Cognitive Science Alumni

Our Department isn't defined by the physical space we occupy on the campus of UCSD - it is defined, rather, by the remarkable individuals who make up our community. The lifeblood of any community is its people, and this is especially true of a community that relies on ideas and innovations. In recognition of this, the Department of Cognitive Science at UCSD presents our new "Alumnus/Alumna of the Month" feature.

The goal of the Alumnus of the Month program is to celebrate some of our outstanding Alumni, while giving all students - past, present, and future - an opportunity to meet some of our graduates, and to see some of the amazing things that people from our community have accomplished - in the field of Cognitive Science and beyond.

The hope is that it will both put a more 'human' face on Cognitive Science, as well as be a testimony to the wide range of interesting things that one can do with a Cognitive Science background. In addition, of course, it's a means for CogSci alumni to see what other alumni are up to.

Alumnus of the Month: Gabe Lawrence, 1994

Gabe Lawrence

After graduating from the Cognitive Science department in 1994, Gabe Lawrence worked as a system administrator at Scripps Institution of Oceanography for two years. He then moved to the Bay Area (where he had grown up) to work for Sun Microsystems in their Professional Services Group, being contracted out to help large corporations develop their internet applications. He left Sun to work for a startup company that dealt with managing online relationships between companies and subsequently began his own startup, which addressed application security. Gabe has always tried to work in fields that he finds challenging and exciting - which is how he found the cognitive science major to begin with!

Gabe currently works as head of campus security for UCSD, managing the security operations group. In his free time Gabe enjoys taking photographs for 4 O'Clock Fridays at the Del Mar track. Gabe lives with his wife, his 4-year-old daughter and his 8-year-old daughter, who wants to be a vet. He continues to make an effort to work on projects he enjoys and tackle the hard problems to help make everything run a little smoother.

An Interview with Gabe Lawrence

by Jenny Collins & Kim Sweeney

How did you decide you wanted to major in Cognitive Science?

I started out in Computer Science & Engineering, but I had some friends who had switched to Cog Sci, and they said, "dude, this is so much more fun!" I saw them doing interesting projects and decided I wanted to be a Cognitive Science major too. I got to deal with more real world problems, more complete programming assignments. At first I was worried about the neurobiology side but it actually turned out to be very interesting - and for me it was only three classes. No matter what you focus on in Cog Sci there is probably some aspect of it that you think you don't want anything to do with. But the exposure really does broaden your horizons and help you in the long-term.

What are some things you remember from Cognitive Science at UCSD?

The computer science, of course, was useful for me. The Cogs 101 sequence turned out to be really helpful too. I still draw from what I know about how people think about problems and how they react to different kinds of presentations when I need to present ideas at work. Hutchins' class on distributed cognition created a foundation that has helped in everything I've done. And understanding how the brain works in whatever way we understand it at this point helps too. It's a complex system, just like everything we deal with. You can take variations on the tools used for neurobiology to understand how that complex system works and apply them to your own problems.

What was your career path after graduating?

I became a full-time UCSD employee right after I graduated and spent a couple of years here before I decided to move on to other things. I had worked at Scripps Institution of Oceanography for two years as a student, and I continued there, working as a system administrator, doing everything from changing toner cartridges to writing code for business applications. I got a chance to see all aspects of the computing industry in one job.

After that I went to work for Sun Microsystems in San Jose for three years. And then I worked at a startup- I was their fourth employee, and wrote their very first line of code! It was there that I realized that focusing on application security was going to be an interesting thing to do, so I left and began my own startup. We had a customer or two and then ran out of funding. Our product was a web application firewall which is very big in the market right now... we were just a little too ahead of the times!

What exactly is the idea behind application firewalls?

Well, often people know what they're doing from a programming standpoint but not necessarily from a security standpoint. When they eventually find the problems in their code it will be too costly to go back and re-engineer the whole product. So, they need some form of security that they can layer in front of it until they can fix the code and to protect them from undiscovered issues. Developers are usually trying to make something that will meet certain requirements, and when they test it, they look to see if meets the requirements. In security, we're coming at it from a different angle: we trying to break it and see what happens. It's kind of like how people study neuroscience - if you 'break' a certain part of the brain, what happens? How does the system break down? When you break parts you can learn something!

How has your position evolved to get you where you are now?

When I first started working the Internet as we know it today was relatively new (I remember being excited the first time saw a url in a movie theater!) and we were running computers in the university environment by just plugging them in- we weren't thinking about protection. I first started thinking about security when I was working for SIO which dealt with sensitive data. I had to work on the problem and not end up spilling information all over the internet and getting a lot of people angry with me. Then at Sun I was building internet applications for giant corporations and security was important for them, so that continued the question of building and publishing things on the internet without losing precious data. My career has been in secure application development rather than traditional security - I'm kind of interdisciplinary. I guess it's a core aspect you get from Cog Sci - understanding how take different things and mash them together into something useful.

Now at UCSD, I run the security group where I'm responsible for the sign on infrastructure, keeping the 60,000 computers on our network from getting compromised, and manage network applications so as a network user you can plug your computer in and find a website, among other things. Almost none of my work at this point is actual programming - I'm mostly a manager. I still have a big role in how the problems get solved but I don't actually write the code anymore. I'm fighting against losing my technical edge!

