Honorary Consul of the Republic of Austria in Pittsburgh for Western Pennsylvania
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As an Austrian native who has built an impressive academic career on this side of the Atlantic, Franz Franchetti took up the function of Austrian Honorary Consul in April 2019. He is a full Professor at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
How long have you been living in the U.S. and do you still travel to Austria occasionally?
I first came to the U.S. in 2001 for a three-month summer visit and then I came back several times after that. I have been living here permanently since January of 2004. I travel to Austria at least one to four times a year. There were years when I had more time to catch up with friends and family or attend conferences in Austria. In the most recent years, however, I only managed to travel to Austria once a year.
Where are you originally from?
I am originally from Wiener Neustadt (40 miles south of Vienna) which is more than 800 years old. It is the seat of the Austrian military academy and in the past, it was the seat of bishops as well as of Emperor Maximilian. It is a very historic city: With 40,000 inhabitants, it is now the tenth largest city in Austria. Here in the U.S. a city of this size would be more like a suburb, but in Austria it is a town of its own.
You received your degrees at the famous Vienna University of Technology. Do you have any fond memories living and studying in Vienna?
Actually, I have never lived in Vienna. I have basically lived in Wiener Neustadt my entire life. Getting to university took about one hour door-to-door on good days; on bad days, it took much longer. The commute was a bit of an impediment to my student life at times. I also did my engineering school in Wiener Neustadt, but I had some side jobs in the city and that is why I had to commute back and forth when I was younger.
You are obviously fluent in English and German but also in “mathematics”. Let us put your communicator skills to the test: Can you give us an easily understandable bird’s eye impression of your research and the ongoing projects?
Mainly, what I am doing is trying to teach computers to program themselves.
Is that artificial intelligence?
Not quite. There are a lot of aspects of different fields involved. The problem is that computer vendors have come to an end basically, meaning we probably won’t get a free-spin next generation of technology and therefore, one has to optimize the software itself. That is a very tedious job and since it is so tedious, it is often not done at all. The question is whether you can automate tedious things and program computers to do them instead of humans? This is quite a complex problem and we have been working on it for almost 20 years together with my team and my former mentors, advisers, etc. We have also founded a start-up based on a source system called Spiral: Its aim is to teach computers how human programmers think about mathematical software that you might find in cell phones, TVs or computers, for example. It turns out the mathematics that is actually done by humans and the one that is used by computers is always the same.
Among your many functions you just mentioned that you are also the co-founder of SpiralGen, Inc., a start-up located in Pittsburgh. Could you talk a little bit about that? Do you think that the rust belt is the right place for spin-offs?
Basically, SpiralGen is a company my colleagues and I founded in Pittsburgh. Other companies had started to reach out to us as they were interested in doing things outside of the university. We started hiring engineers and eventually decided to start a company. Our situation is quite unusual and tough because of the high technology involved and the 30+ million dollars of government funding needed for it over the last twenty years. Due to the highly complex nature of the technology, it is hard to get investments and the technology is difficult to use. We really try to capture expert knowledge which makes using the technology quite a challenge. This is why we tried to figure out if should create more of a consulting business and if there was any way for us to be more economical. We haven’t gotten to the right place yet.
Our latest idea is that it should be similar to Red Hat for Linux with free software but also with some sort of maintenance consulting offered in order to help people use it correctly. I think this is our latest business model iteration. It has been growing successfully for ten years though not on a large scale and it is not the next Google, and venture capitals might not see the success. It is, however, important for a number of people and their professional lives and that is why it exists. It is similar to Python LLVM software packages – they eventually become companies. This is what our company is about and it is not like your classical start-up.
Why did you choose Pittsburgh?
We chose Pittsburgh because this is where the university is: We are or were all working as professors and we did not want to give up our day jobs. We were not interested in doing a start-up in Silicon Valley. It was either here or nowhere. Pittsburgh is an interesting location because when I first came here, it was still more like the blue collar, steel city, depressed, having lost half of its population. But over the last fifteen years, the city has really turned around and become a technology and healthcare hub. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) seems to be the largest employer in Pennsylvania. And Carnegie Mellon is absolutely a top university.
