Last week, German scientist Oliver Heckmann was hailed as the most promising researcher in computer science and applied mathematics by the European Research Consortium for Informatics and Mathematics (ERCIM). For Heckmann, who is just 32, it's only the latest in a long string of achievements.
Heckmann's work started getting noticed at about the time he received a Ph.D. in network science, summa cum laude, in 2004. A year later, he won the best-dissertation award from the German Society for Informatics (GI). Writing a book for nonspecialists--students and Internet Service Providers (ISPs)--got his work noticed outside academic circles. Heckmann has "a good combination of mathematical/analytical skills, [a] broad open interest in how things work, [and a] good understanding of complex systems paired with good communication and organisation skills," writes Ralf Steinmetz, his Ph.D. supervisor, in an e-mail. This year, Heckmann's excellent track record in research and management helped him land a job at Google, which he started in October. It is his dream job, he says, so he's not planning on leaving anytime soon. Still, an academic career remains an eventual possibility; he isn't saying "never."
Heckmann went to the Technical University Darmstadt in Germany in 1994 to study business economics, electrical engineering, and information technology; "It had the right combination … of maths, engineering, and you don’t get your hands dirty," he says. But after he earned his Masters' degree in 2000--his degree spanned all 3 disciplines--he decided to focus on computer science. "When I started studying in Darmstadt … it was the beginning of the success of the World Wide Web," he says. "I experienced the boom when it became popular." Pursuing a Ph.D. was an easy choice. "I always liked science," he says, noting that as a child he was less interested in operating his remote-controlled car than he was in calculating how long it could run before the batteries ran out.
Heckmann expected to move to a new university for his Ph.D., but he "found a very nice and good professor in Darmstadt"--Ralf Steinmetz. "There were opportunities for me to influence the direction the lab was going, so I decided to stay." Steinmetz's lab was the Multimedia Communications Lab (KOM) at the Department of Electrical Engineering and Information Technology.
While pursuing his Ph.D., Heckmann worked on three of the different projects that were going on in the Steinmetz lab, all of which funded his training at one time or another: the EU M3I (Market Managed Multiservice Internet) project, which aimed to build the next generation of service infrastructure for ISPs; the E.U. MMAPPS (Market Management of Peer-to-Peer Services) project, which built a new software system with better management support for peer-to-peer network providers; and the German national LETS QoS (Lab Experiment to Test Systematic Quality of Services) project, which assessed the costs and benefits of different quality of service architecturesto help ISPs choose between them. Heckmann was the technical lead manager on the LETS QoS project.
It was a lot to juggle, Heckmann says. But he "enjoyed it most of the time," and he excelled. One key skill honed during his Ph.D. was the ability to communicate. "If you work on larger projects like the European ones, you need the scientific skills to do what you are hired for, but also you need the interpersonal skills. There are a lot of negotiations and discussions, and you have to be able to communicate your ideas to negotiate what everybody is doing."
With an average of 5 Masters students working with him on his different projects, Heckmann had more responsibility--and a larger workload--than most Ph.D. students. But in his lab, such situations were not unusual. "That is the situation when you have a large lab funded by projects. … You have to take on some." Heckmann liked the lab's hands-on approach. "It was one of the reasons [for me] to go there," he says--he didn't want to spend his time in an office hidden from the real world. "That would have been boring for me" no matter how interesting the science was. "I wanted contacts with different people. I wanted to be influenced by people."
Such a collegial approach fits in well in almost any work environment, but it's especially suitable for computer scientists, who typically spend a lot of time bouncing ideas off each other to find solutions, Heckmann says. So "It is important to work in projects or with research groups where you are forced to constantly discuss what you are doing with other people" in order to develop the interpersonal skills that are needed for doing research work in large groups.
Before Heckmann was awarded his Ph.D., Steinmetz offered him a "research group leader" position in his lab, supervising a team of seven Ph.D. students. At about the same time, Heckmann decided to write "a more readable version of my thesis" that would allow students and Internet professionals to learn about network technology. The 398-page book, The Competitive Internet Service Provider: Network Architecture, Interconnection, Traffic Engineering and Network Design, claimed 18 months of evenings and weekends and required a lot of energy and focus. Still, he says, "I really enjoyed the experience."
A couple of years later, Heckmann was ready for his next step. "I got interested in [Google] a long time ago, especially because Google is different from most companies," says Heckmann. "When you work on the Internet, … Google is the first." It seemed like a special place. "I had an interview here [in Zürich], and then I was convinced that I wanted to work here. You notice the nice atmosphere immediately when you enter."
"Google is full of smart people that get things done," Heckmann says. The projects they get to work on are "really, really cool. … Working is also fun for everybody here"--and that's only partly a function of the many football fields, foosball and ping pong tables, and quiet places for a chat that can be found on Google's premises.
Something else Heckmann appreciates about Google is that software engineers--not the marketing staff--determine the company's direction. "For a person loving engineering, it’s a great atmosphere," he says.
Google's management, Heckmann says, looks "for a very specific kind of people, who will fit in this Google way of doing things. They can be very good computer scientists, but they will not be hired if they don’t fit in the company culture." Thomas Hofmann, Director of Engineering at Google, writes in an e-mail that "In a leading engineer like Oliver, we look for strong technical skills and profound knowledge in the respective area of expertise combined with an entrepreneurial spirit and experience in leading teams." Other young scientists interested in getting a job at Google will have greater chances if they have a solid scientific track-record and a good reputation in the field. They must be able to demonstrate that "they can also 'build things,' which--in computer science--often involves some experience in software development and coding," Hofmann continues. "On top of that, entrepreneurial activities, such as times spent at start-ups or in a start-up-like research environment, are always very well perceived and highly valued."
"Oliver is an amazing person and in many ways an ideal fit. On one hand he is absolutely stellar as a scientist in his field, working on research problems that are highly relevant for Google. He has definitively proven himself as a thought leader in the scientific community, but also as a successful manager with an impressive track record of accomplishments. Finally, he has a great attitude towards working with other people as well as an open and sharp mind when it comes to new ideas and problem solving," Hofmann says.
Heckmann was appointed at Google as a "tech lead manager." He plays a dual role, managing a team of two software engineers and contributing to the technical development of products. "I am responsible for a couple of projects, and they are all new, innovative services that will be integrated into existing Google products," he says. He is allowed a lot of flexibility, he says, in choosing the relative amount of time he spends managing his team and contributing directly to project development. He was surprised to find that at Google, "you have to think ... and define what you are doing for yourself." Indeed, he says, the freedom he now enjoys is even greater than what he experienced at university.
As a "very happy … [and] very proud" new Google employee, Heckmann isn't yet looking beyond his current position. But when he is pressed to speculate, he admits that an eventual return to academia isn't out of the question. "I like both"--industry and academia--"very much," he says. "I want to keep my options open."Steinmetz thinks that keeping his options open won't be a problem because Heckmann "has superb abilities for both careers." In computer science, where it is not uncommon to move between academia and industry, his experience at Google probably will be an asset if he eventually chooses to return to the ivory tower. "I am sure Oliver has the necessary skills and attitude to be successful at Google," says Steinmetz. "I also think that he can learn a lot there that would make him an even better professor should he decide to go back to academia later on in his career."
But for now, Heckmann is enjoying his new job and basking in the glow of a well-received new book and the prestigious ERCIM Cor Baayen Award, which he accepted last week in Nice. The award's 5000-euro prize matters far less than the "boost in motivation" that the award represents. "It shows that all the hard work that I invested is now paying off."