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Bets — sometimes they’re risky, sometimes they’re funny, and sometimes, you wonder whether you were delusional at the time you made them. One bet can change your life, for better or for worse.

Professor John V. Guttag (first syllable pronounced like “gut,” not “goot”), co-head of CSAIL’s Networks and Mobile Systems Group, can certainly appreciate the impact of a bet. The beginning of Guttag’s career didn’t predict such deep involvement in computer science — he started out as an undergraduate at Brown majoring in English. The introductory computer programming course at Brown was known as legendarily difficult, so Guttag and his friend placed a bet as to whether he could pass it. “It’s sort of the classic thing, if you’re an engineer and you look at someone in the liberal arts, you think that’s just easy. ‘Could I actually pass a real course?’ was the question,” Guttag said.

Guttag passed the programming class, and he ended up loving it so much that he was inspired to study computer science. His decision was reinforced by the fact that “the job market for people with degrees in English wasn’t necessarily wonderful, compared to people who could write code.”

Unfortunately, computer science didn’t exist as a major at Brown at the time — or, for that matter, most colleges. Even at MIT, the EECS (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science) department was still just EE; CS was added in 1975.

Since Brown lacked a computer science department, Guttag entered the applied mathematics department for his master’s “because that was where all the computing was done,” he said.

“It was a bit odd, since during my four years as an undergraduate, I only took one math course. I took calculus first semester freshman year, and that was the last math course I took as an undergraduate. And then suddenly I find myself in an applied math department, trying to do a graduate degree.”

Guttag later received a doctorate in computer science from the University of Toronto. “It was a good thing that I was early in the field of computer science,” Guttag said. “When I think about it now, someone with my credentials could never get into graduate school today.”

Although he may not have been as well prepared as some of the other graduate students, he appreciates his four years as an English major and has never regretted that trajectory. He said that it actually provided a great advantage, especially in an academic career, because it taught him to write efficiently. “Unlike some of my colleagues, over the years, it’s never seemed to be a burden to sit down and write,” Guttag said.

Life at MIT

Guttag joined the MIT faculty in 1979, serving as associate department head for computer science from 1993 to 1998 and department head of EECS — the largest department at MIT — from 1999 to 2004.

“Being department head was challenging. In the beginning, parts of it were like going back to grad school, in that I realized how little electrical engineering I knew, and so I spent a fair amount of time trying to educate myself about EE,” Guttag said. “Turned out, I enjoyed it a lot. I got a much better appreciation of how interesting some of the research that the EE side was doing that I had not appreciated before.”

As department head, the favorite part of his job was hiring and mentoring young faculty members. He found hiring “bright young PhDs” and watching them succeed very gratifying.

“When I stepped down as department head, I felt really good about the people who’d been hired under my watch, and I felt that I had done something important to secure the long-term future of the department by helping to bring some really great people to MIT,” Guttag said.

Guttag’s job isn’t all about faculty. He currently teaches 6.00 (Introduction to Computer Science and Programming), a subject which attracts students from majors beyond Course 6. And when he’s not teaching or planning lectures, he spends a lot of time meeting one-on-one with his students to talk about research and go over papers. “It’s amazing how busy a group of productive grad students can keep a faculty member. Sometimes I wish they were less productive.”

His lab investigates how to extract information from vast amounts of data, especially in the context of medicine. The goal is to help people make better, “data-driven” medical decisions.

Indeed, the once-English major is not afraid to explore new subjects. “One of the reasons I moved my research into medicine, which is for me a relatively new area, was the feeling that we could have a real impact. It isn’t how many papers I can get published in which journals, it’s how much impact I can have. And I should say when I say ‘my research,’ I really mean my graduate student’s research. For the most part the actual research is theirs, not mine. They do the hard work. They’re the creative ones, they’re the technically adept ones. I kind of hold on, try to keep up with them.”

Guttag, a sports hobbyist, is also dabbling in sports data, like looking at the impact of pitch sequencing in major league baseball. “We have data on every pitch thrown in major league baseball over a century period, which is a lot of pitches. So when a batter comes up, fastball, curveball, inside, outside, [we see] how the sequencing affects the outcome.”

Teaching and research make up most of Guttag’s day. “This is going to be really embarrassing to admit,” said Guttag when asked what he’d do with six months of free time, “but I would probably come to work. It shows a lack of ambition and imagination on my part, but I’m not one of those people who say, gee, I come to work because they pay me. I can’t quite imagine life without it. I’m very fortunate to be able to say that about my job.”