«VIJAY I'm Vijay Mehrotra, professor of business analytics and information systems at the University MEHROTRA: of San Francisco. And I have the ...»
INFORMS | Vijay Mehrotra interviews Fred Hillier, November 2, 2015
VIJAY I'm Vijay Mehrotra, professor of business analytics and information systems at the University
MEHROTRA: of San Francisco. And I have the pleasure and privilege of having a chance to interview my
dissertation advisor, Professor Frederick S. Hillier of Stanford University. Fred, I want to take
you back to your days in high school. If I think about that, kind of 1950 to 1954, what was it like
in those post World War II days, and how did you get interested in so many different subjects?
FREDERICK Well, I grew up in Aberdeen, Washington which is pretty much on the coast of Western HILLIER: Washington. In fact, during the Second World War, to go back even further, there was speculation that the Japanese might come ashore right outside of Aberdeen on Grays Harbor.
So the 1950s to '54, Aberdeen was a relatively small blue collar lumber town. And it was still going reasonably strong right at that point, but the lumber mills were starting to close down.
And in high school, I did get overly, heavily involved, particularly my senior year. I served as the student body vice president, arranging an assembly every week and inviting people to perform. And then, president of the Leadership Club and on the debate team and on the band and orchestra and a member of the baseball team, and a few other things. Involved in a math contest, in an essay contest, and so forth and oh, a member of the Grays Harbor Symphony Orchestra, and also gave music lessons. I had five flute students my senior year, and so on.
Very busy time.
VIJAY I'm fascinated with the diversity of interests, and that's a theme that we're going to explore MEHROTRA: further in the interview. When it came time to look at colleges, I'm really curious as to how you'd ended up choosing Stanford.
FREDERICK Well, I feel that I've lived a really blessed life. There were a number of coincidences that came HILLIER: along that pulled me in the right direction, and one of them had to do with the final decision to go to Stanford. My dad was on the faculty at Grays Harbor College, then called Grays Harbor Junior College, and was in fact Dean of the Faculty at that point. And so I, like my two older brothers, the family assumed that I would go to Grays Harbor Junior College to start with and then just transfer up to the University of Washington.
And I was talking in terms of majoring in industrial engineering. And so that would have been the only college I would have applied to. But my senior year, our chemistry teacher happened to mention fairly early in the year that there was this really attractive scholarship being offered at a number of colleges around the country, and the nearest one was Stanford. And so that finally, in my senior year, got me to thinking well, maybe I could look into this. And I did, and I got a very attractive scholarship. Two scholarships, actually.
VIJAY I know that Jerry Lieberman was your original freshman advisor, assigned at random.
FREDERICK Yes. As I say, I have lived a charmed life. And that was so crucial to my career going forward.
HILLIER: Of all the freshman advisors I could have had, I had Jerry Lieberman. And when I had my appointment to meet with him, I was a little nervous thinking that I would be meeting with an older, dour Stanford professor who would have no interest in me. And instead, there was this very outgoing, personable young man Jerry Lieberman, who seemed to take an interest in me
We even talked about Stanford football and we ended up being sports fans together. We shared 49er tickets together many years later on. So Jerry was my freshman advisor. And if
undergraduate advisor, he was very much my mentor. And then he became my graduate advisor and then my dissertation advisor and later my department chairman. And then a bit
VIJAY I know from our conversations that Jerry's had a profound impact on your career trajectory.
MEHROTRA: I'm intrigued about the decision to stay at Stanford for your PhD program as opposed to going
FREDERICK Well, at that point, operations research was a very new field. Not a completely new field, since HILLIER: it has roots going back to 1532 I think from a book over here. But the field primarily got under way through teams of scientists in the Second World War. And we're talking about just a
VIJAY Your decision to stay for graduate studies at Stanford?
FREDERICK I was blessed by the fact, another blessing, that Stanford had a number of faculty who were HILLIER: early pioneers in the field of operations research. People like Ken Arrow and Herb Scarf and Sam Karlin who were involved with developing the s-S policy for inventor theory and things like that, and several other top people who were getting involved with this new field. And within the industrial engineering department, Jerry Lieberman and Harvey Wagner were two outstanding people who were beginning to develop a particularly strong graduate program. And so with all of these resources at Stanford, again with Jerry Lieberman's encouragement, well of course I
VIJAY Jerry had kind of a big vision for what operations research might become and what it might MEHROTRA: become at Stanford. Can you share some of your early conversations about that with Jerry?
FREDERICK Well, at that time, a catchphrase around the university was to achieve a pinnacle of HILLIER: excellence. And with all of the resources that I've been describing to really build up this new graduate program in operations research, it was felt that Stanford had the opportunity to have this program become a pinnacle of excellence, to really perhaps lead the way nationally and internationally in showing what graduate education in operations research should be and
VIJAY That's terrific, which brings us to your dissertation. Can you tell me kind of what your topic was MEHROTRA: and how you came about focusing on that problem?
FREDERICK Well, my degrees were in industrial engineering. At that point, there was not a degree HILLIER: available in operations research per se. But after taking my first course in operations research as a junior from Jerry Lieberman, that really captured my attention and I knew that I wanted to go into this exciting new field. I was involved with a number of different areas in my early
But Jerry was guiding me as my advisor and I ended up taking 17 courses in statistics. And Jerry was a leader in the statistical quality control area and actually won a big award, the Shewhart Award for his accomplishments in that area. So in addition to OR per se, I was also taking courses and looking into research in the quality control area.
