Washington, June 08: A much-loved Stanford University professor from India who mentored and backed such sparkling Silicon Valley companies as Google and Rajeev Motwani, Stanford University professor from India & Google mentor, died in a freak drowning accident at his Bay area home on Friday. Paypal died in a freak drowning accident at his Bay area home on Friday, sending the tech community into gloom.
Rajeev Motwani, who was born in Jammu, grew up in Delhi, and graduated from IIT Kanpur, was found in the backyard swimming pool of his Palo Alto home he purchased three years ago. There was no official word about the cause of death, but friends and local reports said he did not know how to swim and may have drowned accidentally.
Paramedics were called when his body was found, and he was pronounced dead at the scene at 12:28 p.m., according to the San Mateo County coroner’s office. Motwani, who was only 47 and in the prime of his academic and professional life, leaves behind his wife, Asha Jadeja, and daughters Naitri and Anya.
News of Motwani’s death stunned the close-knit and well-networked Silicon Valley tech community. Messages sped through emails, blogs, Facebook entries, and Twitter feeds, as scores of techies and gearheads who had thrived under his tutelage, mentorship, and affection, opened their hearts.
Among the first to record a tribute was Sergei Brin of Google, who along with his co-founder Larry Page, were Motwani’s students in grad school at Stanford and worked closely with him as they founded Google. In his first blog entry in nine months, Brin recalled Motwani’s ”big role in my research, education, and professional development.”
”In addition to being a brilliant computer scientist, Rajeev was a very kind and amicable person and his door was always open. No matter what was going on with my life or work, I could always stop by his office for an interesting conversation and a friendly smile,” Brin wrote, in a condolence that ended with a stirring epitaph: ”Today, whenever you use a piece of technology, there is a good chance a little bit of Rajeev Motwani is behind it.”
Brin recalled that when his interest turned to data mining, Rajeev, who had specialized in the field, helped to coordinate a regular meeting group on the subject. ”Later, when Larry and I began to work together on the research that would lead to Google, Rajeev was there to support us and guide us through challenges, both technical and organizational. Eventually, as Google emerged from Stanford, Rajeev remained a friend and advisor as he has with many people and startups since.” he wrote.
Motwani moved to the U.S in the mid-1980s, taking the familiar route from IIT (Kanpur) to University of California (Berkeley), where he earned his doctorate, before moving to Stanford University. As a Stanford professor, he also served as the director of graduate studies for the computer science department and founded the Mining Data at Stanford project (MIDAS), positions from which he mentored many start-ups and was a major catalyst in the Silicon Valley eco-system.
Although he was primarily a theoretician, Silicon Valley gurus credit Motwani with having a profound impact on products and companies. Michael Arrington, a serial entrepreneur and founder of the blog TechCrunch said Brin and Page always gave Motwani significant credit for helping them create what would eventually become Google.
In fact, Arrington recalled, it was a 1998 paper called ”What Can You Do With A Web In Your Pocket” by Brin, Motwani, Page and Terry Winograd that became the basis for Google. In the paper, the quartet said they intended to ”take advantage of the link structure of the Web to produce a global ‘importance’ ranking of every web page.” They said this ranking, called PageRank, helps search engines and users quickly make sense of the vast heterogeneity of the World Wide Web.
But early search engines that were off the blocks before Google scoffed at the idea. AltaVista, the leading search engine at the time, turned down the chance to buy Google for $1 million, saying spam would make PageRank useless. Yahoo also declined to purchase Google, supposedly because they didn’t want to focus on search, which only sent users away from Yahoo.com.
To Shivanand Kanavi, a Mumbai-based business writer who interviewed Motwani in 2004 for his book From Sand to Silicon: The Amazing Story of Digital Technology, the Stanford savant explained the birth of Google. ”Sergey Brin and Larry Page were running a search engine out of Stanford,” he recalled. ”These 21- year-olds would come in and make demands on me — we need more disk space because we are crawling the Web and its getting bigger, we need to buy more disk… I’d give them more money and they’d go buy more disks.
”At some point these guys said, we want to go do a company. Everybody said you must be out of your minds. There are like 37 search engines out there and what are you guys going to do? And how are you going to raise money, how will you build a company, and these two guys said, we’ll just do it and they went off and did it. And there are some big names who supported the company in its early stages. And then they took over the world.
”And right now, you know, other search engines do not even compare. It is just amazing. Just feels like a part of a little bit of history and I contributed a little bit to that history. Now I have become a start-up junkie.”