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Jeffrey I. Schiller ’79, network manager for Information Services & Technology, is responsible for helping create and maintain MIT’s computing network.
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This is the second interview in a seven-part series introducing incoming students to some of MIT’s faculty, staff, and student leaders. Today, The Tech interviews Jeffrey I. Schiller ’79, network manager for Information Services & Technology, who discusses IS&T, file-sharing, and his memories of being an undergraduate at MIT.

The Tech: What is your role at MIT?

Jeffrey Schiller: I do many different things. I’ve been employed in what is now Information Services & Technology and its predecessor organization, which was called Information Systems, for about 26 years. I have the title of network manager, but when I started, my job was to build the network — it didn’t exist. I built the network, and today, I’m one of the people who manage it. …

TT: What does IS&T do, and what services does it provide for students?

JS: We are basically the central information technology organization at MIT. We maintain, obviously, the computer network, which we call MITnet. We also run the telephone system on campus. Pretty much if it has to do with infrastructure and computing, we take care of it. … We also have a training group, so they teach classes on simple computer use skills. It’s not the same thing as taking a computer science course. It’s how to use Excel, how to use Word, how to make sure your computer is not vulnerable to thieves and viruses.

TT: What is IS&T currently working on?

JS: … [One of the] major projects that are in our area are a conversion to voice-over IP telephone service. That means the network that you have today will not only provide network services but provide telephone services as well. That’s going to happen everywhere, I might add, not just at MIT, but we’re going to be one of the first organizations to go there. We already have a pilot that has probably about 1,000 to 1,500 phones already. … Our plan is that around 2011, we’ll have the campus completely converted. …

TT: What advice do you have for incoming freshmen, regarding computing?

JS: … One of things we can talk about is file-sharing. A big issue right now is peer-to-peer file-sharing, people downloading music and movies and all this other crap. The reality is a lot of us believe that what the RIAA [Recording Industry Association of America] and the MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America] are doing, trying to sue students, is wrong … but the important thing you have to realize is that it’s still stealing. …

You may not agree with the law. You may think, I should just download this stuff, and why can’t I. But the reality is that it is against the law and if you get caught, you’re going to be in trouble, and MIT will not help you. In the standard letter — I think all freshmen might get this letter from the dean’s office — it pretty much says, if you get caught, well, here’s the legal aid society’s telephone number. MIT will cooperate in an investigation. We will do exactly to the extent of the law. We will not volunteer any information that we don’t have to, but if we get subpoenaed we have to answer it. …

What we’re really seeing is a paradigm shift. What’s happening is that the record companies are becoming superfluous, because, with the network, you don’t need record companies to get your music. … Whenever there’s a paradigm shift, there are winners and losers. The losers never go gracefully. And so the record companies, the move companies — they’re all grappling with this paradigm shift, and they don’t like that they’re going to lose a certain amount of control. Believe me, they don’t like that a garage band could publish their music on the Internet and become famous without going through a record label. …

One of the things we’re really worried about at MIT right now is that the RIAA is saying, all these universities have all of these students stealing our music, why aren’t you universities doing anything about it? To make matters worse, companies are showing up saying, hey, we’ve got a technical solution. If the universities buy our technical solution, we can solve this problem. And the fact of the matter is, they just want to make money. Whatever they sell us won’t work. It may work today, but the peer-to-peer file-sharing guys are pretty smart enough to figure out a way to get around it. … Our concern, being the university kind of guy, is collateral damage that these devices are going to do. These people are saying that no student should be allowed to download this many gigabytes in a month, because, if they are, they must be stealing them. Well, maybe, maybe not — our student may be doing something different, they may be doing real stuff — why should we prefashion a statement saying you’re the bad guy?

But again, having said all of this, when it comes back around, downloading music is still a crime. You get caught, you’re in trouble, and the law is funny about this. You go to iTunes, you can pay for a song a buck, and download the song. So, what’s the value of that song? It’s a dollar. But if you steal, what’s the value of that song? $100,000. Per song. Now this is a pretty fucked up thing about the law. So, if the music companies say you downloaded a thousand songs, what does that turn into? That’s $100 million. They can sue you for $100 million, so they think they’re offering you a great bargain when they say they’ll settle for $3,000. …

One thing some students don’t understand is that they say, well you know, I don’t have any money so they can’t anything from me. But the reality is, they can garnish your salary for the rest of your life. What the music companies will argue is that as an MIT student, you have a potentially good earning capability. … Just because you don’t have money now doesn’t mean you won’t have money in the future, and they will go after that. And music companies want to make examples of people. They really do. So this is not the time to go tempt them.

