In the late 1970s, as a UW-Madison nuclear engineering undergraduate, Pat Hanrahan achieved perfect grades.
For Hanrahan, it’s a particularly notable early accomplishment because he wasn’t even sure he wanted to go to college. Now, however, he considers college the most important opportunity he’d ever had. “The university reached out to me with an honors program in engineering physics and it was the perfect program for me,” he says. “It gave me flexibility to explore my interests, while ensuring I had a solid foundation in the fundamentals.”
That foundation was key to his success. “I loved the environment at Wisconsin,” he says. “I really liked the engineering, but had broad interests. I would not be where I am today had I not seized the opportunity that was offered and gone into that honors program.”
Hanrahan went on to earn a PhD in biophysics at UW-Madison. In the 1980s, he worked at the New York Institute of Technology graphics laboratory and Digital Equipment Corporation. He was among the first employees at Pixar, where he is credited with developing the RenderMan software used to create such movies as Toy Story. For their work in rendering and computer graphics, he and colleagues received an Oscar for Technical Achievement and a Scientific and Engineering Oscar.
In 1989, Hanrahan joined the faculty of Princeton University and in 1995, he moved to Stanford University, where he is the Canon professor of computer science and electrical engineering.
In 2003, he co-founded Tableau Software to take business analytics to the masses. The product is a high-powered, easy to use analysis tool that integrates with a company’s databases and lets business users without any programming skill easily turn columns of numbers into interactive maps and graphs. “I’m an academic at heart, but I feel it’s important to build real stuff that people use,” Hanrahan says. “Many of my students have also started companies to transfer their research into products.”
At Stanford, he teaches classes in graphics and imaging. Yet for all his accomplishments, Hanrahan is most proud of the impact his students have had. “I’ve had about 30 PhD students and they’ve done a lot of great stuff. Perhaps 10 have gone on to be professors. Of the whole group, they have started 14 companies,” he says.
Hanrahan, who is married to Delle Maxwell, is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.