just about everything in between.
Partha spoke with us and looked back at his career trajectory, shared his philosophy on work, and his advice for current students.
Tell us about yourself.
Currently, I work for Google. I came to Rice as a graduate student. I did my master’s and Ph.D. in ECE at Rice in 1996 and 2000, respectively. My thesis topic was on architectures for database applications. I was also involved with the Rice Simulator project, or “R-SIM”, on multiprocessors. When we started it was called “OUR SIM”. This project had a lot of publicity, I think it was downloaded hundreds, thousands of times and used all over the country for various research efforts.
I think I’m pretty much like most of the international students at Rice. I did most of my schooling in India, then did my undergrad at IIT –a lot of students come to Rice from there. I spent 17 years of my life in one city in India and then came to Houston.
What was the move like?
It was a fun experience – awesome. One of the things I really liked was how warm and inclusive everyone was. Coming from a different culture, I was young and scared, and I’m still very, very thankful about how warm everyone was.
I remember there was a welcome lunch - Rice had this concept of host families, and it was such a nice thing to have – to have people come and say, “How can we help you?” There was also a large Indian community in Houston and it was nice to see how people reached out. IIT had a large alumni association and I would follow that, and welcome people to Houston when they came.
What advice do you have for current or prospective international students?
Be open about new things. One of the things I did was to try a lot of stuff – it was an awesome cultural experience. I would go to these host family lunches and meet a lot of people. The Presbyterian church would need technical assistance, and even though I am not Presbyterian I volunteered. It was a great experience. I was a DJ on the Indian program at KTRU. I think participating in all the things Rice has to offer is very important. As an international student, you also have a responsibility – you are representing people of your culture in some aspects. It’s good to be open minded, but be respectful and don’t take what you have for granted.
After Rice I joined what used to be Digital Equipment Corporation; Digital was acquired by Compaq, and Compaq by HP. I was with HP for 15 years, and became Chief Technologist and Fellow. Then I joined Google. I’ve been there for about one-and-a-half years, and am part of the leadership that drives their next generation systems.
What was that transition like?
They are both fantastic companies. The thing I like about both is that innovation is in their DNA. For me, work comes down to how you want to have an impact in life. I like companies that give you the ability to change the world and do cool things to change the world, and I’ve been particularly fortunate to work for companies that do that. I teach at Stanford as well, when I can. So pretty much with all of my activities I’ve had an opportunity to work on cutting-edge, cool things, but also work on things that make a difference to the world. The grand theme for me is, “do really cool things that matter”.
What has been most rewarding about your career?
My philosophy is, you spend so much time at work that you should have fun doing what you’re doing. I really measure my work in four dimensions – Impact, Fun, Lifelong Learning, and Excellence. I have been fortunate in that all these four dimensions have been part of my career and have led to success and recognition. I am one of Rice’s Outstanding YoungEngineering Alumni Award winners. I’m also an IEEE Fellow and recently becamean ACM Fellow. The point really is that those are all manifestations of those four dimensions. If you have those four, then the rest will follow.
What is an example of a tough decision you’ve had to make?
I think one of the things I’ve learned along the way is prioritization. Being able to cultivate how to achieve the strongest impact is very challenging, and I’ve been learning that as I go along. I make sure that I’m continually learning. I have been fortunate that I have been successful but you need to stay grounded, and I constantly work on how to maximize the impact that I have. I need to be able to concentrate, choose and focus my energy on the right topics, while staying current.
My secret weapon is having amazing mentors. I tell people I may not be the smartest person in the world, but I’ve been smart enough to find smarter people with a good worldview, and ask them for advice. I’m good at taking their advice and internalizing and applying it to my life. Find people who are willing to invest in you and give them a decent investment.
What was your experience like with the Rice faculty?
I have very fond memories of all my professors. I am going to get into trouble listing a few, but all of them are fantastic. Joe Cavallaro was a fantastic mentor, a really human person who I could reach out to; my advisor, Sarita Adve, was a fantastic mentor; Keith Cooper as well. Behnaam Aazhang was just amazing – I loved how accessible he was, we would have lunch together, he honestly showed me how to have fun while making an impact. He was a role model and I still remember the advice I got from him.
What did you find to be the most helpful strategy to determine what career path you wanted to take after graduation?
I was very interested in academia, I still teach and have several Ph.D. students who I mentor. I think the distinction between academia and industry is artificial in some ways. You need to decide: what do you want to do, then where do you want to do it? I had several academic and industry offers at graduation. I thought, I want to be at the cutting edge of innovation and do cool things; do things that match my skills and have fun doing it; and then I want to be able to mentor students, have fun, and teach. My decision came down to which place could offer me all of those things in one place. I publish, I design products, I teach. I tell my students if there is a choice, choose both.
What advice do you have for Rice students?
Aim high and don’t sell yourself short. Focus on the impact that you can have. Aim high and try to make a difference. Also, understand yourself. I think a lot of angst comes from a mismatch between what you want and what you are. Understand yourself, but learn about new things and evolve. That combination is going to be awesome.
Any Rice memories you’d like to share?
One thing Rich Baraniuk used to do, is he would walk into our student office, shake our hands, then turn around and walk out. It was incredibly quirky. I’ve adopted it as something I do – it’s fun and accessible. I do need to give him a shout out.
People were very kind at Rice. You don’t always see that, so you can’t take it for granted. I try to give back as much as possible. And, if anyone is interested at interning or working at Google, send me an email! (For communications with Partha, contact Jennifer Hunter at firstname.lastname@example.org)