Now, I’m not going to be the moral enforcer. I’m just telling you that’s the reality. That’s my advice to students. Don’t get screwed by it.

TT: What is your educational background?

JS: Well, I graduated from MIT, and I never left. …

TT: What were your first impressions of MIT, and how have they changed over the years?

JS: You have to understand that when I came to MIT, for every woman at MIT, there were 11 men. That made it a very different place than what it is today. On the other hand, there were plenty of other universities that had plenty of women, so the fact that it was an 11 to 1 ratio did not mean that there were a bunch of cloistered monks here. …

And you also have to understand that I was 18, and that was the drinking age, and so rush was a very different thing than what it is today. It started with the freshman picnic … The last speaker at the picnic was the president of the interfraternity conference, and the last sentence he would always say was, “Let the fraternity rush begin.” And in the meantime, hanging out at the back of the picnic, literally the back of the great court, were all these guys. When the guy says, “Let the fraternity rush begin,” all these guys would tear off their T-shirts they were wearing. Underneath their bland T-shirts were their fraternity house T-shirts, and they would run into the crowd of freshmen to drag you away to parties.

Now my sophomore year, I was living in a fraternity house. That was 1976, and our liquor budget was $5,000 — that was not the beer budget, that was the hard liquor budget, and those were bigger dollars. I remember driving to Martignetti Liquors over on Soldier’s Field Road and filling my car. We had two guys go and we weren’t sure if both were going to fit in the car when we were done; the trunk was full. And that, talk about heavy partying, that was what rush was about. …

I had some very famous professors my freshman year, including Alar Toomre over in the Math Department. He taught the 18.02 class I was taking — I think he’s still around — and it’s rumored that he has written several songs that have made it to Dr. Demento’s top 10 demented hits in the country, so he was quite the character.

And then I had my first physics class. The lecturer clearly would have been more comfortable speaking German. He was on loan from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and spelled centripetal force with a “z.” My recitation instructor would have been much happier speaking Japanese. And I didn’t like 8 a.m. classes, I decided. I remember this pretty well, actually, it’s pretty amazing. It was a little while ago.

But I fell in love with the place and decided one of the reasons I stayed here after I was a student here was there’s a very thick density of very smart people and there’s very few other places that you have that experience, but this is one of them. …

TT: Last question. If there’s one thing freshmen should do during their first semester, what would it be?

JS: Besides not taking 6.001? No, in all seriousness, I haven’t been a freshman in a very long time. So it’s hard for me to be a good granter of advice on that. But if I were to give advice — I’ve been an on-again, off-again adviser, and I’ve seen way too many students who show up here and hit the books — my advice would be pace yourself. You don’t have to do two years’ worth of work in the first semester. The course load is designed so that it should take you four years to graduate. Busting your butt now so that you can graduate, you think, a semester early or get more courses in isn’t worth it. …

The other piece of advice I would give is to keep in mind that, at MIT, everyone is coming here from the very top of their class. When you get to MIT, there’s going to be a bottom half, and the people at the bottom half of the class — it’s not a place that they’re used to being. The important thing is, if you find yourself struggling, ask for help. One thing that MIT is really good at is we’ve got tons of help. There are layers upon layers of help — whether it’s tutors in math, whether it’s counseling deans — there really is. …

I’ll give you another piece of advice — it’s not about the grades. … When you get into your career, no one’s going to care what grade you got, and certainly not going to care what grade you got freshman, sophomore year. They’re going to want to know, can you do the job. …

I was in grad school here, so I know how to get into grad school here. I can’t speak for other universities, and I can’t even speak for other departments, but electrical engineering at MIT — it’s hard to get in as an electrical engineering grad student if you were an undergraduate student here — but it’s not your grade. No one gives a shit about the grades.

It’s the references you get from the faculty, and it’s only one sentence that’s important. When faculty say, oh, this person’s a great guy, and all this and that — that’s noise. There’s only one sentence that’s important, and that sentence is, I would be happy to have them in my research group and pay for their education. That’s the money sentence. They say that, they mean it. And if you get three faculty to say that, you’re in and it doesn’t matter what your grades are. …