2012 Distinguished Achievement Award

The CS @ Illinois Distinguished Achievement Award honors computer science graduates who have made professional and technical contributions that bring distinction to themselves, the department, and the University. The award is presented at the CS @ Illinois Awards Banquet each fall.

Nominations for the Distinguished Achievement Award are solicited annually from alumni, faculty, and advisory board members. Nominate an alumnus today at my.cs.illinois.edu/submit.

Greg Chesson
Senior Staff, Google

Greg Chesson (MS '75, PhD '77) spent much of his career as chief scientist with Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI), the maker of powerful computer workstations and servers whose realistic 3D graphics technology was popular among movie, game console, and early Web companies during the 1980s and early 1990s. Chesson has sometimes been called the godfather of networking due to his many contributions to the area.

As a student at Illinois, Chesson helped bring the UNIX operating system to campus by convincing Professor Donald Gillies to purchase a license.  After graduation, he joined Bell Labs, where he contributed to the 6th and 7th releases of UNIX, and designed and implemented the first suite of protocols on Datakit, a predecessor to today’s ATM networks. 

In 1982, Chesson joined SGI as one of its first technical staff members.  His research work concentrated on the implementation and usage of distributed shared memory and distributed virtual memory in a variety of system configurations, as well as very high-performance (GB/s) local area networks and network adaptor technology.  Among his contributions, Chesson invented the Xpress Transfer Protocol (XTP), a flexible transport protocol designed for high-speed networks.  XTP was simple enough to implement in VLSI hardware, allowing packets to be processed in real-time with very low latency.  He also developed the gigabit system network (GSN), also known as HIPPI-6400, which set a new standard for high-performance network data transfer in 1998 by achieving full duplex transmission capacity of 1600 Mbits/second (200 MB/s). Today, Chesson works on measurement and analysis of large-scale congestion and packet burst phenomena. In between SGI and Google, he worked at wireless LAN startup Atheros Communications Inc., where he contributed to system and chip architecture, wireless chip designs, and QoS and security protocol design and development.

In addition to his technical achievements, Chesson is an accomplished musician—primarily drums and piano. In the 1960s, he joined the U.S. Air Force and performed with one of its bands; several years later returned to civilian life and toured the country with several different jazz and R&B groups, including Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders, and the Woody Herman jazz orchestra.

Ping Fu
Chief Strategy Officer, 3D Systems

Ping Fu (MS '90) was the co-founder and CEO of Geomagic, a company whose innovative software tools fundamentally changed the way a myriad of products are designed and manufactured worldwide. Engineers, designers, and artists have used Geomagic software for things ranging from streamlining the manufacture of toy dollhouses, transforming the hearing aid and dental device industries, to guaranteeing the safety of the Space Shuttle Discovery, and recreating engine manifolds for a NASCAR racing team.

The innovation behind Geomagic’s technology is the rapid creation of non-uniform rational B-splines on point cloud data, which is key to digitally processing an object—a task that used to take a designer weeks to complete but can now be done in just minutes.  Fu is the co-inventor on five of the patents behind this technology.

Before starting Geomagic in 1997, Fu was the director of visualization at NCSA, the University of Illinois supercomputing center, where she supervised work on Mosaic, the world’s first practical web browser. Her team also developed new geometry algorithms that enabled the morphing special effects for the robot villain in the movie Terminator 2.

In 2005, Inc. Magazine presented Fu with its Entrepreneur of the Year award. Among her more recent awards, she was recognized by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services as an Outstanding American By Choice. Besides her CEO role at Geomagic, Ping serves on the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the White House, she is a member of the National Council on Women in Technology, and on the board of directors at the Long Now Foundation.

Fu grew up in China and endured terrible hardships during the Cultural Revolution. As a young adult, she studied journalism and wrote an investigative article about how China’s one-child policy was prompting parents to kill their baby girls. The story landed her in prison, though she was eventually ordered to leave China and told never to return. She ended up in the United States, where she earned a degree in computer science at University of California at San Diego before enrolling in the graduate CS program at Illinois.

Ping’s incredible story of personal and business resilience “Bend Not Break” was published by Penguin in December 2012.  In early 2013, it was announced that Geomagic had been acquired by 3D Systems, with Fu appointed as chief strategy officer.

Last updated: Jan. 2013.

Roger Dickey
Co-Founder, Product X

Roger Dickey (BS '05) started his first company in 2006 to match tutors with students who needed tutoring. Although the company was short-lived, the experience encouraged him to continue writing innovative software.

In 2007, he launched a social gaming start-up, building a portfolio of 19 Facebook apps and games. The most popular game, Dope Wars, resulted in a large following of 300 million monthly page views and $250,000 in monthly revenue, attracting the attention of social game developer Zynga. Dickey sold his company in 2008, and he used the back end technology that he had created for Dope Wars to develop a new crime-themed game for Zynga called Mafia Wars, which reached 45 million users by 2010. In three years at Zynga, Dickey also launched FishVille and five other titles. In addition, he served as an international product team advisor for Zynga, helping the company grow its games in India, Japan, and China.

