Illinois CS Influence on His Path to Google Success Inspires Unni Narayanan to Make Major Gift

10/17/2019 David Mercer, Illinois Computer Science

Narayanan, who now leads the engineering team for Google Assistant, was profoundly influenced by Professor Emeritus C.L. "Dave" Liu.

Written by David Mercer, Illinois Computer Science

Unni Narayanan’s list of memories about life as an Illinois Computer Science PhD student in the 1990s is long: jazz at the Krannert Center, the apartment he and his wife shared on Hessel Park, pizza at Papa Del’s.

But the memories of what he learned from his advisor, legendary Professor C.L. “Dave”  Liu, stand above them all.

“He was an iconic figure,” said Narayanan (PhD CS ’98), now a senior director of Engineering at Google. “He taught me not just computer science -- he taught me about life, how to formulate a problem, to think big picture. He taught me about relationships.”

The role Liu played and still plays in Narayanan’s life and the desire to honor his Mother, Priyadarshini Pillai, motivated Narayanan’s recent decision to make a major gift to Illinois CS.

Narayanan and his wife, Usha Narayanan (JD ’96) were able to quadruple their gift, taking advantage of The Grainger Foundation’s Matching Challenge for undergraduate scholarship donations, as well as Google’s own gift-match program.

The money will finance the Narayanan Family Scholarship Fund.

Narayanan found his way to Illinois on a circuitous, cross-country path.

He was born in Iowa and spent much of his childhood in Bloomingdale in the Chicago suburbs, but moved to Southern California for high school after his mother died.

Narayanan then headed to UCLA for his bachelor’s degree, before going to work at IBM in New York. While there, he also worked on his master’s degree at Columbia University.

With that degree in hand, Narayanan’s then-fiance’ – now his wife – and he both decided they wanted to go further.

The College of Law admitted her and Illinois CS admitted him, providing an easy choice.

“Urbana was actually my top choice,” Unni Narayanan said. “It was a well-known computer science department. The breadth of the department is incredible and enabled me to potentially pursue any interesting research avenue.”

The young couple spent the next few years in Urbana-Champaign, enjoying the life the community offered.

“We had a very active social life,” he said. “I was very involved with the Indian classical music society there. l I used to go to Krannert all the time to hear classical music and jazz. It was a pretty vibrant campus experience for us.”

“We look back at it a lot,” he added. “Those are some of the happiest years we’ve had.”

And Narayanan forged that life-shaping link to Dave Liu.

Narayanan recalls one moment – “Yoda-like,” as he describes it – in which Liu both challenged him and helped build the kind of confidence that would give him a base on which to build a career.

“I was trying once to prove a theorem, and (Liu) said, ‘The reason you can’t prove it is that you don’t believe it. I want to you to stop trying to prove, and I want you to instead write a program that will see if your theorem generates the correct results,’” Narayanan said. “I told him this is going to take two months to do. And he said, ‘Yes, but do it. If you’re right, believe in yourself.’”

So Narayanan wrote the program, and the theorem proved correct. Liu was right about that confidence boost, too.

“There were lots of moments like that in Urbana-Champaign,” Narayanan said.

Those moments and his own drive and curiosity led Narayanan to consider a career in higher education. But the first dotcom boom drew him to Silicon Valley.

Narayanan first worked at Intel, where he started as a software engineer and eventually worked his way up to Solution Center Director.

Then, between 2004 and 2014, he co-founded and helped lead three startups, all with fellow Illinois alumni Mike Fu (MS CS ’95, PhD CS ’97) and Harold Sun (MS CS ‘95), beginning with a financial research startup, then a mobile app company, (Twyngo, which created the game “Amazing Ants”), and finally Mind Pirate. That company created an IoT and wearable computing platform and was acquired by Hewlett Packard in 2014.

Big companies, Narayanan thought, were his past, until someone at Google reached out to him. His varied history -- big and small companies, experience with apps but also things like financial services – would prove to be a good fit.

He was hired as a Director, where he led the product and engineering teams for all of Google’s major mobile search apps on both Android and iOS.  

That led to his current role, leading the engineering team for the Google Assistant for displays, speaker, television, and home automation. About 300 people report to Narayanan.

“I feel really lucky -- how often do you get to work in a company that has the ability to really innovate on a broad scale?” he said.

And, more recently, Narayanan has felt drawn back to Illinois. He still visits Liu at the emeritus professor’s homes in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but more recently traveled to campus with his own son, who is exploring his college options.

Narayanan says the sometimes surprising roles his education and experience at Illinois CS have played in his life and career have become more and more apparent, leading both he and his wife to decide the time was right to give.

“I’ve realized that the last couple of years, and I really wanted to make a gift.”

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This story was published October 17, 2019.