KCS People: Rich Miner, Computer Science ’86, ’89, ’97

Android co-founder Rich Miner ’86, ’89, ’97 at Google corporate headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., in 2017
Android co-founder Rich Miner ’86, ’89, ’97 at Google corporate headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Here, he is shown with the Android “Oreo” robot, which represents the version of the Android mobile operating system that was released in 2017.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Rich Miner is an entrepreneur at heart, skilled at building companies from the ground up. He thrives on bringing a spark of an idea to life — on assembling teams that can push the boundaries of innovation and deliver market-disrupting products.

It’s what he’s been doing for more than 30 years.

A triple River Hawk, Miner’s reputation in the world of technology is legendary. He co-founded the company Android, which developed what is now the world’s most popular mobile operating system, used by 2.5 billion people and commanding more than 85 percent of worldwide market share. The company was acquired by Google in 2005 for a reported $50 million, and that’s where Miner has worked ever since.

“At Google, I initially helped lead Android development and helped create and grow Google’s venture fund,” says Miner, who earned bachelor’s (’86) and master’s (’89) degrees and a Ph.D. (’97) in computer science from UMass Lowell.

For several years, Miner was a partner at Google Ventures, the company’s investment arm. These days, his focus is on developing innovative educational products and user interface technology. He works out of Google’s Cambridge office and travels frequently to its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters.

“Currently, I am concentrating more on building and innovating than investing,” he says.

A Standout Student

Before he was helping to reshape the technology industry, Miner left his mark at UMass Lowell.

“There was no question Rich was going to be successful — it was just a question of how soon and where,” computer science Professor Emeritus Tom Costello says about his former student.

Miner credits the education and training he received at UMass Lowell as key to his entrepreneurial success. He also feels fortunate to have had great mentors, too.

“I got a solid foundation in computer science, which has served me well through all these years,” he says. “Under the leadership of Profs. Pat Krolak, Tom Costello, Jim Canning and others, I got a really strong sense about teamwork and team-based, large-scale projects. I also was able to work with industry, which helped me understand the business side of things as well. All these had a huge influence on my professional trajectory.”

As an undergrad, Miner considered becoming a physicist. But on the side, he wrote computer games for the Commodore 64, a first-generation gaming system, and soon discovered his love of both computer science and entrepreneurship. As a graduate student, his work with Krolak for the university’s Center for Product Enhancement paved the way toward groundbreaking ideas in image processing, video digitization and videoconferencing, among other innovations.

Rich Miner in the late 1980s using videoconferencing technology he developed to order pizza from a shop in downtown Lowell.
Miner pioneered the development of videoconferencing as a UML undergrad in the late 1980s. Here, he is shown using the technology on campus to order pizza from a shop in downtown Lowell.
Miner’s ties to the university are enduring. He’s been back to campus to meet with students and to serve as a judge in the campus DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge. In 2012, he established the Prof. Patrick D. Krolak Innovation Endowment in honor of his mentor, who was killed in a car accident just months later.

And the work Miner did on campus still applies to the projects with which he’s involved today.

“Some of the projects that I am doing now at Google are actually related to my Ph.D. work [at UML] more than anything else I have done in the past,” notes Miner.

Machine Learning

So what’s the next big thing for Google, whose parent company, Alphabet Inc., posted revenue of $136.8 billion in 2018?

The company is pushing the boundaries of machine learning, an aspect of artificial intelligence that teaches the machine how to think and solve problems independently and to program itself.

“We are putting huge efforts behind machine learning technology and algorithms as well as the infrastructure needed to support them,” Miner says.

He cites as an example Google Photos, which can automatically recognize, categorize and organize pictures.

“We are exploring ways to bring some of that power to health care, assisting diagnosis from patient photos and imaging scans,” he says. “Our goal is to apply this technology to solving real-world problems and to bring this human-computer interface to consumers, like what we did with Google Assistant, which brings a friendly voice into people’s homes.”

As for the future of Android, Miner says consumers can expect smartphones to become even smarter with each release of the device. “We are putting artificial intelligence in the device itself — like in Google’s Pixel 3 phone, for example — so smartphones can actually learn the user’s habits, intentions and preferences,” he says.

But as a parent of two young children, Miner sees a downside to phones that can do so much.

“Having created Android, I realize that while smartphones have become a powerful tool for learning, they are also often used by parents as ‘pacifiers’ for the kids,” he says. “My kids have very limited screen time. They use their devices only for reading books and playing chess. They are given, at most, an hour a week to do any sort of video games.”

Parents need to monitor screen time and the materials being accessed and make sure children spend time interacting with a non-pixelated world, Miner says. His daughter, who is now 13, just got her first phone this year.

“Kids should be out playing, drawing with real paper and crayons, using scissors and glue to build things like models,” he says. Miner believes that people should be engaged in face-to-face conversations and interactions: “Parents should set an example—our kids get upset when we bring our phones to the dinner table.”

Fire in the Belly

Prior to his success with Android, Miner founded Wildfire Communications in 1991 (which developed the world’s first voice-based personal assistant), and he worked at the European mobile carrier Orange as vice president of technology and innovation. He has invested in numerous startups and served on the boards of several. What entrepreneurial advice can Miner give to UMass Lowell students and young alumni who want to enter the tech industry?

“Do not be risk-averse — take risks when you are young, because it is easier. Do not worry about failure; learn from it,” he says.

If you are a passionate entrepreneur, there are plenty of opportunities to apply for funding or to get training in large companies, Miner says.

“Make sure you are learning something and make sure you are doing projects that demonstrate that learning,” he advises. “Associate yourself with the right people — bright people and good mentors—and form a strong team. Very few people became successful individually; your success comes from a strong, diverse team. Do not always just seek out people that look like you.”

He adds, “Most importantly, follow your own ‘fire in the belly.’ It certainly has worked for me.”

Indeed it has. You can Google it.