James Mickens

James Mickens
James MickensPhotograph by Jim Harrison

James Mickens is explaining how comedians Hannibal Buress and Louis C.K. get their laughs: Buress’s high “joke density” versus Louis C.K.’s slow-build storytelling. For Mickens, an associate professor of computer science known for his snappy, engaging, and laugh-out-loud funny PowerPoint presentations on computer security (many viewable online), YouTube comedy clips are research. “A lot of people don’t realize that even the sciences are a social field,” he says. “When you can explain your work well and create a narrative, you are building a universe for people to inhabit with you.” He approaches teaching the same way. Mickens joined Harvard’s faculty last fall, after six years with Microsoft Research and a one-year visiting professorship at MIT. He tries to give his students a “deeper sense of the work,” he says, beyond money and prestige and Silicon Valley. Growing up in Atlanta as a physicist’s son (and a serious heavy metal fan; he owns a formidable record collection and plays in two one-man bands), he was drawn to computer science and the potential to “build things with your mind, without needing a backhoe. There’s a lot of architectural thought, and yet at a certain level you’re in a different reality.” After Georgia Tech, and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, he now studies security—or the lack of it—in distributed systems (multiple computers connected to a network). A lot of his research, he says, “is thinking about failure scenarios.” It also addresses the fundamental tension between privacy and profit in Web services like Facebook and Gmail. He’s working on a data-storage system that would allow users to retain control of their online content—and a whole new ecosystem of Web services to go with it. Building without a backhoe.

Read more articles by Lydialyle Gibson

You might also like

Harvard Overhauls Disciplinary Procedures

To cope with violations of University statement on rights and responsibilities

Harvard’s Development Chief Departs

Brian Lee to step down at end of 2024

Immigrant Workers— America’s Engine?

Harvard economist Jason Furman on immigration and the U.S. economy.

Most popular

Mechanical Intelligence and Counterfeit Humanity

Reflections on six decades of relations with computers

The Power of Patience

Teaching students the value of deceleration and immersive attention

Who Built the Pyramids?

Not slaves. Archaeologist Mark Lehner, digging deeper, discovers a city of privileged workers.

More to explore

Relabeling Medical Definitions for Obesity in the United States

For obesity patients, improved treatments and a nuanced understanding of the disease may lead to better health.

How Was Brooklyn Bridge Park Planned?

Michael Van Valkenburgh and the making of Brooklyn Bridge Park

The Mystery Behind an Incan Tunic

Unraveling an Inca masterpiece’s secrets