Festschrift: A Celebration (and Roast) of Mike Stonebraker at MIT

written by Peter Vescuso on April 29, 2014 with no comments

If I’d known that academia had parties as interesting, entertaining and fun as Mike Stonebraker’s “festschrift” (the German word for a celebration honoring one’s accomplishments), I might have considered it as a career. I recently had the pleasure of attending Stonebraker’s event at MIT, which brought together many of the people who have participated in projects across Mike’s 40+-year career – including former colleagues, investors, collaborators, rivals, (Larry Ellison was invited but didn’t show…) and students.

Andy Pavlo from Carnegie Mellon University was the host of the event. He’s been a collaborator with Mike on the H-Store project for in-memory, parallel database management systems for online transaction processing (OLTP) applications.

When Mike sent me an invitation to the event, I didn’t know what to expect. It was being held at MIT, and a bunch of academics would be speaking about their research and projects with Mike, so my assumption was it would be technical, I wouldn’t understand a lot of it, etc. Was I wrong! The event combined heartwarming stories about Mike and his relationships with students and peers with more than a touch of a “celebrity roast.” Andy Pavlo was terrific, acting like Jimmy Fallon of the Tonight Show, doing the main roasting with interesting and funny stories from many of Mike’s long-time colleagues. For example, Dave Dewitt, who runs Microsoft’s Jim Gray Systems Lab at the University of Madison, knew Mike as his teaching assistant when they were both at University of Michigan in the 1970s. Pat Selinger, an IBM Fellow, worked on the original System R. Mike Olson, founder and Chairman of the Board of Cloudera, knew Mike Stonebraker from time spent earning his master’s degree at UC Berkeley.

Mike’s idiosyncrasies make him an easy target for roasting (e.g., he gets bored quickly, is a man of few words, is prone to giving very blunt feedback, etc.). Magdalena Balazinska, one of Mike’s former PhD students – and now professor at the University of Washington – gave a heart-warming presentation both honoring Mike and teasing him about his blunt style of giving feedback. (“When you give a presentation, you can’t stand there like a robot.”) Andy Palmer, former CEO of Vertica and current CEO of Data Tamer (both companies started by Mike Stonebraker), talked warmly about his relationship with Mike, but also gave him the ultimate Stonebraker award: a sledge hammer.

Evidence of the celebrity nature of the event is available at the stonebraker70 website.  Mike posed for pictures with attendees, including two of VoltDB’s developers, Ning Shi and Xin Jia. We were also happy to see Mike’s wife Beth and his two daughters wearing VoltDB’s Andy Warhol-style “Stonebraker Live!” t-shirts.

Andy Pavlo created an entertaining video for the occasion. It starts with a gripping intro (photo montage of Mike put to heavy metal) that is followed by personal tributes – from Chris Olston (Google), Duncan McCallum (Localytics), Anastasia Ailamaki (Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne), Raghu Ramakrishnan (Microsoft), Paula Hawthorn (former student, was VP of Engineering at Informix), Mike Ubell (Illustra, Informix), Donald Kossmann (ETH Zurich), Phil Bernstein (Microsoft), and Daniel Abadi (Yale University) – and concludes with Shel Finkelstein (SAP) and Pat Helland (Salesforce) singing happy birthday. If you don’t have time to watch the full video, you may miss the Michael Jackson impersonator at 6:18 with his memories of Mike from the Berkeley days.

I joined VoltDB recently and didn’t know Mike before that. I was aware of his reputation as an innovator, big thinker and technologist. I also knew of his reputation for being opinionated and for his blunt style of giving feedback. What I wasn’t aware of was how warm and generous he is. Testimony to that fact was delivered throughout the day.

Mike Stonebraker has had an enormous influence on the database world and the larger technology community. And for sure he isn’t done yet. We’re proud to have him as a member of VoltDB and look forward to his ongoing contributions, guidance, opinions… and bluntness.