Interview with Vint Cerf: Plan to Not Plan Your Career- Part 2

In this second part of our scintillating conversation, Dr. Vint Cerf, Father of the Internet, discusses how to plan to not to plan a career, and how to identify opportunity.

Q: When you got started, what language did you program in?

A: I think the first language I programmed in was called Autocoder for Bendix G-15 computer at UCLA. My best friend got access to the computer in 1960 when I was 17, which is pretty remarkable. Today that wouldn’t be considered remarkable, but 2 teenagers who were still in high school who got access to UCLA’s computing resources? That was amazing. The head of the department was very forward thinking. The next programming language I learned was Fortran and I did a lot of professional programming in Fortran, and also assembly language for IBM machines. But I’ve gone on since then to other languages and more modern ones like C++, Python, and things like that.

Q: It’s interesting what you say about how you and physics never really got along well, and I started out as an astronomy and physics major, but then I took differential equations and I was in love.

A: No kidding? Most people run away from differential equations! Ordinary differential equations are pretty straight forward and I was comfortable with that, but partial differential equations seem to get a little more complicated. And then I got to Riemannian geometry and I started running into real problems of visualization.

Q: And when I got to my proofs course, it all made sense to me and I would look forward to doing my homework, because it was like solving a mystery.

A: I remember enjoying geometry for that reason. There was something so satisfying about writing QED.

Q: But it’s funny how you say that you and physics didn’t get along.

A: Well there’s a reason or that. I finally understood why I had so much trouble with physics. All the constants in physics are in people’s names and it didn’t automatically tell you what the units were. I had a terrible time associating somebody’s name with the units, and sometimes the units were weird and didn’t make intuitive sense to me. So physics and I never quite got along. I was great in chemistry- loved that, did well in that. But physics? No. I suspect there are a lot of failed physicists who became mathematicians or computer programmers.

Q: What should the young researchers here at HLF (and around the world) be thinking about if they want to go for the Fields Medal, the Turning Award and so forth?

A: First of all, that’s the wrong motivation. Don’t be motivated by prizes. Be motivated by wanting to accomplish something. By all means, pick things you are good at it and love to do, because if you are not good at and don’t love it, why waste your time. Some people say: “what should I do to plan my career?”

I remind them of this wonderful Jewish expression: man plans, God laughs. None of us have planned our careers. Every single one of the winners here will tell you that They fell in to something by good fortune, that opportunities popped up which they were fortunate enough to recognize as opportunities. And so the best advice I can give these young people is not to plan your career, but be ultra sensitive to opportunity when it shows up and be aware that sometimes things that don’t look like opportunities, turn out to be [opportunities].

Q: Can you give me an example of a time (social) networking has helped you in your career?

A: Probably the most important connection for me is with the guy who is still my best friend, Steve Crawford. We met in high school in 1959. He was a gung-ho mathematician. We started the math club together and he was the one who got permission to use the computers at UCLA. We both ended up in grad school in UCLA. That connection has now gone on for almost 60 years. Our careers have co-mingled off and on during that time. It those long terms relationships that have been the most significant for me. Steve Crawford introduced me to my thesis advisor, Gerald Estrin. And while I was in the beginning of my PhD, my father passed away and he became like a surrogate dad for me through the years, until he passed away. I value those long term relationships. I think I have more friends from my high school period than my college period.

Q: What is the biggest mistake that early career mathematicians and scientists make in terms of thinking about their career?

A: The biggest mistake is thinking you can plan your career. I’m not arguing you shouldn’t plan anything. But I am saying that a successful career is as often as not made up of a series of unexpected encounters and opportunities. So the biggest mistake you can make is not noticing an opportunity.

Like the HLF? Well said Dr. Cerf…


Alaina G. Levine is a science writer, science careers consultant, professional speaker and corporate comedian. She is the author of Networking for Nerds (Wiley, 2015), which was named a top 5 Book of 2015 by Physics Today. Contact her via her website or follow on twitter @AlainaGLevine.

whose bachelors is in mathematics, is an award-winning entrepreneur, science journalist, career consultant, professional speaker and corporate comedian. Her first book, Networking for Nerds, was published by Wiley, and beat out Einstein (really!) for the honor of being named one of the Top 5 Books of 2015 by Physics Today Magazine. The author of over 350 articles, she is a columnist for Physics Today and APS News, and a regular contributor to Science, ScienceCareers, Physics World, and NatureJobs. She has also written for NatGeo News Watch, Scientific American, Smithsonian, COSMOS, and IEEE Spectrum. @AlainaGLevine

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