David Cheriton: investing in life

Aug. 9, 2012, 2:30 a.m.

A musician, windsurfer and Stanford computer science professor, David Cheriton has many interests. However, as the 19th-richest Canadian and a successful investor, he is best known for his interest in startups.

“I get very excited about the notion of doing new and different things,” Cheriton said.

Born in Vancouver, Canada, Cheriton was the third of six children. After moving to Edmonton at the age of five, he developed a passion for music while attending public school. He studied musical theater at the Banff School of Fine Arts for two summers and has performed in multiple opera choruses and musical productions.

“I look back and think that [music] was a good way to keep sane. Otherwise, I was quite involved in more mathematical and technical things,” Cheriton said.

Cheriton remembers his first introduction to computers during the “prehistoric times” of his late high school years.

“I recall my math teacher bringing up the topic of computers… but I’m not sure I had ever seen one before,” Cheriton said. “It was the first time it was really brought to my attention, and it wasn’t until the first year at my university that I actually used a computer.”

He went on to pursue his interest in mathematics and later computer science as an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia. He then received his master’s and doctorate at the University of Waterloo. In 1981, after being hired at Stanford, Cheriton came to the school “to try something different.”

“Stanford had a worldwide reputation in computing, so it felt like an opportunity to ‘run with the big boys,’ so to speak,” Cheriton said. “I thought I’d give it a try and see whether I could measure up.”

But the turning point of Cheriton’s career came in 1995 when he became involved with a startup called Granite Systems. Cisco would later purchase the company for $220 million, only 14 months after Granite had been established. The sale of Granite Systems provided Cheriton with the capital necessary to test his luck with other business ventures.

“For the longest time when I was a professor, I didn’t really have any money to invest,” Cheriton said. “Kind of overnight, more or less, I went from worrying about how to pay the mortgage to posing whether I should just pay off the mortgage and not think about it ever again.”

Since then, Stanford students have come to Cheriton to ask him to invest in their companies or simply give advice. After Granite Systems, he contributed to a wide variety of Silicon Valley startups. His most well-known investment remains the $100,000 check he gave to Stanford Ph.D. students Larry Page M.S. ’98 and Sergey Brin ’95 M.S. ’98, the founders of Google.

“I started having people come to me that were interested in starting a company and looking for financial support,” Cheriton said. “I felt compelled to help them because other people had helped me out along the way to get to where I was.”

Besides investing, Cheriton has also served on advisory boards or the boards of directors for the companies he has helped. With his expertise in both computer science and business, he has not only interacted with other investors but has also brought in customers and worked on product ideas.

Sam Liang M.S. ’99 Ph.D. ’03, founder of technology startup Alohar Mobile, really appreciates what Cheriton taught him. Having completed his doctorate in electrical engineering under Cheriton, Liang asked him for advice regarding a technology startup he was considering founding, which would create more advanced mobile location technology. Even 10 years after his graduation, Liang values Cheriton’s high standards and harsh criticism.

“[Cheriton] is the sharpest person I’ve ever met,” Liang said. “He thinks differently, and he taught us to think differently: don’t just follow the herd or the fad. He wants his students to think big and try to figure out a way to change the world.”

When it comes to investing, Cheriton explained that he prefers to contribute to companies that offer products or services that he would personally like to use, such as Google’s high-end search engine. In addition, he certainly never feels pressured to follow the crowd.

“I have always really appreciated his almost complete disregard for what is fashionable or politically correct or conventional wisdom,” said one of Cheriton’s first doctoral students, Willy Zwaenepoel M.S. ’80 Ph.D. ’85. Zwaenepoel now works at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, a Swiss engineering school.

“In the beginning I was completely flabbergasted by his irreverence for what I thought were well-accepted principles,” Zwaenepoel said. “But over time I came to see how it really opens one’s eyes to new ways of addressing problems.”

Yet despite his success in the industry, Cheriton values the changes he has made to the field of computer science over the money he has earned through his investments.

“I don’t really find the money element that interesting,” he said. “It’s sort of a necessary evil to make new things a success.”

Through his research at Stanford, Cheriton has worked toward improving today’s technology. He is known for helping to introduce multicast, which allows a single source to deliver information to multiple places, to the Internet, and he is currently studying snapshot isolation in relation to building distributed applications. The idea involves creating applications that will run across multiple computers based on a consistent “snapshot.” For example, Google runs across a large number of computers at once, and even though some might fail, the software uses snapshot isolation so that those failures are not seen by any of the users.

“I view that I’m just one little piece of all the research going on in computer science,” Cheriton said.

No matter what he studies or invests in, Cheriton continues to enjoy his work and harbors no plans for his retirement, despite his 30-plus years on the Farm.

“I really like what I’m doing,” Cheriton said. “I’m working harder than I ever have.”

Kylie Jue '17 was the Editor-in-Chief for Vol. 250. She first became involved with The Daily as a high school intern and now is a CS+English major at Stanford. A senior from Cupertino, California, she has also worked a CS 106 section leader. To contact Kylie, email her at kyliej ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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