Jeannette Wing -- The "Dragon Lady"

Nicknamed “Dragon Lady,” Jeannette Wing is full of energy, enthusiasm and drive. She not only has a love of learning, whether it’d be in computer science, martial arts, or ballet, but also a love of teaching. Jeannette is originally from New York. She is a Professor of Computer Science and Head of the Computer Science Department at Carnegie Mellon University. She received her S.B. and S.M. degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Ph.D. degree in Computer Science, all from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In this interview, she shares her thoughts about her work and her passions.

How did you initially become interested in electrical engineering and computer science?

From grade school through high school, I was always interested in math and science. When I was in eleventh grade, I remember asking my father, "So what is engineering anyway?" and he told me all about what engineering is and how it blends math and science; and it's not just pure theory, but it's about applying math and science to real world problems. Then, after I went to MIT for my undergraduate work, like many others, I decided to major in electrical engineering. So I started out as an EE major. At MIT there are four courses that are required of both EE and CS majors. So my first semester sophomore year I took the first two. One was Circuits and Systems, which was more EE-oriented, and the other was Structure and Interpretation of Computer Languages, which was more CS-oriented. In this second course, we did everything, and somewhere in there, we learned lambda calculus. And I was just blown away! I said, "Wow! This is something I've never seen before and I really like it." (Before that, I thought computer science was just programming; I had taken a programming course my freshman year and I didn't like it very much.) And so then, I decided to switch from majoring in electrical engineering to majoring in computer science.

Any regrets?

No. What I regret as an undergraduate is not taking more math courses. In those days, computer science was so new that there were no textbooks and the professors were just figuring out the field. As an undergraduate, I would've benefited from getting a solid foundation in more traditional fields. Now, computer science has advanced so much that there's no room for all the courses you can possibly take in just computer science. That's why I like the undergraduate curriculum here; it gives you a lot of rigor in the computer science courses, and yet a lot flexibility to take courses outside of computer science.

Why did you choose to come to Carnegie Mellon University?

After I graduated from MIT, I went to USC (University of Southern California). I did that because I thought Boston was a really small city, and I just had to go to a decent-sized city. But then I realized that it didn't matter where I lived. What mattered more was my work environment and my colleagues. So then I decided I would go elsewhere. Carnegie Mellon was a possibility. Even though it's among the top three schools, Carnegie Mellon is different from the others because of the collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of the research that we do here. And there's just a wealth of research projects going on; it's so diverse! So, I came to Carnegie Mellon because of the research environment, and the quality of the faculty and students.

What would you say is the toughest security problem in research right now?

Right now, I'm interested in what I call "design-level vulnerabilities." With a design-level vulnerability, you're not looking at the implementation, but rather at the specification of each component. These components are designed and implemented independently of each other. But in the composition of these independently designed and implemented components, there may be a mismatch in their assumptions or a mismatch in their specifications. That's where the vulnerability is: components not designed to work together are composed by the attacker in such a way that exploits the mismatches. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with whether or not the code was implemented correctly with respect to the specification. I'm really trying to push the security community to think beyond buffer overruns; we have technical solutions to buffer overruns, such as better programming languages or even very sophisticated static and dynamic analysis tools. I'm interested in what the buffer overrun problem of tomorrow will be. I think it's above the level of code ­- it's at the design level.

How about in industry?

The major concern for industry is that the software we run is just full of bugs! And as long as you've got buggy software and an easy way to exploit those bugs (like using buffer overruns), we will always have the easy attacks. A hard problem for a company like Microsoft for instance is: Can they ever get rid of all their buffer overruns? Or how can they go beyond having to worry about that? That's a really hard problem.

If you hadn’t gone into academia what would you have done in another life?

Going into academia means teaching and doing research. No matter what field I choose to pursue in my life, I think I will always be a teacher. I can't imagine choosing another profession. Whether it's in higher education like academia, in the field of computer science, or karate, I'm always teaching. And that I see is what I was born to do. Ever since I was four years old, I've wanted to teach. And I was very bossy too. I would get all the other ­all older­ kids in the room and line them up in their chairs, and tell them "Sit there, listen to me." I guess I was very serious and very intense growing up.

