David Patterson, ACM President 2004 - 06

As ACM celebrates its 75th anniversary, we invited ACM’s former presidents to reflect on their terms in a brief Q&A. In revisiting some of the milestone moments from ACM’s history, we hope for insight into the ever-changing landscape of computing to guide us forward in the next 75 years.

David Patterson served as ACM President from 2004 - 2006.

What motivated you to run for ACM president?

What motivated me to run was that my good friend and collaborator John Hennessy had become president of Stanford University in 2000. He's the one person that made me wonder whether I'd challenged myself enough taking on enough difficult roles in my career. So when Maria Clave asked me to run in 2004, I threw my hat into the ring.

What are some of the most memorable moments from your term?

I have four memorable moments. The first was even getting elected. I didn't ask Maria who my opponent was and it turned out to be Fran Allen. Had I known it was Fran, I probably wouldn't have run because I think she would've been a great president. But after I was in the election, my odds were long. In these ACM elections typically a person from industry wins against a person from academia and a woman usually wins against a man. So Pat Ryan, ACM COO, who had predicted the elections successfully for many years was sure that Fran would've won. So I was an underdog upset as president.

One of the things I remember getting tested early in the term, I was given a list of three candidates for a minor award, told I could pick one, so I picked the second one after I reviewed the case and the awards committee that picked that list was furious and threatened to quit if I didn't pick their top candidate. And I don't respond well to threats, so I accepted their resignation, picked the second candidate, like I did originally, and appointed a new awards committee, which I think did a fantastic job. The other thing that I remember—two other things. The first is that back then, people worried there weren't going to be programming jobs in countries like the United States because all the jobs would go offshore to countries with lower wages like India. And so we appointed a jobs task force, it collected the data and pointed it back that yes, lots of jobs were going to India, but there were many more jobs becoming available in the United States so it was a fine career moving forward.

It's kind of unbelievable today, but computer science dropped in popularity as a major, because everybody believed, including those in industry, that the jobs were going offshore.

The final one was I felt as ACM president was that I had to stand up to cuts that were being made in academic research by government agencies, such as DARPA. We did an op-ed in Science Magazine, articles in Time magazine, and fortunately the US president in the State of the Union Speech at that time promised to double the funding for science and engineering.

What were your most significant accomplishments as ACM president?

In terms of my accomplishments, in one of my President's Letters towards the end of my term, I revisited my campaign promises to see how we did, [you can see it] on the slide, but let me just tell you the results: there was the jobs task force, there was the making the case for CS research. We also created a Computer Science Teachers Association for people teaching pre-college computer science. We created Practitioner Boards to represent the non-research part of the community.

We added the honorary classifications of Distinguished Member and Senior Member. We received greater visibility for the Turing Award, which had been ignored in the last few years. I restarted the President's Letters and membership increased by 10% during my term. But by far the biggest accomplishment was the reinventing of the Communications of the ACM. The staff did readership surveys and the readership survey suggested that there was no problem with Communications. However, when I ran for president, many people lobbied me, in particular, Butler Lampson cornered me and said, "You've got to do something about CACM." ACM had dropped the Editor-in-Chief role, so it kind of evolved from a first-rate publication in computer science to a publication that often did articles on management information science, which was not what most of the ACM members were interested in. So the turning point was my President's Letter, "New Directions for CACM?" which you can see here on the slide.

The reaction to that, there was widespread agreement, maybe 40 or 50 letters, which I shared with the staff that helped convince them that there was a problem. So we created a task force to figure out what CACM should become. The idea was to model it after the very successful Science Magazine, which is both popular and has first-rate research in it. I recruited Moshe Vardi to become the new Editor-in-Chief. I also suggested the research highlight session, which is still popular today. So I'm pleased that, looking back, CACM is, once again, a first-rate magazine and it's a place that I'd like to publish.

How would you like your term to be remembered?

This one's pretty easy. I think challenges faced and resolved would be my how I'd like to be remembered.

What are some of the moments from ACM’s history that you think we should highlight during ACM’s 75th anniversary?

I want to make sure we go back to the very beginning of ACM. The first Vice President and the second President of ACM was John Mauchly. And John Mauchly is famous in computer design history. He and his colleague, J. Presper Eckert built the first general program of the digital computer, the ENIAC, and the first commercially successful digital computer, the UNIVAC 1. So ACM leadership has had people who have moved the state of the art as well as led ACM right from the very beginning, and that's certainly something you can be very proud of. Thanks very much for asking me.

Past ACM Presidents Reflect on Their Service to ACM

During ACM’s 75th anniversary, we promote the accomplishments of ACM’s former presidents. To better understand how they served the organization, we invited each of ACM’s living former presidents to participate in a brief Q&A. Through the Q&As, we also learn about important milestones during ACM’s history.

View ACM’s 75th Anniversary Celebration On Demand

ACM organized a special one-day conference to celebrate its 75th anniversary. This event was truly a memorable day of panels featuring world-leading scholars and practitioners on topics central to the future of computing. Panelists imagined what might be next for technology and society. ACM’s 75th Anniversary Celebration took place at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco on June 10. View the livestream on demand. Visit the event webpage for more details, including the program.