ICSI Co-Founder Ron Kay Turns 100

Reflecting on the birth of an institute and a life well lived

Ron Kay and Wolfgang  WahlsterThere’s something very special about a 100th  birthday. It’s a time not only to celebrate the life of an individual, but to reflect on that life against the backdrop of a century in human history.
The world has changed a great deal since Ron Kay was born in 1923, and Ron Kay has changed a great deal about that world. In addition to his visionary role as ICSI co-
founder and many other accomplishments in his career at IBM Research, Kay’s book, Managing Creativity in Science and High-Tech (Springer Verlag), has been in print for more than 30 years.
A few weeks before family and friends gathered for Kay’s 100 th birthday celebration, he spoke with us about ICSI’s founding and the institute’s lasting impact for the field and his own life.

An idea emerges

Kay is quick to point out that the impetus for ICSI came from Germany, in particular from Kay’s close friend and ICSI co-founder Norbert Szyperski (now deceased). Having lost its intellectual footing after World War II, Germany was struggling to bring its scientific community up to speed with the rest of the world. In the mid-1980s, Szyperski, in his capacity as the new head of Germany’s Society for Mathematics and Information Technology (GMD), saw that the country was lagging particularly far behind other developed nations in the field of computer science.
At the time, computer science was advancing by leaps and bounds in the U.S., driven largely by DARPA investments. Szyperski reached out to Kay, a colleague and friend in the U.S. who had recently retired from IBM Research, with an idea for linking German and American researchers in the field.
Kay knew that the U.S. was home to a large number of foreign-born computer scientists, including scholars from Germany, who were interested in connecting with researchers in their home countries. He also knew that American scientists in general were eager for collaborators and postdocs who could bring new ideas and explore innovative approaches and technologies.
Computer science is a field that is particularly well suited for global collaboration, with methods and goals that are readily translated across language, history and culture. As Kay and Szyperski saw it, fostering international collaboration could accelerate advances and bring benefits for research, businesses and society not only in Germany and the United States, but worldwide.

A home for global collaboration

“The benefit of doing this was very obvious to the people on both sides,” said Kay. “This would not have come into being if it hadn’t been in the interest of all of the people who participated.”

The pair determined that an independent research institute—affiliated with a U.S. university but not part of its bureaucratic structures—would provide the optimal environment for international visitors to collaborate with computer scientists in the United States. Szyperski persuaded the German government to provide initial funding. After evaluation of selection criteria, a request for proposals from potential U.S. host organizations was issued. A delegation of German computer scientists and representatives of the German government reviewed the proposals and visited the top five contenders, leading to the selection of UC Berkeley.  

For international students and postdocs, the opportunity to come to the United States to work with leading computer scientists was a clear boon. For faculty, the prospect of accessing research space and equipment outside of the constraints and competition of an academic department gave ICSI enormous appeal.
In crafting the institute and the fellowship structures that would bring international researchers to it, Kay and Szyperski wanted to create something that would be more than a resume-enhancer for young researchers or a source of research assistance for faculty. They wanted to create a place where visitors could unleash their full potential and accomplish something truly meaningful—for themselves and the field—even in a limited period of time.
“The postdocs must be carefully picked,” said Kay. “You’re looking for the best, and you’re making very sure that they’re treated in a way that their best is possible.”

A community of excellence

Over the decades, ICSI’s fellowship programs extended beyond the initial focus on Germany to include international visitors from around the globe. While Germany provided the initial support for the institute, an international Board of Directors became the vehicle for the subsequent participation of many other countries.

Projects incubated at ICSI have spawned successful startups and advanced the field of computer science in countless ways. But Kay says ICSI’s most important contribution to the world has always been its people. Cultivating generations of innovative thinkers, the institute has launched hundreds of careers and fostered a global community of computer science leaders.
“The fact that it’s lasted over 30 years shows that the people who come to ICSI think they will benefit from it,” said Kay. “And when you look at what happens with people who spend a year at ICSI, you’re not only convinced—you’re impressed by what they accomplish.”

Treasured connections

When ICSI was launched in 1987, Kay took on the job of Acting Director for a year, pending the faculty appointment of Jerome Feldman, the founding director the Board selected for the institute. Feldman identified ICSI’s first principal investigators from among UC Berkeley’s computer science faculty, defining ICSI’s scientific direction. Kay also recruited Michael Rabin as the first member of the ICSI Board and notes that he drew upon advice and support from Calvin Moore, director of UC Berkeley’s Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI), who had been involved in MSRI’s founding a few years earlier.
Maintaining close ties with ICSI friends and colleagues in the U.S. and abroad, Kay continued to fuel his curiosity through the decades. Looking back, he sees those connections as an asset greater than any financial fortune.
“There are not very many people who get as much satisfaction in their intellectual life as I do, and I owe a lot of that to the associations I have through ICSI,” said Kay. “In the life of a human being, that is a very big deal.”
In total, Kay has spent almost as much of his long life in “retirement” as he spent “working.” Alongside the blessings of good health, a loving family and an enriching community, he says the opportunity to continue to learn and grow has been fundamental to a life well lived.
“I feel very fortunate,” said Kay. “I’ve had a very good life, and this [association with ICSI] has played a good part in it. To have had Norbert Szyperski and Wolfgang Wahlster (a 20-year member of the ICSI Board of Directors) and their families as long-time friends is a rare privilege.”