Chris Hyams: Solving Human Problems with Technology
“What interests me is the intersection of creativity and math,” said Chris Hyams, Indeed CEO and Rice University alumnus (M.C.S. ’96). “Design is the heart of how math interacts with space, and how people think and feel about the world around them.”
His interest in design led Hyams through a Bachelor’s degree in architecture at Princeton, and sparked his love of liberal arts studies. Then he set out to explore other things that were important to him –like teaching special education in a rural Vermont high school, and trying to make it as a professional musician in Los Angeles.
“As a teacher, I was inspired by being of service to others. Music is a passion–that same intersection of art and math–and I felt like I had to give it a shot. I failed to make it as a rock star, but I’d do it all over again.” When his wife accepted a job at Rice’s Fondren Library, he decided to take the opportunity to go back to school, and pursue a second bachelor’s degree.
Although he had excelled in math and science, Hyams had not previously considered studying computer science. Most students of his generation had no access to CS courses in high school, and computer-related careers were not yet in the collective consciousness.
“After the Shepherd School dean suggested I wasn’t cut out for the rigors of their music program, I met with Bruce Duba, a CS Programming Language Theory instructor. He said, ‘Computer Science is awesome, you should totally do it!’ That was all I needed.
“I signed up for a full load of COMP courses that first semester, and within a few weeks it was clear that this was how my brain worked. CS is the ultimate meeting of creativity and math. I wanted to do it for the rest of my life.”
His previous undergraduate degree allowed Hyams to focus exclusively on his CS requirements, and he completed 9 courses in two semesters. Mark Krentel, his advisor, suggested transitioning to the professional master’s program.
Hyams said, “The MCS program was small back then, and Mark thought it would be a good fit for me. There were only 6 of us when I started. The graduate level courses allowed me to dive into deeper material, and the program gave me the opportunity to tackle additional research.”
He has since spent more than 20 years hiring software developers, and has observed a lot about university CS programs. He said Rice’s program is unique because its foundation is based on practical learning.
“In our Programming Language Theory class (COMP 311), we built a garbage collector. In Computer Architecture (COMP 325), we built a MIPS assembler. In Compilers (COMP 412), we built a compiler. In Operating Systems (COMP 421), we built an operating system. You need to read the books, of course, but my experience was that the best way to truly understand how something works was to build it yourself.
“In COMP 421, we learned something equally important – how to work together as a team. This is the most critical aspect of working as a professional software developer. Sure, we learned to take really hard problems and decompose them, but learning to work with other people to make all the pieces fit together? That’s what life is like for a real developer.
“When we onboard new hires at Indeed, we do very little lecturing. We have them work in teams to invent and build real new products–and that inspiration came from Rice CS.”
In his first year in the MCS program, he also joined a CS research team. Assistant professor Alejandro Schaffer hired Hyams to work on a software package called FASTLINK.
FASTLINK introduced faster computations and parallel processing for genetic linkage analysis, a statistical technique used to map genes and find the approximate locations of disease genes. It was particularly poignant research for Hyams; his grandmother was slowly slipping away from Alzheimer’s.
He said, “Dr. Schaffer, who has since joined the NIH, had ported FASTLINK to Treadmarks, Dr. Cox’s distributed shared memory system. I got to work with Dr. Schaffer and Dr. Cox, along with some brilliant PhD students and undergrads on the project, which was already used by research scientists all over the world.
“We were interacting with scientists as far away as Germany and China who were using the software to research diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer. First it was 100 papers, and now more than 1000 publications have cited FASTLINK in their studies of genetic linkage. It was inspiring to work on something that produced real world results and impacted people all over the world.”
He is still invigorated by problems that impact people. “After family and health, employment is one of the top concerns for most people.” Hyams said the average American spends approximately 90,000 hours of their life at work–more than most of us will spend with our family or friends. “For many of us, our job gives us meaning and purpose, and is a source of dignity. And as my grandfather taught me, economic opportunity is the basis of social justice.”
When Indeed came calling, Hyams was drawn to this mission. He’d worked as a software developer, managed engineering teams, and then founded and run his own startup.
“After my startup failed, what I wanted next was to find something like FASTLINK, where my effort would have a real impact on the world. When the Indeed founders said, ‘We help people get jobs,’ I was hooked. That mission is the driving force behind every decision we make as a company,” said Hyams.
When he joined Indeed in 2010, millions of job seekers were already using Indeed to search for jobs. Today, more than 250 million people turn to Indeed each month. That kind of scale generates considerable amounts of data and insights that Indeed can leverage for further innovation.
“Our business model is pay-for-performance, which means employers only pay if we successfully connect them with candidates. If we don’t, they don’t pay. So the only way for us to grow our business is to continue to innovate, to get better and better at matching job seekers with jobs.
“This is what gets me up in the morning, and what keeps me up at night. It’s inspiring to know that our work makes a difference in people’s lives,” said Hyams.
But innovation at the Indeed scale also comes with responsibility. Hyams said that Indeed puts job seekers first in everything they do, and job seekers are increasingly concerned with privacy and security.
“We have to keep humanity at the center of the discussion,” said Hyams. “Science and ethics have been linked for centuries. A big part of my own story is that intersection of liberal arts and hard science. We can’t just think of people as numbers.
“My advice to current and potential CS students is to work hard at your COMP courses, of course. But also, read a good novel. Read some non-fiction. Learn about the world and the problems in it. Don’t lose sight of the fact that technology is just a tool to solve human problems.”