And so one day, I was sitting in church and not concentrating enough on what was happening in the church service. I was thinking about this particular kind of sampling plan, a continuous sampling plan, and a shortcoming in terms of how you should be choosing the best continuous sampling plan. And the idea popped into my head, well, of course it would make a lot of sense to add on these new criteria. And so I took this to Jerry and he encouraged me. OK, that sounds like a good direction to go for your dissertation topic.
VIJAY Great. And so, you finished up at Stanford in 1959? 1958?
FREDERICK Well, I started as an undergraduate in '54 so I didn't make it in five years.
VIJAY But not much longer.
VIJAY And at that time, with the growth of the field and your pedigrees from Stanford, there were MEHROTRA: probably a lot of different opportunities.
FREDERICK Well, once again, Jerry was promoting me around the country. And so I had offers from quite a HILLIER: few other universities along with a very nice offer from Stanford. And since I had been at Stanford for both undergraduate and graduate work, I really had the feeling that it would be good to go elsewhere for at least a little while and maybe return to Stanford. And so I did my interviewing and after interviewing at Carnegie Mellon and then at Yale on one trip, I concluded OK, I think I'll accept the offer at Carnegie Mellon in their Graduate school of Industrial Administration.
And then I took a bus from New Haven to New York to catch my airplane trip home, and it started to snow. And it snowed heavier and heavier and heavier. This ended up being the worst snowstorm blizzard really in 13 years in New York City. And so I got to the airport and my flight had been delayed not because of the snow, but because of a mechanical difficulty for 50 minutes. And that again was a crucial 50 minutes, because then we boarded the plane, went out to the hangar, de-iced the wings, and because of that 50 minute delay, the airport
stay. But Jerry Lieberman, once again, was on sabbatical leave at Columbia University. And so I called him and he invited me to come stay with him and his family. He was in Queens. And I had a difficult time finding a taxi driver who would give me a ride because they knew that their trip with their customers would be the last trip of the night because of the blizzard, and they were only taking people to Manhattan. Well finally, I was able to get a taxi driver to agree to
And so he dropped me off at this intersection, not at Jerry's apartment, and pointed, it's that way. And so in this snowstorm, carrying all my luggage, he had pointed in the wrong direction.
And so I was drudging through the snow and trying to find this apartment and wondering whether I was going to make it, actually. An hour later, I got to Jerry's apartment.
Well, the airport was closed down and not only that night, but the next day. And not only that day, but the following day. And not only that, the following day for a while. So it was three full days. And so what did Jerry Lieberman do during those three days? Talked to me and talked to me and talked to me about no, no, no, you should really stay at Stanford. And Jerry's advice
VIJAY The research on quality control and sampling really definitely reflects some of Jerry's MEHROTRA: influence, but I think there are a number of ideas there. Can you just tell us a little bit about some of those projects?
FREDERICK Well, because of my dissertation and interest in quality control and statistics and probability HILLIER: theory in general, I continued doing some research in that area along with a variety of other areas. And so there were a number of papers, this is 50 years ago and I'm having trouble remembering the specific topics. But there were several. One or two involved designing a control chart limits. Another involved surveillance of materials in storage from a statistical viewpoint. And of course, published my dissertation and so forth. But I was going in really
VIJAY And from looking at the titles of some of your early papers in applying queueing theory to MEHROTRA: production systems, I get the idea that this was very innovative at that time.
FREDERICK Well, queuing theory really appealed to me. I was very interested in the area, and partially HILLIER: because it had so many applications. I was drawn both to topics that had some interesting mathematics, perhaps elegant mathematics. But at the same time, drawn to it also having
And one particular application of queuing theory in the production area or operations management area involved if you have an assembly line or a production line where the assembly times or operation times were variable, should you really strive to have a balanced line or could you actually increase the throughput by purposely unbalancing the line in a certain way? And so what I and my co-author discovered was that yes, if you plot the optimal
MARK HILLIER: 2006, I think.
FREDERICK Our son Mark who's sitting in listening to us, he and I have a paper in this area. And so I was HILLIER: extending this concept in a variety of ways. And I was gratified by the fact that researchers in the applied probability area had picked up this theme and were developing some theoretical results that were helping to establish that indeed, the bowl phenomenon was indeed a
VIJAY I certainly remember those papers, as well. The irony of having a coauthor named Boling MEHROTRA: working on papers with the bowl phenomenon is a favorite of mine. But I think overall, probably your most celebrated research paper appears to be "The Derivation of Probabilistic Information for the Evaluation of Risky Projects." It's been cited by over 400 researchers and reprinted in a bunch of different publications in a bunch of different languages. Can you talk a little bit about the motivation for that work and what kinds of things it ultimately led you to?
FREDERICK Well, to back up as to where this started, as a graduate student, again with Jerry's blessing HILLIER: and suggestion, I taught two courses as a graduate student. And one was a course called Engineering Economy. And I had also been taking some economics courses.
VIJAY It was surely among them, yes.
FREDERICK It was a paper on risk analysis. And it turned out that I think that was perhaps the first such HILLIER: paper to my knowledge, and then risk analysis became more and more important over the following years. And actually, this paper led to a research monograph that I published.