Jeff Dean: Google's Unsung Hero

You probably haven’t heard of Jeff Dean. But type his name into a search engine like Google and you’ll quickly discover that Dean (CSci ’90) is a legend in the tech world—the software engineer who masterminded many of the behind-the-scenes products that have helped his employer, Google, dominate the Internet.

When Dean was young, his parents—a tropicaldisease researcher and a medical anthropologist— moved the family frequently. But from the fifth to 10th grade, Dean attended schools in the Twin Cities.

“When it came time to look for colleges, the U of M seemed like a natural fit,” he said. “I enjoyed my time in Minneapolis and the school had a good computer science program, which is what I wanted to study. I added an economics major, since I acquired an interest in that subject after taking a few classes.” He also met his future wife, Heidi Hopper, who also graduated from the University with a bachelor’s in psychology in 1990, during freshman year.

Dean spent much of the 1990s completing a Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Washington and working at DEC/Compaq’s Western Research Laboratory, where he focused on profiling tools, microprocessor architecture and information retrieval. In 1999, however, Google came calling.

"At Google, our work gets used on a daily basis by about a billion people. That's very satisfying."

— Jeff Dean

Dean was initially tasked with putting together an ad system for the company’s growing searchengine business. But as traffic grew, there was increasing need for speed. Dean took a lead role in developing tools that allowed Google to digest large sets of data more and more quickly. He was also instrumental in building MapReduce, BigTable, Spanner, and other systems that have helped Google stay ahead of competitors.

Dean currently works in the company’s systems and infrastructure group. “I really enjoy the work I do at Google for three main reasons,” he said. “First, the set of problems we work on here is incredibly broad, spanning many different areas of computer science (and other fields as well). Second, I have fantastic colleagues, and they often have different areas of expertise than my areas of knowledge. Third, as a software engineer, one of the things you strive for is for your work to be relevant and useful. At Google, our work gets used on a daily basis by about a billion people. That’s very satisfying.”

Most mornings, Dean joins a small, ever-shifting group that gathers around a coffee machine at Google to make espresso and socialize. “It’s almost like an assembly line,” Dean said. “I usually steam the milk, another person operates the grinder, and another brews the espresso….”

As the coffee is made, they chat about their families and discuss technical topics. For Dean, that kind of idea sharing and collaboration is what has kept Google nimble and entrepreneurial in nature, even as it has grown into a global giant. “Some of us have been working together for more than 15 years,” Dean said. “We estimate that we’ve collectively made more than 20,000 cappuccinos together.”