When Ed Lazowska arrived at the University of Washington four decades ago, there were just 12 computer science faculty members. Meanwhile across Lake Washington, a small startup called Microsoft had recently relocated to the region from Albuquerque, N.M.
The transformation since then has been remarkable. The UW boasts one of the top computer science programs in the world. Just down the road, Microsoft grew into a technology giant and provided the impetus to turn Seattle into a global tech center.
This week the university opened doors to a new 135,000 square-foot computer science building that will help lay the groundwork for the next 40 years and beyond.
After several years of planning, fundraising, and construction, The Bill & Melinda Gates Center for Computer Science & Engineering is officially ready to house students and faculty. GeekWire got a sneak peek inside before celebratory grand opening events take place today and Friday.
The building allows the UW to double enrollment capacity from 300 to 620 students per year for computer science, which has become the top first-choice major for incoming freshmen.
“Computer science has by far the largest workforce gap in Washington state, between jobs available and students graduating,” said Lazowska, a professor who helped lead fundraising efforts. “This helps us respond to that.”
The building will house 16 labs; two 100-seat classrooms; a 240-person auditorium; three seminar rooms, an event space; communal and study spaces; office and support spaces; a wet lab; a 3,000 square-foot robotics lab; and a makerspace. The Center for Neurotechnology; the Center for Game Science; the UW Reality Lab; and the Taskar Center for Accessible Technology will also be based in the new building.
The new building was named in honor of Bill and Melinda Gates after Microsoft and a group of their longtime friends announced a $30 million donation in their honor. The Gateses made their own separate $15 million contribution via the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Zillow, and Madrona Venture Group also contributed to the construction costs, in addition to funds from the university and state. More than half — $70 million — of the funding for the building came from private donors. The state provided $32.5 million and the UW put $9 million toward the building.
The names of local tech titans who provided funding are sprinkled throughout the building. There’s the “Amazon Auditorium”; the “Microsoft Cafe”; the “Google Artificial Intelligence Laboratory”; and the “Zillow Commons.” Classrooms and other spaces are named after Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos; Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella; Microsoft President Brad Smith; Zillow co-founder and CEO Rich Barton; and several other current and former Seattle-area tech leaders.
There were more than 500 donors who helped make the building a reality. Of those, 200 were not alumni of the UW. Lazowska said that shows how supportive the community is in the Seattle area.
“That’s how the community steps up,” he said. “It’s just wonderful.”
Lazowska described the relationship between nearby tech companies and the UW “incredibly symbiotic.” There are several high-profile professors who not only teach and conduct research at the university, but also hold top positions at Amazon, Google, Facebook, AI2, and other top organizations. They include people such as Siddhartha “Sidd” Srinivasa, who leads Amazon’s robotics operation, and Steve Seitz, who leads a VR team at Google.
“Lots of faculty have really serious engagement with companies around here,” Lazowska said.
The new building sits directly across the street from the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science & Engineering, which opened in 2003 thanks in part to a $14 million donation from Allen himself, who co-founded Microsoft with Gates in 1975 and passed away last year. The same architect, contractor, construction manager, and fundraising team that helped make the Allen Center a reality also worked on the new building.
Since Allen helped open the original UW CSE building, demand for computer science graduates has skyrocketed in the Seattle region, thanks to a strong startup ecosystem, Amazon’s rapid growth, and the opening of Seattle-area engineering offices by Google, Facebook, and many other tech companies based outside the region. About 90 percent of UW CSE graduates remain in-state after completing their degree.
Lazowska said the Allen Center lacked both classroom space and laboratories. The new building also prioritizes undergraduates, as the first floor is devoted entirely to them.
“The building, first and foremost, is about the student capacity and student experience,” he said.
The New York Times recently highlighted the growing demand for computer science education at the university level, noting that at some schools the lack of resources “is creating an undergraduate divide of computing haves and have-nots — potentially narrowing a path for some minority and female students to an industry that has struggled with diversity.”
In its inclusiveness statement, the UW’s computer science program says it aims to “reduce bias in admissions and hiring to build a diverse community of students, staff, researchers, and faculty” and “broaden participation in computing through outreach to underrepresented communities.”
The UW’s computer science school was renamed the “Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering” last year after the late Microsoft co-founder donated another $40 million to the UW.
Lazowska said it’s fitting to have both computer science buildings named after the Microsoft co-founders given their legacy and connection to the region. During their teenage years, Gates and Allen spent time on the UW campus tinkering around with the university’s computers. It’s where they built the Traf-O-Data machine, an effort to automate the traffic-measuring process that ultimately ended up being a failure but was invaluable for their future.
“If it hadn’t been for our Traf-O-Data venture, and if it hadn’t been for all that time spent on UW computers, you could argue that Microsoft might not have happened,” Allen wrote in 2017.
Gates, speaking at a celebration event for the new building in December 2017, said that “if there’s ever been a clear win-win for this region, for Microsoft, for companies here, and for the students, it has to be investing in great computer science.”