Class of 1988, MS; Class of 1993, Ph.D.
“The university is a marketplace of ideas, but without an economic marketplace one can rarely bring transformational ideas into wide-spread practice,” said Greg Lavender, describing a key aspect of his career path.
Currently, Lavender is a chief technology officer and managing director at Citigroup, a global cloud computing architecture and technology infrastructure engineering organization. But, for the past 21 years his post-graduate career has ranged from technology startup company entrepreneur, computer science professor and associate department chair, and leader of ground-breaking research and development engineering teams at Silicon Valley technology giants like Sun Microsystems, Oracle, and Cisco Systems.
The international entrepreneur, born into a military family, has roots in southwest Virginia, but has resided in various countries around the world – Panama, Germany, and England. His father’s occupation led the family to Washington D.C. for much of his childhood. Today, with his role at Citi, he trades time between London, Singapore, California, and New York.
His multi-tasking mother, a homemaker raising five children, ensured they obtained a high-quality education and university degrees. She cultivated his curiosity in history and science through reading and performing experiments. She found time to become a paralegal, retiring from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Lavender credits his mother’s curious mind, love of travel, and reading and his father’s advice to study science and engineering as significant influences. “From the very beginning, my father saw the value in computers and encouraged me towards that emerging field before most knew computers existed,” reflected Lavender.
Before 10, his father introduced him to his first computer, an IBM mainframe. He took computer programming in high school and became fascinated with learning how computers worked. “I was captivated by the digital logic underlying the machine and the ability of the human mind to control it by imagining ways to write programs,” Lavender said. “From then on I was hooked.”
The Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in the late 1950s had surprised the U.S. and the two countries turned space exploration into an area of national competition for political, economic, and military advantage. One of the benefits of the U.S. government’s desire to become the front-runner in science, engineering, and space exploration was the emphasis on rigorous mathematics and science programs in select elementary schools. As a result, Lavender had the privilege to receive a strong math and science education, learning binary arithmetic in the third grade, essential to understanding the digital logic of computers and how a machine executes programs.
When most young men are concerned with obtaining a driver’s license at 16, Lavender took his first computer programing class. And at 18, he was writing programs on a Commodore PC and logging into large mainframe computers to run and test his programs.
His father’s occupation had facilitated relocation to Georgia while Lavender was in high school. Once residency was established, in-state college tuition was a determining factor as he began to contemplate his collegiate career. Lavender attended the University of Georgia, initially as a physics major, but switched to applied mathematics where computer science courses were taught.
B.J. Ball, the former department head, recognized Lavender’s programming talents. “In his math class, I began writing programs in Fortran that would complete my homework assignments for me. I’d enter the math equations and let the program solve the equations. This gave me more time to participate in extracurricular activities,” Lavender laughed.
Ball nominated the programmer, already a Phi Beta Kappa honor society member, for Pi Mu Epsilon Honorary Mathematics Fraternity. Lavender stood out as its only computer science student, and was ridiculed by the pure math majors for using a computer to do math.
In 1983, he completed his bachelor’s in computer science with magna cum laude honors and assembled his first microcomputer using HeathKit, a computer electronics kit. He also taught himself basic data communications protocols and programmed his computer to connect over telephone lines to bulletin boards and dial-up mainframe computers. Telecommunications became his primary interest.
TRW, Inc., an aerospace and systems engineering defense contractor, beckoned Lavender back to the D.C. area, where he began his professional career as an entry-level network software engineer. He and two recent college grads, considered cheap labor, were given “non-critical” work on a research project on ARPANet. Ironically, this was the precursor to today’s global Internet.
He combined his 60-hour work week with his enrollment in evening master’s classes at the Virginia Tech Northern Virginia campus. Frustrated with not having enough time to concentrate on his studies, Lavender resigned from his post with TRW and headed to the Blacksburg campus to pursue a master’s in computer science with a graduate fellowship. Lavender enjoyed the social and outdoor activities Blacksburg had to offer and he also thrived in the academic environment under the direction of Dick Nance, a professor of computer science. He completed his master’s in 1988 and received the department’s Scholarly Graduate Study Award.
Around the same time, Lavender performed research under Dennis Kafura, also a professor of computer science, whose interests in systems and software engineering were analogous with Lavender’s. Kafura became his doctoral advisor. “Being Greg’s Ph.D. mentor meant that I had lunch with him frequently to keep up with the innovative ideas he was developing and be there to sign the forms at the end. Now, as then, all Greg needs is the space and the opportunity to be creative,” said Kafura of their 25-year relationship.
Due to the reduction of government-sponsored research by the Reagan and Bush administrations, research dollars at the university were not plentiful. Kafura informed Lavender of funding opportunities with Microelectronics & Computer Technology Corp. (MCC), in Austin, Texas. Lavender was invited to spend six months at MCC as a visiting researcher in the Networking and Distributed Systems Laboratory where he conducted advanced R&D on concurrent object-oriented virtual machine architectures, network protocols, and distributed systems. He also completed his dissertation while in the spring of 1993, MCC offered him a full-time research position and Lavender spent the next 14 years living in Texas.
From 1994 through 2007, he taught undergraduate and graduate courses and supervised numerous student projects in the department of computer sciences, a top ten-ranked program at the University of Texas at Austin, while working full-time in the computer software industry. Lavender hired a few students to partner in his start-up ventures, as they were eager to apply their knowledge of technology to the real world.
In 1994, Lavender co-founded ISODE, Ltd., a networking software company that pioneered a family of early Internet protocols and servers, implementing protocols that are in use today on the global Internet. He sold the company and almost simultaneously, co-founded and operated as the chief scientist for Critical Angle, Inc., which was acquired by Innosoft International, then by Sun Microsystems in 2000.
From 2000-2004, Lavender split his time between Austin, where he continued to teach and perform research, and Silicon Valley, serving as the senior director of software engineering for Sun Microsystems, leading product development and managing 450 employees in California, France, and India.
In spring 2004, he accepted the full-time position as associate chair for academics in the computer science department in Austin. He juggled long days at the college with research at Sun Microsystems. At the end of 2007, Lavender relocated to Silicon Valley to commercialize his latest research ideas for a second time.
Over the following four years, he returned to Sun Microsystems becoming vice president of operating systems engineering, then to Oracle Corporation following its acquisition of Sun Microsystems, and finally to Cisco Systems as corporate vice president of network software engineering.
With his achievements in the corporate and academic realm, Virginia Tech’s computer science department named him its distinguished alumnus in 2010.
Lavender’s life isn’t all about his professional career. His stepdaughter Lea obtained her bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas at Austin with honors and has a Harvard law degree, practicing in Austin, Texas. His stepson Cary is studying aquatic biology at the University of California at Santa Barbara with ambitions to attend graduate school.
When the entrepreneur isn’t globetrotting or researching, he is cycling, his stress-relieving hobby.
Despite his professional responsibilities at Citigroup, Lavender is still a research computer scientist at heart. His most recent “vacation” was a trip to the UK where he is collaborating on a paper with Dr. Oege de Moor, professor of computer science at the University of Oxford.
“Greg is truly a Renaissance man of computing. He has led teams of hundreds of people - often transforming dysfunction into productivity. He has an amazing grasp of computing technology matched by a deep interest in the principles, theory, and history of computing. I don’t know of anyone else who worked Silicon Valley hours as a technology leader and relaxed by reading books on category theory,” said Kafura fondly.
Class of: 1988, 1993
Year Inducted into Academy: 2014