Since leaving Zynga in 2011, Dickey has started a new company in San Francisco, named Product X. He also invests in and advises startups, including companies like Facebook, Addepar, DotCloud, E La Carte, Internmatch, HiGear, Speakertext, and Wanderfly.

Last updated: 2012.

Illinois classmates Sizhao "Zao" Yang, Joel Poloney, Amitt Mahajan, and Luke Rajlich co-founded MyMiniLife.  A free to use Flash-based virtual world and social networking application, MyMiniLife, allowed users to express themselves by generating characters, creating and customizing virtual spaces and goods, visiting and interacting with other users’ creations, and embedding their work elsewhere on the Web.  Before their company was acquired by Zynga in June 2009, MyMiniLife reached 200 million registered users, who were sharing virtual worlds and interacting with the creations of others from all over the world.  As the team started talks with Zynga, they started to work on a farm-themed game that was based on the MyMiniLife platform.  That game was FarmVille, which became the most popular game on Facebook, with 85 million unique monthly users, and won recognition as the Social Networking Game of the Year for 2010 from the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences.  Able to handle lots of users and still provide high performance, the MyMiniLife platform eventually became the shared technology platform for all of Zygna’s new games.

Last updated: 2012.

Amitt Mahajan
Co-Founder, Red Hot Labs

Amitt Mahajan (BS '06) began his career as a programmer with Epic Games, where he performed tools development for Unreal Engine 3, and he helped develop Gears of War, a critically acclaimed and best-selling Xbox 360 game. In 2007, he reunited with fellow Illinois alumni to co-found MyMiniLife, Inc.

As Zynga’s director of engineering, Mahajan led a team of 15 developers, implementing the scalable technology stack and game engine used in FarmVille, as well as other Zynga games such as CityVille, Treasure Isle, and FrontierVille. He also spent nine months as chief technology officer of Zynga Japan.

In 2012, he left Zynga and started Red Hot Labs with Illinois classmate and long-time business partner Joel Poloney. A Bay-Area company, Red Hot Labs builds fun mobile products. As CEO, Mahajan is focused on revolutionizing the way mobile applications are developed.

Last updated: 2012.

Joel Poloney
Co-Founder, Red Hot Labs

Joel Poloney was an undergraduate working part-time at NCSA when he accepted an offer from his friend Sizhao “Zao” Yang to be a part of a new start-up company, Mocha Soft LLC (eventually renamed to MyMiniLife, Inc.).

As Zynga’s senior architect, Poloney helped build out the Shared Tech Group and worked extensively on the common game engine and platform that Zynga used to launch nearly all of its games, including FarmVille, FrontierVille, CityVille, Treasure Isle, CastleVille, and Hidden Chronicles, among others.

At the end of 2011, Poloney left Zynga to form a new startup with Illinois classmate and co-founder of MyMiniLife, Amitt Mahajan. Based in the Bay Area, Red Hot Labs builds fun mobile products. Occasionally, Poloney invests in promising seed-stage startup companies.

Last updated: 2012.

Luke Rajlich
Distinguished Engineer, Zynga

In 2007, Luke Rajlich (BS '05) left a lucrative job in the financial services industry, where he worked in high frequency trading at Citadel Investment Group, to reunite with his Illinois classmates and help start, MyMiniLife, Inc.

At Zynga, Rajlich served as chief technology officer of FarmVille, where he was responsible for the game’s engineering, operations, and scaling. Also at Zynga, he started a content management team to build tools that reduce the cost of producing new game content. These tools are widely adopted within Zynga and are the company’s standard content management tools.

Today, Rajlich is a distinguished engineer at Zynga, and he is the studio’s CTO of an unreleased mobile game. He was recently named as one of Fortune Magazine’s "50 Smartest People in Technology."

Last updated: 2012.

Sizhou "Zao" Yang
Advisor, SV Angel

After graduating from the University of Illinois, Zao Yang (BS '05) worked as an IT specialist at IBM for nearly a year before starting Mocha Soft LLC (eventually renamed to MyMiniLife, Inc.) with several Illinois classmates.

At Zynga, Yang continued to work on FarmVille, designed the FarmVille iPhone application, launched FarmVille.com, and worked on corporate development deals including Microsoft, Yahoo, Zynga Japan, and Zynga domestic, as well as international corporate strategy. Yang left Zynga in 2010 to start a new company, BetterWorks, which offered tools to help businesses manage discounts and rewards programs for employees.

Today, Yang is an advisor to SV Angel, a San Francisco-based firm that helps startups with business development, financing, M&A and other strategic advice.

Last updated: 2012.