Algorithm for Success

In the summer of 1968, Israeli television was newborn. Just two years previous, a group of 32 schools had received the first broadcast signal in the country’s history, and in May 1968 the brand-new Israeli Broadcasting Authority launched regular public transmissions. That fall, the authority wanted to introduce its audience to a new technology called “computers.”

To help explain, they turned to Zvi Galil.

“The TV station wanted us to explain, ‘What do they do with these computers?’” recalls Galil, then a second-year undergraduate at Tel Aviv University in applied mathematics. He’d enrolled in a summer programming class under a young instructor named Amir Pnueli (who 28 years later would win the Turing Award), and Galil’s project had been to teach the university’s room-sized mainframe computer a game called “Lambs & Wolves,” played on a checkerboard. The program required two boxes of punch-cards.

The TV cameras showed up, and as Pnueliwas running the game from the mainframe’s console, Galil gave his best explanation of what was happening. Out from a dot-matrix printer emerged an image of a checkerboard, and in living rooms across the land, Israeli families got their first glimpse of this new computer magic.

“It was kind of ridiculous,” Galil says. “I’m not sure the demonstration inspired viewers to imagine what the future held for computers.”

Zvi Galil

Perhaps not, but from that programming class emerged a career that has made Zvi Galil one of the world’s foremost scholars in computational algorithms—and the third John P. Imlay Jr. Dean of Computing at Georgia Tech. After taking the helm of the College of Computing in July 2010, Galil is poised to lead the College into the highest ranks of computing programs around the world.

“We have the best set-up for computer science and computing—the best. It’s what attracted me,” Galil says of his new organization, which encompasses three schools: Computer Science, Interactive Computing and Computational Science & Engineering. “The challenge will be to find faculty stars and bring them here.”

One such star might be Galil himself, though he admits that three decades in university administration have cut severely into research productivity. He now spends barely 10 percent of his time on research, but the National Academy of Engineering member and ACM and American Academy of Arts & Sciences Fellow still holds several world records for algorithmic speed and performance. He’s the author of about 200 scholarly articles and publications, and the editor of five books.

“I’m in a scholarly field that is extremely competitive,” Galil says. “It’s not like being a historian, for example. As a historian you can write a book on a subject, and somebody in another university is also writing a book on that subject, and you will both be able to publish because it would be different points of view.

“In my field, and similarly in mathematics, there are a number of problems that people work on and make their reputations on,” he says. “Quite a number of people work on them, and if someone solves a particular problem a week before you do, then your work is worth nothing.”

Earlier in his career, when his administrative duties were “limited” to chairing the computer science department (at the time it had only three or four faculty) at his alma mater of Tel Aviv University, Galil was one of the early pioneers of string algorithms. Indeed, in 1984 he coined the term “stringology” and years later was dubbed by one blogger the “String Maestro.”

“Once I got an email from somebody asking me to perform at a concert,” Galil says with a laugh. “I told them I don’t play those kinds of strings.”

Zvi Galil

One of Zvi Galil's top priorities is to forge stronger connections with alumni. Shortly after he arrived at Georgia Tech, Galil introduced College of Computing Advisory Board member and benefactor Chris Klaus at a Computing Alumni Organization event.


Instead he plays the kind that within microseconds can find a pattern of characters buried in a massive text—like, say, the Bible. Or all the characters in all the documents available anywhere on the Internet. In addition to strings, Galil also holds performance records in graph algorithms, another foundational concept in computer science.

“A graph is like a map,” he explains. “There are cities and links between them, railroad tracks, roadways, etc. Not every two cities are connected, but there are points and some lines. Many things can be formulated in terms of graphs—for example, computational networks. There are special algorithms for graphs, for example, to find the shortest path between two points.”

Galil himself had quite a short path to leadership. After becoming Tel Aviv’s computer science chair at age 32, a few years later he was asked to serve as president of ACM’s Special Interest Group in Automata and Computability Theory (SIGACT, which has since been renamed the SIG in Algorithms and Computation Theory). That appointment began a string of administration posts for Galil—none of which he sought out.

“I’m good at jumping on opportunities,” says Galil, who became CS chair at Columbia University (1989-94), then dean of Columbia’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering & Applied Science (1995-2007), then president of Tel Aviv University (2007-2009), before arriving at Georgia Tech in 2010.

“I did not run for any job that I had—people came to me,” he says. “I’m good with people; I like creating an environment for them to succeed. I like to help them, and I help those who help themselves.

“I love interacting with all constituencies but especially with the students,” he continues. “I see the mission of teaching as very important, preparing and educating the next generation. Students bring a lot of enthusiasm and great ideas—they can be the most original of any group in the university. My goal is to build a community where everyone feels like a partner and contributes to the College’s success.”

In his new job, Galil wants the College to help itself to what he believes is a real opportunity to join the ranks of truly elite CS programs. To get there, in addition to hiring more faculty superstars, he wants to engage more effectively with the College’s young, vibrant and successful alumni base, as well as become leaders in the development of new computing fields. One example of the latter is the establishment of the School of Computational Science & Engineering. Yet more examples of leadership are the College’s undergraduate Threads curriculum for CS majors, its Computational Media program and its Computing for Good initiative.

The “email dean,” as Galil calls himself for the emails he’s known to send to all constituencies at all hours of day and night, knows that Georgia Tech is well-positioned to capitalize on its potential. And he’s ready to do everything he can to make it happen.

“I devote myself 120 percent to this job,” Galil says. “I’m competitive and I’m driven. I don’t do things just to do them; I try to do them the best I can. I have this fire. That’s why I simply put my entire soul into it. Whatever I do, I want to succeed.”