Furthermore, there are 35 colleges and universities located in and around Pittsburgh. Education and healthcare are the major focal points here. But with the gas boom and companies like the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the heavier industry made some comeback as well. Moreover, robotics based on computer science is the newest driver for technological start-ups. In a way, Pittsburgh is becoming like Austin or Portland but does not reach the level of Boston or Chicago. Google and Facebook are present now and the industrial roots that we have everywhere were also reestablished. Basically, living conditions have increased a lot with new housings and new neighborhoods as compared to five years ago.
Are there some Austrians in the same field as yours, i.e. professors, start-ups, or do you know about any Austrian entrepreneurs who found their way to Pittsburgh?
Up until mid-April 2019, I was the President of the Austrian Scientists of North America (ASciNA), a private association, and I have been head of its Pittsburgh chapter for the last four-and-a-half years. In Pittsburgh, I am aware of most of the academics and medical professionals. At the moment there are three Austrian professors at Carnegie Mellon University as well as several postdoc and PhD students. There are about five to ten Austrians involved in academics but that number always varies. We have a good community of Austrian medical doctors at UPMC as well; again there are about five to ten of them. These are the scientists that I am aware of and we try to meet a couple of times a year: it is an excellent community.
Then there is the “friends of Austria” community, people who have some connection to Austria but are not necessarily of Austrian descent. Thanks to my predecessor Edgar Braun, I am familiar with this community that is also responsible for maintaining the Austrian Room at the University of Pittsburgh. After the Second World War a large cohort of Austrians came to the U.S. and their children and grandchildren still have Austrian connections. Dealing with any questions regarding these connections was also part of my predecessor’s responsibilities. As I am just starting my new role as Austrian Honorary Consul, I do not know yet what other tasks I will be facing in this regard. To sum up, there is basically the scientific community and the “older” generation, but there are also a few Austrians involved in the art scene, though not a lot on the entrepreneurial side. Actually, on my flights to Pittsburgh I have seen a surprising number of Austrians. I recognized them by their passports. Many of them also come because of the oil and gas industry as well as the heavy industry in Pittsburgh.
You have already mentioned the communities and that you are more or less aware of the Austrians living in your consular district of Western Pennsylvania. Did you travel around the district? Did you get a list of the Austrians registered there?
No, we do not get a register of people. I do know, however, that there are some Austrians working in the other academic institutions in the district. Still, Pittsburgh really is the center of gravity in this area with 700,000 people. I have been living here for 15 years now, which is why I know the academic community in the area quite well; as far as the other communities are concerned – I am only starting to get to know them.
Do you already have any plans of engagement with the Austrian community, such as a National Day reception?
I am just starting out in this new position. I first need to see what is typically done in Pittsburgh in this regard. One of the next steps will then be to reach out to the Austrian American Cultural Society as well as the non-academic associations to understand what my predecessors did in the past. I guess we will look into this more closely with the beginning of the new school year.
You have mentioned that you are interested in culture and there are photos of you playing the guitar as well as an actual electrical guitar in your office. How long have you been playing? What kind of styles do you like?
I have been playing the guitar since I was eight years old and the electric guitar since I was 14 years old. In Austria, I had a string of bands for about 10 to 15 years: At our biggest venues we played in front of audiences of 1,000 to 1,200 people as warm-up act. We also organized our own newcomer rock festival on local church grounds in Wiener Neustadt. It was a bit like a local Woodstock. This festival started out quite small, but it grew really big over 20 years with more 1,000 people in the audience. It was a lot of fun. We were a lot younger then with so much energy. Then I came to the U.S. and did not have time to have a band anymore. Once a year, however, our department has a garden party and I organize professors and staff to play music for 30 to 45 minutes, so the students get to watch their own professors in quite a different capacity!
Thank you very much for your time, Prof. Franchetti!
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