Paul Nash’s Path To Google Inspires Gift to Fund CS Visionary Scholarships
4/17/2018 10:08:02 AM
Before he came to the University of Illinois, Paul Nash was a high school student in Naperville dreaming of someday working for Microsoft.
On campus in Urbana-Champaign a few years later, he spotted something that would help make that dream happen.
“One day I happened to be walking through Engineering Hall and there was a poster that caught my eye -- it was the Microsoft recruiting poster,” said Nash (BS CS ’98).
Nash did go to work for Microsoft. And Amazon. And, since 2014, Google, too. His Illinois Computer Science degree led him to a career path that winds through those name brands of the industry.
Now a Group Product Manager with Google Compute Engine, Nash recently made a gift to the Computer Science Visionary Scholarship Fund, and his own experience along that path – starting in Naperville and on to the university – inspired the gift.
Growing up in Naperville, Nash said, he never thought much about the fact that his father was African-American and his mother was white, how that made him different than most of the people around him, or how the place where they lived would help shape his future. But looking back, Nash now says he enjoyed the advantages of growing up in a prosperous suburb precisely because his father, a railroad executive who grew up in Gary, Ind., wanted to give his family the kind of edge that he didn’t have growing up.
“My dad did very well and was determined to live where the best schools were and make sure that there were computers in the house,” Nash said.
At Illinois, Nash’s contact with the Morrill Engineering Program – which works to help African American, Hispanic, and Native American students succeed on campus – led him to think more about his own identity.
Since then, “That’s’ always kind of been in the back of my mind, and how could I help and what could I do to create opportunities for the next generation.”
Nash’s gift to the scholarship fund will help make college more affordable for bright, highly motivated students. The fund is part of the Engineering Visionary Scholarship Initiative, leveraging matching funds from the Grainger Foundation to increase CS scholarship support.
“There’s been a lot of work going on to start to really address our diversity challenge in the industry,” he said. “At Google there are a bunch of pilot programs, some of which are focused on how to talk about race in the workplace. I’ve been participating in a lot of those. It’s really helped me build some tools, thinking about my own story, but also raised the question of what I would want to do to help.”
Nash finds himself and his team drawing on technical concepts he first learned at Illinois. He points to his recent work on tensor processing units, AI accelerators developed by Google for high-speed machine learning, and to the company’s work on the Spectre & Meltdown security flaws.
“These things that we’re involved in both go directly back to Computer Systems Organization, one of my favorite classes,” Nash said. “All of the concepts in that class have become more relevant because there’s this renaissance in chip design going on as Moore’s Law starts to slow down.”
But he’s also reminded regularly of just how far his industry has come since he was on campus.
The Mosaic web browser was in beta during his first semester, and colleagues on campus at the time, such as PayPal co-founder and Affirm CEO Max Levchin (BS CS ’97), “went on to invent the Web as we know it.”
“That was all happening right around me,” Nash said. “It exposed me to all this stuff, and the pinnacle of that is cloud computing.”
“In my career I’ve been very lucky to experience three revolutions: the internet, then mobile, and now cloud and AI,” he said. “My time at Illinois prepared me well for each of these. I’m thrilled to be able to give something back, so that future computer scientists and engineers will have that same solid starting point that has served me so well.”