Jeannette Wing got hooked on computer science as a sophomore in 6.031. The class, Structure and Interpretation of Computer Languages, covered foundational material like lambda calculus—and she loved it so much she had dreams about it. But she wasn’t sure she should switch majors from electrical engineering to computer science. So she consulted her father, Omar Wing, SM ’52, a professor of electrical engineering at Columbia University. “Is it just a fad?” she recalls asking him about the relatively new field. “He said, ‘No, don’t worry, it will be around. It’s a good major.’”
He was right, of course, and EECS, now combined, is MIT’s largest department. Wing became a powerhouse in computer science, contributing in both academia and government. In January, she became vice president of Microsoft Research as well as head of Microsoft Research International, headquartered in Redmond, Washington. In July, she was named a corporate vice president, and now oversees Microsoft’s four U.S. and three foreign research labs.
Microsoft tapped Wing for the post for good reasons. She spent more than 27 years teaching at Carnegie Mellon and served twice as department head—the first woman to fill that role at a top computer science school. She’s published nearly 200 journal articles, papers, and technical reports; secured more than $100 million in research grants; and collaborated with computer science luminaries like MIT’s John Guttag and Barbara Liskov. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, the Association for Computing Machinery, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Her free time is also focused: she is an accomplished ballet dancer and holds a black belt in karate.
Outside academia, Wing led the National Science Foundation’s Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate, which awards funds for academic computer science research, from 2007 to 2010. She loved evaluating state-of-the-art research ideas, she says, because “it gave me such a bigger perspective on the field, on science and engineering, on research, on the academia-industry-government ecosystem.”
In her new role at Microsoft Research, Wing is ambitious. The company has had a major impact through its scholarly research and the applications it’s developed from that work, such as many of the algorithms that make the Kinect sensor function in the Xbox 360 video-game console. “But I do think that as an organization with more than 1,100 scientists and engineers, we can do more. I don’t know what it will be,” she says, laughing, “but it’s a good aspiration to have.”