How did your education at UCSD train you for what you are doing today?

I looked at some of the other Alumni profiles before we met, and I saw you featured Paul Maglio [in June, 2008]. I happened to be an Instructional Assistant (IA) in one of the programming classes he taught when he was a graduate student. The way Paul [Maglio] had things set up was: if you were trying to accomplish the right kinds of goals, you would get credit even if your code didn't work. I had to learn to look through the code and be able to determine if people were trying to do the right thing, even if they didn't actually get there. In the real world the process often starts with, "here's a big mess of code and we don't know what it does and you need to deal with it." Learning how to walk up to some code and figure out what it's doing and how to bring it to the next level was really valuable. Especially as I've become a more senior developer it really helps to be able to look at other people's code and figure out what's going on. So as it turned out, being an IA was one of the more useful experiences I had in the department.

Another helpful thing about classes in the department, including that class with Paul, was the focus on style and intent rather than the actual end result. When you're working and building programs, the reality is that you'll often be wrong and have to go back and rebuild. You have to have the process part down and do that right - understanding how you'll break up the problem to come up with the final product. You learn how to assess what the critical components are and how to break them up into usable pieces. It's easy to start out at the beginning of a project thinking, "these are all the things I'm going to do and it's going to be wonderful!" Five months into your six-month project you think, "wow, all those other things I wanted to do, I'm never going to get to them!" Having the ability to figure out what you need to do to deliver something useful to the customer is a critical skill.

What is your favorite thing to do when you are not working?

Photography is my new hobby. It seems like the geek thing to be doing right now! I like to take pictures of live music performances. In fact, I'm taking pictures for the 4 o'clock Friday Concerts at Del Mar right now. So I have a gig! People ask how I got that job, and I say, "go ahead and be crazy and ask people silly things!" I took a bunch of pictures at some venues here in San Diego, and then I sent the people at Del Mar a note saying, "here are some pics I've taken, and I want to take pictures of your 4 o'clock Fridays. I'll let you use them on your website if you give me a press pass" - and they did! I actually had expected them to say no. Since I have two kids I don't have too much free time so combining my hobbies of photography and live music works well!

How do you maintain a balance between your work and the rest of your life?

Balance? I really have no idea! I've gotten better. I try to turn off e-mail on weekends... but not completely. I have a phone with email on it now, so I can check things out quickly and say "ok, there's nothing I need to worry about." It actually helps me not work as hard. I've modified my work schedule so I can be there for the kids, the phone lets me ignore work when I can and not when I don't have to. You have to understand when work trumps life and life trumps work.

I've tried to always have my work be something I enjoyed, but that makes it harder to figure out where the line is between work and fun. In some sense I've been unhappy with every job I've had because I think, "this could be done better! Let's try new things and build new stuff." And for me that's the fun part. For me, it's good to have the challenges. I like to throw myself into the hard problems and see what happens.

What advice would you give to students?

Don't be afraid to screw up! Seriously! You're never going to learn from your successes, you'll only learn from your failures. When you make a mistake, as long as you think, "I know how I'll avoid doing that again," it can be a valuable experience. Not to say that I've spent my career messing up everything I've done! But along the way, inevitably you don't always get it right so just figure it out and move on.

Also, take advantage of student jobs. There are lots of great opportunities to work on campus, jobs that provide an environment which can help you explore what your career is going to be, where you can see different kinds of things than what you're exposed to in the classroom. The truth about life after graduation is, "what you do" is going to change at least seven times on average! So, don't worry about it! Go out, find stuff to do, and if you don't like it then switch. What you're learning in college is simply skills: you're learning how to learn how to do new things. As long as you're good at that you can always apply yourself to something else.

Also... don't be too quick to jump into the career grind. Take your time to explore. I sometimes wish I'd just gone to Europe for a year... stuff like that is easier when you don't have a mortgage and kids!

Anything else you'd tell undergrads in Cog Sci at UCSD?

That you get out of it what you put into it. For instance I think interviews like this one, connecting people who are in CogSci now with people who were in CogSci in the past- it's a great resource. People should look for other CogSci folks and learn from them. Also, find the professors who you think are interesting and follow them - I ended up majoring in "Ed Hutchins" for a while. I even took a couple of classes where I read the description and thought "I'm not going to be interested in this", but I'd still take it because he was teaching it. I actually think back on his classes quite a bit, even though that series is not at all computer oriented. We learned that everything you're part of is a system and you're a cog in that system. That can be seen as bad- nobody wants to be just a cog. But if you understand that, then you can look around and see how what you're doing is impacting all the other things that are going on within the system, and with that knowledge you can understand how to move around in the organization. So, how do you advance your career, or how do you do a better job on this project, or how do you save money for the company... whatever it is, it helps to see it in that overall framework. You can be a "star" cog - an important one!

To Nominate Someone

To nominate someone as an alumna/alumnus of the month, or if you would be interested in being featured yourself, please contact us at alumnusofthemonth@cogsci.ucsd.edu.