Natural Sciences

Alum Named Skype VP

Gurdeep Singh Pall takes the reins of Microsoft's Skype division

Imagine: You’re stuck in the checkout line so you say to your phone, “Hey, am I running late?”

In an instant, your phone considers the time of day, your location, your 2 p.m. appointment and the traffic between you and there.

“Yup—you’re running late,” your phone responds. “Would you like me to call your appointment and tell them you’ll be arriving at 2:15?”

UO alumnus Gurdeep Singh Pall (pictured) says this future is closer than you think.

Pall, MS ’89 (computer and information science), a longtime Microsoft executive, was recently named corporate vice president for the Skype division. In his previous role he was guiding various aspects of the Bing search engine; among Pall’s current projects, he is developing a translator tool for Skype that overcomes language barriers.

This kind of work has always been exciting for Pall, who grew up in India. As an undergraduate, he had the chops to gain entry to a selective college where he could develop his computer-engineering skills; as a master’s student in computer and information science at the UO, Pall capitalized on the availability of veteran professors such as Virginia “Ginnie” Lo, receiving guidance on advanced-computing problems and other subjects.

“I was like a sponge in those days,” Pall said. “If a department is too big, you don’t get that (access), and if it’s too small, you don’t have enough interesting things to take on.

I just really enjoyed that department—it was the perfect size.”

Pall draws a big distinction between true computer science and “hacking.” What’s the difference?

When faced with a task, a hacker immediately turns to a programming tool and starts writing code, Pall said. But a true programmer will move much more methodically, considering what the program should do, how it should be designed and built and where the potential pitfalls are.

“I was a hacker until I got to the UO—if you write the code first, then you’re always hacking and hacking and hacking to fix all the problems,” Pall said. “I came to this rule that when you really approach a problem well, you spend 80 percent of your time designing it and 20 percent writing code.”

Pall credits the CIS department for teaching him to think abstractly—a critical skill for today’s computer-science students, he added, as the industry increasingly prizes engineers who can conceive and build systems that learn from data.

This is “machine learning,” a branch of artificial intelligence that involves the development of systems that can “think”—taking actions to maximize the chance of success (remember the Hal 9000 in the “Space Odyssey” series?). AI, a buzzword in the 1980s, is making a comeback, Pall said.

Computers have long been viewed as “dumb instruments” that don’t understand how humans think and work, placing the onus on us to carry the cognitive load, Pall said. But that’s changing.

“We’ve always adjusted ourselves to the computers—we map the things we want to do and break them down into steps that the computer can follow,” Pall said. “But we’re going to see a shift where the computers are smart enough to understand what humans want in a way that is very easy for humans to express it. It’s going to be an interesting decade.”

— Matt Cooper