William "Bill" Coughran (BS '75, MS '75) believes in the outsized power of small teams. As senior vice president of engineering at Google in the early 2000s, he oversaw groups of engineers as they developed and refined consumer products known worldwide. Bill preferred nimble organizations to give engineers more time to innovate.
"I am a big believer in small teams," says Bill, now an investor at Sequoia Capital. "Companies want to be big, but I'm not sure bigger leads to better. The same thing is true of academic institutions. Caltech's small size gives it an intimacy and a focus that makes people more creative."
Recently, Bill and his wife, Bridget, made a $5 million gift to the Department of Computing and Mathematical Sciences (CMS) to ensure that generations of Caltech faculty and students have the freedom and resources to push forward technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, and sustainable computing, as well as to pursue fundamental advances in applied mathematics. The couple's endowment establishes the William M. Coughran Jr. Leadership Chair in CMS, which provides discretionary funds the department's executive officer can use to advance priorities such as the enhancement of research, faculty recruitment, and teaching.
"Bill set a high standard for innovation and leadership in Silicon Valley, and Caltech has benefited enormously from his insights," says Provost David Tirrell, the Ross McCollum-William H. Corcoran Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering and holder of the Carl and Shirley Larson Provostial Chair. "This gift will build on his legacy by supporting Caltech researchers as they push frontiers across computer science, mathematics, and many other scientific and engineering disciplines. I am grateful to Bill and Bridget for their extraordinary generosity."
Becoming a Silicon Valley Luminary
Bill worked at Google from 2003 to 2011. For much of his tenure, he was part of the top-level executive committee working closely with the company's cofounders and then chief executive officer Eric Schmidt. Today, founders come to Bill for seed investments as well as technical and managerial advice. Among colleagues, he is valued as an elder statesman of the Silicon Valley, affectionately known as "Coach Bill."
As a youngster growing up in central California, Bill was captivated by the space race and spent his childhood learning about the science and engineering that made spaceflight possible. He also became intrigued with the computing center at California State University, Fresno, where his father worked as a professor and administrator. While still in high school, the younger Coughran got a job as a part-time computer programmer at the center. There, he also became acquainted with fellow employee Bridget McGuire.
By the time he was 19, Bill and Bridget had married, and the newlyweds moved to Pasadena so he could continue his mathematics studies at Caltech. She also worked at Caltech, providing administrative support to geochemists such as Clair Patterson. Excellence, the Coughrans believe, was a hallmark of every lab, office, and classroom on campus.
"Most people do not fully comprehend the intellectual breadth at Caltech and what it makes possible in terms of reach and impact," Bill says.
New Frontiers in Computer Science
As a member of the Information Science and Technology Advisory Council and the Chair's Council for the Division of Engineering and Applied Science, Bill has an insider's perspective on CMS's ambitious research agenda. CMS researchers are key players in the global race to build quantum computers and leaders in the design of equitable, energy-efficient, and human-centered AI algorithms. They are also leveraging AI to fundamentally change how scientific research is performed. Already, sophisticated algorithms have enabled scientists to generate the first image of a black hole and develop a non-invasive tool for studying the brain in living organisms.
"Computing is everywhere," Bill says. "It is essential for modern physics, chemistry, and biology. This means universities across the country are facing increased demands for courses and training. With this gift, Bridget and I want to give Caltech the resources to be very thoughtful about where it invests and who it recruits."
A Vote of Confidence
Chris Umans, professor of computer science and inaugural holder of the Coughran Leadership Chair, says the Coughrans' gift has made a difference already. In addition to bolstering research, funds have provided start-up support for new faculty and partial funding for two postdoctoral scholars. Funds also have helped cover expenses associated with hosting conferences and seminars. With approximately 43 percent of Caltech undergraduates choosing computer science as their first or second option or minor, Umans says resources from the leadership chair also will help CMS launch student mentoring initiatives and develop new courses.
Yet, the gift provides more than just financial benefits, he adds.
"Throughout the department, there is a sense of pride that Bill and Bridget chose to invest in us," Umans says. "We are excited about what we can accomplish with these additional, flexible resources."