The only other thing I could imagine being if I could, would be a ballerina. But I knew early on that I didn't have the physical ability needed to be a professional dancer.

Why did you decide to learn dance and karate?

Dance--to keep me sane in graduate school! As an undergraduate, I was on the fencing team. I really enjoyed that. Then when I was a graduate student, I started taking ballet classes. I had taken ballet classes as a little girl but stopped. But then I started ballet again as a graduate student and I realized that it was the one thing that kept me sane in graduate school. No matter what, and no matter how bad my day was, or how little progress I was making on my thesis, I always had ballet class.

Karate was something I got into here in Pittsburgh. There are no ballet classes that you can take in Pittsburgh in the month of August and so I needed to find something to do. I was getting sick of aerobics, so I went by this karate school and I started taking classes there. Karate is one of those other addictions; it's hard to quit. So for a while, I was trying to do both in the same evening. I'd go to ballet class, and then jump into the car, drive to karate, and do karate class. Now my body is saying, "No! You can't do that anymore." But I still enjoy both.

Have you done dances other than ballet?

I've only ever formally studied ballet. But I have performed modern, jazz, and tap. Ballet gives you a foundation to do any kind of dance. And so, when a small company or troupe needs an extra dancer, and the director knows you've taken ballet, it's more likely that he or she can teach you the modern, the jazz, or tap, rather than someone who has been trained in, say modern dance. You can't take that person and have him or her do ballet. I'm the worst at tap. I'm always a little ahead of the music. It's really bad when you choreograph a group of people to move together and there's one person always a little ahead. --Laughs--

How do you find time to do all these activities?

That's a good question. You know how? You know it keeps you sane, so you just put it in your schedule. And that's the only way it's going to happen. It's hard, especially now in my new position. I can imagine now more people than me owning my schedule. It'll be hard. But it's for health reasons­physically and mentally. So I think it's important to do some kind of physical activity. Karate is great because when I have a really bad day, I get to kick and punch and yell and scream, and it's all legit!

Did you get the “Dragon Lady” nickname from karate?

No, that actually came from one of the students here. I think it was in my programming languages course that I taught many years ago. One of the students just nicknamed me "Dragon Lady" because I was so tough and word got around. I don't even remember who the student was. But I do remember first learning about it in a subsequent semester when I taught operating systems. After my first day of class, a student came up to me, and he said, "I don't know why they call you Dragon Lady, you seem really nice to me!" Then the karate people found out that I was called "Dragon Lady" and they liked that nickname, so it stuck.

What do you like best about your job?

The thing that I like most is seeing the students succeed. This is for my own Ph.D. students, for all the Ph.D. students in the school, and for all the undergraduates I've taught. I get a lot of gratification from the simplest things, such as an undergraduate finally understanding some difficult concept. Or a note sent to me years later saying, "You know that stuff you were teaching about abstraction functions? I see it comes in handy now!" Just little things, and that's why I think I'm really a teacher at heart. It doesn't matter what I'm teaching, but helping other people learn is really rewarding. I've been watching over all the Ph.D. students in the department for nine years now. So when I see them finish, go off and get great jobs, do great research, and inspire the next generation, it just makes me feel like I was a part of that.

Now in my new position as department head, I get to work with the faculty, in addition to the students. So now, the more that the faculty are successful in their research, the more that they are successful in their teaching, then the happier I feel. I guess, making the people around me happy, and seeing them succeed, makes me happy.

When did you learn the Chinese sword dance?

In 1983, I went to China for two months with a Chinese-American student tour group. We spent two weeks in Xi'an, where we were each handed a sword, and every morning we had to wake up at 5 o'clock and we were supposed to learn this sword dance. I really took to it. To me, it was like ballet. That's another reason I started karate. Later, back in the United States, I wanted to continue practicing what I had learned, and so I called up all these martial arts schools here in Pittsburgh and asked, "Do you teach sword dance?" and they said, "You can't use weapons until you first learn to use your bare hands." In other words, you had to work your way up through the ranks. You can't start using weapons until you're a black belt.

What motto do you live life by?

Always do your best at whatever you choose to do. You don’t have to do everything and you get to decide what you choose to do. But once you decide that you’re going to do something, do your best.