May 21 - Shneiderman's Commencement Address Inspires All


Today, renowned computer scientist and two-time Stony Brook alumnus, Dr. Ben Sheiderman will receive a Doctor of Science from his alma mater. Professor Shneiderman, who was the first person to receive a PhD from the computer science department, pioneered human-computer interaction and the highlighted textual link. Prof. Shneiderman's  address, presented below, will be presented at the prestigious Doctoral Hooding Ceremony on May 21 in the Island Federal Credit Union Arena.  

Stony Brook Commencement
      Ben Shneiderman, ben [at]  (May 21, 2015)   

Today is a day for celebration – you are being honored for working smart to complete your dissertations.  You’ve been capable & creative, innovative & inspired!  Each of you has taken risks, made commitments, and struggled with ideas.  You’ve all impressed your dissertation committees, and made valuable contributions that could change the course of history.  Bravo to all of you!

Getting your degree raises your stature, but it only brings you to the starting line for your career – that’s why they call this a commencement.  You have many adventures to enjoy, challenges to meet, setbacks to recover from, and successes to celebrate.

Let me take you back to when I was a graduate student at Stony Brook. I attended a lecture by a respected researcher on the hot topic of structured programming. His talk led me to excitedly sketch out a new idea for developing software.  

I shared my idea with fellow grad student and dear friend Ike Nassi, who cheered me on and became a co-author.  We enthusiastically mailed our paper to a respected journal, and rather than waiting for months we got a response in weeks.  I eagerly opened the envelope and … can you imagine what it said, I quote: “the best thing the authors could do is collect all copies of this technical report and burn them, before anybody reads them… it shows the inexperience and ignorance of the authors.”   The reviewer referred to our idea as “ridiculous” and “silly”, which registered harshly in our grad student minds. 

We were shaken and disappointed, but encouraged by supportive comments from friends, we were determined not to give up.  We sent the revised paper to a widely-read newsletter for programmers.  Its prompt publication brought worldwide positive reactions, which led to widespread adoption among practitioners and hundreds of refinements, plus textbooks teaching students how to use it.  Dozens of commercial software tools, related patents, and an international standard secured our place in programming history for more than three decades.  So my ridiculous and silly idea became a huge success.

I learnt a lot from this experience: to be resilient in the face of setbacks and rejections: New ideas are often rejected by those too immersed in their own way of thinking to accept something different.  I’ve seen how hard it is to launch a new idea.  So stick with what you believe in, and when your ideas become widely adopted, you’ll feel the great satisfaction of making a valuable contribution.

Another lesson I took away is that: Feedback is the breakfast of champions.  Engage with your supporters and critics.  Don’t get angry at your critics, listen to them.  Think about how you could more effectively explain why your idea is so good and clarify who benefits from your innovation. As Churchill said: Never give in! Never give in! Never give in!

Ike Nassi has remained a good friend since those grad student days.  He became an Apple Vice President, Chief Scientist for the software giant SAP, and is now launching his 4th start-up company. I liked partnering with Ike –it was fun.  Collaboration made my work better. Teamwork gets things done, networks are the way you spread your ideas. Find trusted partners, work in teams, build your networks. Be generous!  

The social media and web-based tools you have in your pockets have really changed the world since I graduated.  You can search for information you need, communicate with almost anyone on the planet, and collaborate with your team members.   You can also support human-rights movements, assist in disaster response, or launch startup companies. 

Your network is powerful! Use it to gain strength, while also giving generously to others.

And speaking of networks, the lessons I mention are available on Twitter.  I tweeted them last night with the hashtag  #SBBS2015 for Stony Brook-Ben Shneiderman-2015.   Just remember #SBBS2015.

After graduate school I changed my focus from the technical side of computer science to the human and social aspects of designing user interfaces.  One of my little designs was the highlighted clickable link that lets Web users jump from one page to another.  Small contributions often play important roles in a major innovation, like tiles in a large mosaic.  So remember: Even small ideas can contribute to major innovations: Every one of you is capable of making a small contribution that could bring about a big change.

Tim Berners-Lee used my small idea in his 1989 manifesto for the World Wide Web, which has made a dramatic difference from the time when I was a grad student.  By the way, did you know that Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the web, had his original paper rejected.  He stayed with his  idea, which has done pretty well.

So get started with your next idea, whether it is advancing neuroscience, promoting energy sustainability, or writing a play. Dig into important problems by working with a strong team, then start sprouting new ideas. Make a list of them, do a quick sketch, develop a small prototype, run a pilot study; then scale up to bigger versions.   Work with your team to get something done and then improve on it again and again and again and again.

My strong team was often made of great students and terrific research partners.  Of course I look for people with strong resumes, but I also choose people that I want to have lunch with.

One of the projects our team worked on was the design of small touchscreen keyboards that led to the ones you find on your smartphones.  A memorable outcome of our lab’s growing reputation was that Steve Jobs came to visit.  He lived up to his reputation by racing through our demos saying “That’s great! That’s great! That sucks! That’s great! That sucks!”   As a result, some of our ideas did wind up in Apple products.

Next lesson: Share your ideas with others, connect with the leaders in your field.

I still enjoy working with my students on ridiculous and silly ideas that lead to important contributions. I hope by working on socially relevant problems you will also make important contributions.  Align your heart and your mind; balance passion with rational thinking; then get into action. There’s a lot that needs fixing, but every one of you can make a positive contribution.  So start by being ridiculous and silly, team up with people you like, then refine your ideas, and contribute to something great.

Thanks for the chance to speak to you today.  Just remember: We need everyone’s help to build a better world….let’s get to work!

Dr. Shneiderman, a two-time Stony Brook University alumnus and Distinguished University Professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, is a world renowned computer scientist who has transformed the computer science field. He is a member of the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS) and Founding Director of the Human conducts fundamental research in the field of human-computer interaction. He pioneered the highlighted textual link in 1983, and it became part of Hyperties, a precursor to the web. His move into information visualization spawned Spotfire, known for pharmaceutical drug discovery and genomic data analysis. He is also a technical advisor for the treemap visualization producer, The Hive Group. A native New Yorker, Prof. Shneiderman was born in 1947 and attended the prestigious Bronx High School of Science in New York City where he excelled in science and mathematics. In 1968, he received a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics and Physics from the City College of New York. Shneiderman attended Stony Brook University, receiving a Master of Science degree in Computer Science in 1972 followed by a PhD in 1973 – the first to receive a PhD in computer science from Stony Brook. Elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2010, he is recognized nationally and internationally as evidenced by many of the awards that he has received, including the 2013 Distinguished University Professor award from UMD, Graduate Faculty Mentor of the year, the 2012 Visualization Career Award presented by the IEEE Computer Society Visualization & Graphics Technical Committee. He also received Honorary Doctorates from the University of Guelph (Canada) and the University of Castile (Spain). 

To read more about the honorary degree recipients, visit: