Influential computer science professor, alum Hector Garcia-Molina dies at 65

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Hector Garcia-Molina M.S. ’75 Ph.D. ’79, a prominent Stanford computer science and electrical engineering professor, died on Nov. 25, a day before his 66th birthday. He played a key role in the development of database technologies foundational to modern cloud computing and advised 57 Ph.D. students throughout his 40-year academic career. 

“His door was always open, and he welcomed everyone with a smile,” said Jennifer Widom, the current dean of the School of Engineering and long-time research associate of Garcia-Molina, in an interview with Stanford News. “Hector served as a mentor to me from the time I arrived as an assistant professor, through succeeding him as chair of the computer science department, to when I became dean.”

In collaboration with now emeritus professor Terry Winograd, Garcia-Molina co-launched the Stanford Digital Libraries Project, from which the beginnings of the Google search algorithm emerged. Sergey Brin and Larry Page, co-founders of Google, were student researchers involved in the project.

Garcia-Molina’s influence and reach spans much further than the humble beginnings of Google. Throughout his career, he’s edited, authored or co-authored over 400 journal articles. In particular, he has 37 papers with 500 or more citations.

Born in Monterrey, Mexico, Garcia-Molina received a bachelors of science in electrical engineering from Tecnológico de Monterrey in 1974 before arriving at Stanford a year later to complete a master’s degree in electrical engineering and a Ph.D. in computer science. 

Following his time as a graduate student at Stanford, Garcia-Molina became a faculty member at Princeton, where he worked on developing technology for Redundant Array of Independent Disks (RAID), a technology that relies on data redundancy to reduce the loss of information in the event of a disk crashing. 

In 1992, Garcia-Molina joined the faculty at Stanford, and in 1995, he was named the Leonard Bosack and Sandy K. Lerner Professor in Engineering, — an endowed professorship bestowed upon “a faculty member working at the forefront of information systems technology in computer science, electrical engineering or a related field,” according to Stanford News. 

Jeffrey Ullman, now a Stanford computer science professor emeritus, was on Princeton’s faculty when Garcia-Molina first joined in 1979, and after becoming the chair of the Computer Science Department at Stanford, he helped recruit Garcia-Molina back to the Farm in 1992.

Ullman told Stanford News, “[Garcia-Molina] believed in finding simple and efficient solutions that got 90%of the way toward the best possible, in preference to more complicated, expensive solutions that might be a little better in rare cases.”

Garcia-Molina served as the chair of the Computer Science Department from 2001-2004.

In 2001, he joined the Board of Directors of Oracle Corporation, a role which he served in until his death. Founder and chairman Larry Ellison told Stanford News, “We will all miss his contributions. I will miss Hector’s pleasant and persuasive way of discussing complex ideas. Hector’s gentle and considerate personal style captured my enduring respect and affection.”

In addition to his academic career, Garcia-Molina was widely known for his professional photography. He was often seen on the sidelines at Stanford football games, capturing photos of the action. His favorite sports to photograph included lacrosse, field hockey, soccer, rugby, swimming and water polo. 

Up until his death, Garcia-Molina taught CS45N, a freshman introductory seminar on computers and photography. Tiffany Ong ’19, a teaching assistant for the class this quarter, told Stanford news that Garcia-Molina would loan students digital cameras and organized trips to the San Francisco Zoo and Half Moon Bay, as well as walks through the Stanford Quad at night.

In an interview with Stanford News, Ong said, “Because of him, hundreds of students over the years have gained the confidence to become photographers and artists on their own, despite never having touched a camera before the class.”

Garcia-Molina is survived by his family. According to Stanford News, his final moments were spent “reminiscing” with old photos with his son. 

Contact Alejandro Salinas at asalinas ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Alejandro Salinas '21 is a Senior Staff Writer after serving as the Managing Editor of Sports for two volumes. Hailing from Pasadena, CA, he studies computer science and biology as a junior. In his free time he enjoys running, playing with dogs and watching sports. Contact him at asalinas 'at' stanford.edu.