The Ultimate Prof
CIS prof juggles computing, business and Ultimate Frisbee
BY REBECCA KENDALL
|Prof. Joe Sawada throws a mean Frisbee. Photo by Martin Schwalbe|
There was a time when Prof. Joe Sawada, Computing and Information Science, thought he'd never leave Canada's west coast. The B.C. native loved the landscape and the laid-back vibe there. He left his hometown of Salmon Arm in the Okanagan Valley to attend university, but didn't venture any farther than Vancouver Island. There he studied at the University of Victoria, earning a B.Sc. in 1996 and a PhD in 2000.
“I thought I was going to live in Victoria forever, then I realized there's more to the world than British Columbia,” says Sawada.
A more global outlook emerged when he accepted a two-year Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council post-doc that took him to Charles University in Prague, the University of Sydney in Australia and back to Canada, where he worked at the University of Toronto. He joined U of G in 2003.
Although travelling wasn't necessarily a natural choice for Sawada, choosing computer science was.
“I was always interested in math because it was easy for me. I enjoyed solving problems, and after taking my first computer science course at UVic, I realized this was a natural extension for me.”
His research focuses on finding all possible solutions to a given problem by developing fast computer algorithms. These algorithms find important applications in routing problems that are common in telecommunications, as well as in bioinformatics, physics and chemistry.
“This is a very interesting niche area of computing research,” says Sawada.“For many problems, most researchers are interested in finding only a single solution. They often overlook the problem of trying to find all possible solutions. In my research, the efficiency or speed of an algorithm is very important. There's some personal satisfaction in developing an algorithm that's faster than any previously known.”
In addition to making applications run more quickly and smoothly, Sawada uses his talents to help small-business owners make some of their painstaking work easier and more efficient. He is co-founder and chief technical officer of FreshBooks, an online invoicing and time-tracking service that currently has more than 135,000 users.
FreshBooks grew out of a one- time contract he and his business partner, Michael McDerment, fulfilled for a client before Sawada's appointment at Guelph.
“We realized that every small business could use the solution we developed, and we went to work to provide the service to everyone. It's as easy to use as signing up for an e-mail account, and it's going through big growth right now.”
The company, which now employs nine people, has already been featured in the National Post, the Globe and Mail and in a two-page spread in the March 2007 issue of Profit magazine.
“We're not a big corporate operation,” says Sawada. “We're down-to-earth and believe in what we're doing. It's not all about profit. It's about finding solutions to some of life's difficult problems and freeing up people's time so they can enjoy life more.”
Even with the increased public interest and name recognition surrounding FreshBooks, he's not prepared to make it his full-time gig.
“I enjoy learning about the business side of things, but what interests me is the research I'm doing and the interaction I experience through teaching. Academia is where my heart is, and I see my role as a professor as my ultimate path in life.”
He has also found an ultimate interest outside business and academia. For the past five years, Sawada has been a member of Goat, one of Canada's top Ultimate Frisbee teams. Coincidentally, one of his fourth-year students is one of his teammates.
“Ultimate eats up a lot of my time during the summer,” he says. “We practise at least twice a week during the summer, ideally four.”
The team is ranked second in the country after Vancouver's Furious George and is listed among the top 20 worldwide, he says.
“It used to be fun, but now it's really competitive. That's not to say it isn't still fun, but there's more riding on it now.”
This summer, Goat will compete in a number of tournaments, including ones in Chicago, Boston and Detroit.
“The big event this year is the Canadian Nationals in Toronto,” says Sawada. “This is also a qualifying year for Worlds. We want to beat Vancouver because we want to represent Canada. Our goal is to be the top team in the country.”