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Rajeev Motwani, computer scientist at Stanford; adviser, investor in Silicon Valley, dead at 47

Rajeev Motwani

Rajeev Motwani

Rajeev Motwani, a Stanford computer science professor known both for his academic research and his generous presence in Silicon Valley, where he aided Google and other startups, has died. He was 47.

He was found in his backyard swimming pool Friday, where he had apparently drowned. Friends said he did not know how to swim.

Google co-founder and Stanford graduate Sergey Brin wrote about Motwani on his blog after his death: “Officially, Rajeev was not my advisor, and yet he played just as big a role in my research, education, and professional development. In addition to being a brilliant computer scientist, Rajeev was a very kind and amicable person and his door was always open. No matter what was going on with my life or work, I could always stop by his office for an interesting conversation and a friendly smile.”

Motwani’s work has had a wide impact on algorithms, the sets of instructions that computers follow to solve a specific problem, such as finding the best results to a search on Google.

Some databases—the entire content of the Internet would be an example—are so large that they become too unwieldy to search effectively. “You can’t deal with it all,” said Motwani’s friend and colleague, Balaji Prabhakar, also a Stanford computer scientist. But Motwani realized that an algorithm that cleverly searched only a random subset of the data could get the job done.

Thus he became famous for his “randomized algorithms.” But he was equally known as a savvy angel investor who helped startups across Silicon Valley. “He was an extraordinary listener,” Prabhakar said. A conversation with him left students and young entrepreneurs enthused and more focused on their goals. He moved effortlessly between campus and the business maze of the valley.

“It's hard to know what to say when something this unexpected and tragic occurs,” said Jim Plummer, the dean of the School of Engineering. “Rajeev was a major contributor to our Computer Science Department. His teaching, his research, and his connections to Silicon Valley were all important, but he will be remembered most for the personal friendships he had with students, faculty colleagues and staff in the department. We will all miss him tremendously.”

“I considered him a model for my own interactions with students. Rajeev was always quite available. He was generous with his time and ideas,” Prabhakar said.

Motwani was born in Jammu, India, and grew up in New Delhi. He earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur in 1983 and his Ph.D from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1988. As a Stanford professor, he also served as the director of graduate studies for the Computer Science Department, and founded the Mining Data at Stanford project (MIDAS.)

He made fundamental contributions to the foundations of computer science, search and information retrieval, streaming databases and data mining, and robotics. In these areas, he considered questions as philosophical as what makes problems inherently intractable, and as practical as finding similar images.

“His legacy and personality lives on in the students, projects, and companies he has touched,” Brin wrote in his blog. “Today, whenever you use a piece of technology, there is a good chance a little bit of Rajeev Motwani is behind it.”

He is survived by his wife, Asha Jadeja; two daughters, Naitri and Anya; and two brothers. The funeral service will be private, but a public memorial service will be held at a later date.