Chris Conway: Systems, Simulations, and Saving Lives

Christopher Conway, Rice University Computer Science alumnus and IESEG School of Management faculty member gives advice to CS students

Christopher Conway, Rice University Computer Science alumnus and IESEG School of Management faculty member.

In the fall of 1979, Christopher Conway (B.A. ’83) was a fifteen-year old National Merit Scholar being aggressively recruited by schools like MIT and Stanford. Then a Rice representative visited his Corpus Christi high school and offered him a campus visit.

“I hadn’t lived in Texas much and hadn’t heard of Rice, so I drove up to Houston, chatted with the admissions people and met some of the students. I stayed one weekend and fell in love with the place,” said Conway, who went on to earn bachelor’s degrees in computer science, French, and mathematical sciences at Rice.

“The puzzles we solved in the computer science classes drew me in,” he said. “Then I discovered I was very good at programming and enjoyed it a great deal. I’ve always had a strong mathematical bent, so the courses that showed me how computers and math were intimately tied together was the icing on the cake.

His first job out of Rice was working on the F-16 simulator for the U.S. Air Force. Conway said, “Working on the Link Flight Simulation was the most heavy duty systems programming job of my career. I had a listing of the entire operating system on my desk, and hand assembled patches more than once.

“But the job had great perks. Since I did the system programming, my work had to be done before the other people could do theirs. So I got to fly the simulator a lot while the rest of the team tested their work!”

Conway also worked on hazardous weather detection at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. His team was focused on detecting wind shear, using Doppler weather radar at airports. Their goal was to provide real-time hazardous weather alerts to air traffic controllers.

“I was doing a lot of the user interface that allowed the researchers to view and manipulate their data. The interpreter I wrote is still in use, and foreshadowed some of the graphics utilities we all take for granted today, like customization, tightly linked applications, and so on,” he said.

The test system was rotated through different airports and one of the most memorable incidents happened early in the trial.

“We detected a wind shear on the approach to a major airport. The tower decided to pass our information on to pilots queued up for landing and let them decide whether to land or go around. One airliner decided to delay, while two private planes wanted to land.

“The first private plane landed hard and the second was barely able to abort its landing. If the airliner hadn’t delayed, it certainly would have crashed. I realized being a CS major can mean directly helping save lives.”

Conway spent another decade in systems and security roles at the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, the Digital Equipment Company and several startups. When the dot com bust shut down his employer, Conway headed back to college.

“I realized some of our dot com problems might have been avoided had I understood business better, specifically finance and accounting. So I got an MBA. But I also felt I should touch up my CS skills, and completed the M.S. in CS as well. Having returned to academia, I remembered how much I loved that environment. Becoming a professor is as close as you can get to remaining a student forever, so I applied for a Ph.D. program.”

For his doctorate, Conway wanted to focus on management problems. He’d seen firsthand how poorly software engineers were managed by their counterparts in operations and finance.

“I felt I could make more of a contribution helping business people understand the CS people rather than vice versa. So I looked for and found a behaviorally-based information systems school, with some of the most respected researchers in the field, at the University of Arkansas.”

Since 2012, Conway has been teaching information systems courses at the IÉSEG School of Management near Paris. One of his primary research areas is analyzing and forecasting how employees create and/or acquire corporate knowledge. Of course, his research into agent-based modeling has roots in both computer and mathematical sciences.

“Agent-based modeling is a simulation technique often linked with the cellular automata Game of Life invented in 1970 by John Conway (no relation),” he said.

“Imagine you have a checkerboard with checkers appearing in some of the squares on the grid. You can define their locations or they can be assigned in a random pattern. Next, we’ll go through a simulation – a series of iterations – based on a few rules.

“If the checker’s square has only one or two neighbors, then the checker dies and disappears. If it has two or three neighbors, it remains as is. If there are exactly three neighbors, the next generation is born. Then you run the simulation again. Patterns may emerge or expand, or entire populations may die out completely.”

Applying that agent based modeling to worker knowledge, Conway is examining how use of the Internet changes the way employees use exploitation (perfection of current knowledge) versus exploration (discovery of new knowledge) in their work.

“Firms with a heavy base of explorers work very, very fast and make lots of errors. Firms filled with exploiters will get it right, but may take too long to act, missing critical opportunities,” said Conway.

His simulations begin with the fact that all agents (workers) have some random quantity of knowledge about the tasks they perform. Each iteration presents the possibility of agents learning the correct way to perform a task, based on what the rest of the employees say is the right way.

“Prior to widespread use of the Internet, employees usually learned from the workers around them and from the firm’s code base. Today, do employees still learn from their co-workers or do they just ask Wikipedia? My simulations explore the impact of not asking your co-workers for information. Does it affect the body of corporate knowledge negatively or positively?”

Conway’s research hits a rare sweet spot, requiring an understanding of business management principles as well as math and systems experience to create and run the analytical simulations.

Chris Conway recommends leisure and creative activities for supporting an analytical mind.Which leads to his advice for current or prospective CS students.

“Don’t overspecialize. Get theory, hardware, and software because you never know when an insight from those fields will help you in a different domain. Understanding how the logic level in the computer works helps me to write code that works with the computer rather than against it. It also helps me in debugging.”

Conway also believes the time he spends in on creative and leisure activities supports his analytical side. He said, “Work hard in your classes, of course. But also take a break. The best advice for a programmer is: read a work of fiction at least once a week. Maybe more.

“Going to French classes helped free my head to work on CS problems more effectively and vice versa. Also, I played viola in the MOB as part of the band’s first marching string quartet and I still play today. These ‘extracurricular’ interests actually enrich my CS work. New ideas and new experiences open you up in all your work.”

Photo caption: Chris Conway recommends leisure and creative activities for supporting an analytical mind.