He received the Turing award, the most prestigious award in the field, jointly with Robert Tarjan in 1986. The citation states that he received the award "For fundamental achievements in the design and analysis of algorithms and data structures".
As well as his research work, he is well known for his books on formal languages and compilers, including the Dragon Book, coauthored with J.D. Ullman, and A.V. Aho, regarded as the classic text in the field.
He received his Bachelor's degree from Seattle University in 1961. At Stanford University, he received his Master's degree in 1962 and his PhD in 1964. He then worked for three years after that at Princeton University. He has since been based at Cornell University, where he is currently a professor of Computer Science.