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Don Gillies

Don Gillies

Site reliability engineer | Google Search | Class of 1992

To say Illinois changed Don Gillies’ life would be a whopper of an understatement.

When tragedy struck the family of the now-Google senior software engineer, the UI came to the rescue.

Says Gillies (MS/Ph.D. ’92, computer science): “My father joined the math department in 1956 and later became a founding member of the computer science department in the mid-1960s. He passed away suddenly in 1975, from a rare virus, at age 46.

“The university — specifically, the good people of the math department, including the head, Jerry Uhl — immediately hired my mother, at first to help typeset and edit the Illinois Journal of Mathematics and later, to run the Association for Symbolic Logic. This helping hand from the university absolutely saved my childhood, and I will be forever grateful.

“When my father died, within days, Professor Jurg Nievergelt of the CS department gave me a free login account on the PLATO computer system.  Every day, I would go to the Computer-based Engineering Research Laboratory to play games and explore the system.

“On hot summer days, CERL was freezing cold, 65 degrees, and after a few hours I would go outside and stand before the 12-by-12 air conditioner hot-air exhaust vents — it was like standing in a hot-air windtunnel — for five minutes, just to warm up.

"A year later, I bought a book from the third-floor desk at CERL and began teaching myself computer programming. I returned to UIUC in 1986 to get an MS and Ph.D. degress in CS.

“Now, 40 years later, I help to run Google Search every day.”