Randy Pausch died two months ago from pancreatic cancer. His life inspired millions, including many Microsoftees who knew the computer science professor personally.
By Joshua Isaac
September 23, 2008
Randy Pausch, 47, taught computer science at Carnegie Mellon University but achieved worldwide fame for his “The Last Lecture” speech on September 18, 2007. He died on July 25, 2008.
Long before he was diagnosed with a fatal illness, Randy Pausch lived life with a zest and quality that characterizes the best of the human experience. He came to worldwide attention after giving a talk on achieving your childhood dreams which came to be known as “The Last Lecture.”
The title was appropriate. The computer science scholar, receiving palliative care for pancreatic cancer, would die on July 25, 2008, a few months after giving the talk. As poignant and humorous as it was brilliant and genuine, the lecture became an Internet sensation, touching millions of people around the world.
But long before the lecture brought Pausch’s zeal to audiences throughout the world, several Microsoftees intimately knew and relished his wisdom through personal relationships.
If you’re not going to have fun, why do it?
Desney Tan, researcher with Microsoft Research (MSR), was one of the many Microsoftees who met Pausch through his academic research at Carnegie Mellon University. In 1998, Tan was looking for a faculty advisor but found a lifetime mentor instead.
“Randy had me come in and meet with him at 3 a.m.—yes, three o’clock in the morning,” recalled Tan. “I don’t remember much of that meeting—it was 3 a.m., after all—but I do vividly remember him telling me, ‘if you’re just looking for an academic guide, I’m probably not your guy. But if you want to learn about life, let’s do it together.’ Obviously, when the time came, I picked Randy as my advisor, and that has been one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life.”
Desney Tan learned from his mentor Pausch that “walls are there to test how badly you want something. …There doesn’t exist a wall that is too high or too wide or too thick that you can’t find a way through. Perseverance and ingenuity [are] key.”
Pausch’s obscure teaching style had a deep impact on those who knew him. Rob DeLine, senior researcher with MSR, met Pausch through undergraduate and graduate research at the University of Virginia. “I’m still trying to decipher the secrets of how Randy made his lab so fun and his group so tight-knit,” recalled DeLine. “Part of the glue was his constant humor. He also had a way to make the whole group feel pride in each member’s personal achievements. We were always a team, never competing individuals. As Randy made so clear…fun and people are the primaries—nothing else really matters.”
Pausch focused on relationships and making those around him better. Eric Horvitz, research area manager with MSR, served with Pausch on the DARPA Information Science and Technology Study Group board. “I found that he brought a great deal of positivity and enthusiasm to everything he touched. He had a self-assured but humble and endearing nature in his interactions with others,” said Horvitz, who recalled how Pausch could easily turn a situation into a life lesson. “For example, I recall his mentioning in a lecture at Microsoft…that he had decided that it was far better to join up and collaborate with others than to compete with them…and that this was an organizing principle for living life and being a productive member of a team.”
‘If you can dream it, you can do it.’ — Walt Disney
Pausch, who liked to quote Walt Disney, brought the magic of Disney’s vision into his life and the life of others. When he delivered “The Last Lecture,” he gave a blueprint for achieving your dreams. “I think the presentation was magnificent,” said Jane Prey, senior research program manager with MSR, who taught with Pausch on the UVA faculty and referred to Pausch as Peter Pan. “It was so Randy to do all of that. He was a first-class showman in every positive sense of the word, and he also understood what he needed to leave his audience with—that life can be very unfair, but you can spend all of your life bringing joy to many people.”
Several Microsoft employees were there to personally see “The Last Lecture.” “That weekend was a confusing emotional mix. All his former students flew in for it, so it was like a college reunion,” DeLine said. “After the lecture and a short dedication ceremony, Randy went out to dinner with us. At the end of the night, each of us, in turn, got a private moment to say goodbye. That last moment with him is still a punch in the guts for me to think about, but I’m so grateful for it.”
Jane Prey, senior research program manager with MSR, worked closely with Randy Pausch at the University of Virginia’s computer science program. “I feel very lucky to count myself as one of his friends,” said Prey.
Tan travelled from Florence, Italy, taking four connecting flights to get there and arriving only moments before the lecture started. “Randy managed to get the essence of himself into an hour,” Tan said. “He has left me, and the world, a legacy to remember and to live by. Randy was a wonderful man who was thankfully given the opportunity to spread his life, I daresay, far beyond even his wildest dreams. To anyone who hasn’t watched ‘The Last Lecture’ [or read his book], I would strongly encourage this. We all take something a little different away from it, but we all take something away from it. A little piece of him lives on in all our lives, and for that, we are thankful.”
Time is a commodity
Pausch made great contributions to the world of computer science with a famous software project called Alice. He also left an indelible mark through his lectures on time management. But time was the one thing Pausch did not have enough of. Yet knowing this, he made the most of the time he did have. “His efforts and priorities over the two or so years from receiving his diagnosis to his death really captured his positive spirit, his commitment to truth and honesty, his wonderful communication skills, his incredible time-management skills, and his creativity and overall approach to making the best of things,” Horvitz said.
In light of his diagnosis, he fought for more research funding for pancreatic cancer. “We have lost many great computer scientists due to pancreatic cancer,” said John Nordlinger, senior research program manager with MSR, who brought Pausch to campus as a consultant. “Along with being awed and inspired by Randy, we should take a moment to appreciate the devastation of cancer in general and pancreatic cancer especially, both in terms of personal health and if we can contribute towards greater research.”
Pausch’s testimony before the U.S. Congress helped paint the picture of those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In the last 30 years, virtually no progress has been made in the fight against this disease. Median survival following diagnosis is less than six months with 75 percent of patients dead by year one and only 4 percent alive after year five.
“Back in my graduate days of working with Randy, whenever someone was stuck and said they couldn't figure out a problem, or that they didn't think something would work, Randy would never accept that kind of answer,” said Ken Hinckley, principal researcher with MSR. “[Finding a cure] has been given up as too hard. But Randy has an answer to that too: ‘I don't believe in too hard.’”
Much of Pausch's last lecture was about how he had a list of very specific childhood dreams, including flying in zero gravity, meeting Captain Kirk, becoming a professional football player, authoring an article in the World Encyclopedia, being a Disney Imagineer, winning stuffed animals, and how he accomplished them all except becoming a professional football player. As hard as they were, Pausch really did achieve his childhood dreams. But he did not live to see his three children achieve theirs. Fortunately for them, he left behind a legacy.