June 17, 2009 • Jason Dressel
In one of the sadder and stranger stories I read last week, Rajeev Motwani was found dead at the bottom of his swimming pool at the age of 47. As director of graduate studies in Stanford University’s computer science department, Motwani was like an Obi-Wan Kenobi for many of Silicon Valley’s young entrepreneurs—among them Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, whom he mentored in the 1990s. Ironically, though Motwani was known as an angel investor in many start-ups, and he played an important role in helping guide Brin and Page’s research for Google, he apparently did NOT initially invest in the company. (Doh! . . . But he was later given shares for his role as an advisor. Whew.)
Given his young age at the time of death, I was immediately curious if Stanford, or perhaps one of the other institutions with which Motwani had been affiliated (in 2001 he won the prestigious Gödel Prize, awarded for outstanding papers in theoretical computer science by two international associations with ridiculously long names), had systematically documented his career and accomplishments through oral histories.
Over most of the past two decades, Motwani not only had a courtside seat to some of the most significant innovations in computer science history and the (now old) “New Economy,” but he was also a very active player. On his blog Sergey Brin wrote, “Today, whenever you use a piece of technology, there is a good chance a little bit of Rajeev Motwani is behind it.” In addition to his famous affiliation with Google, Motwani sat on several boards of tech companies and was also an early investor in PayPal among many others.
A quick “Rajeev Motwani oral history” search on the robust search engine he helped create didn’t turn anything up. The lack of results surprised me because I have typically found Silicon Valley to be proactive in preserving and documenting its history (perhaps due to the fact that the region is nothing if not full of smart, forward-looking people with healthy egos).
In my line of work, I find that company leaders rarely question the value of oral histories and their fundamental purpose. “Yeah, we really need to that” is a comment I’ve heard numerous times. The reason being that despite the apparent obvious value and the relatively low cost, oral histories don’t tend to get done—or they take place at the end of a career when subjects are well past their prime, retired, and in some cases truly ailing.
Rajeev Motwani’s sad and early exit from this life is an apt reminder that it’s not just how long you’ve been around, it’s what you’ve done—and there’s no time like the present to capture genuine history told by the people who have made it.