Career Profiles

Explore profiles of real professionals and students to learn how they got started, what they love about computing, and all about the fascinating work they do.
Erickson profile

John S. Erickson

Director of Web Science Operations, Troy, NY & Norwich, VT, United States

Degree(s):

Ph.D., Dartmouth College
M.Eng, Cornell University
BSEE, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
“"Computing" is a great way to follow your curiosity and have fun doing it. Look around you: most of what you see required someone just like you to dream up something new and then build it. It’s great to be part of that!”

Starting in elementary school I kept a "junk box" of salvaged parts from which I built various "inventions". In junior high I was first exposed to "cloud computing" when I accessed computers via 300 bits-per-second dial-up and a Model 33 teletype. I was an electrical engineering major at RPI, focused on digital circuits and control systems; through a co-op (academic credit for job experience) at IBM Fishkill I gained a passion for the special-purpose systems one finds in manufacturing and test equipment. I ended up as a test equipment engineer and project leader for Digital Equipment Corp, developing high-performance memory test systems, during which time DEC sent me to get my M.Eng at Cornell through a fellowship-like program. After eight years I moved on to pursue my Ph.D. at Dartmouth; my original plan was to study special-purpose systems, but I ended up studying the unique technical/legal/social issues of managing copyright on the Internet just as the Web was coming into being. After two startups, I worked in corporate research at Hewlett-Packard Labs for a decade; I am now in academic research.

I start my working day at 7a, catching up with the overnight email traffic from my European colleagues and our students, who never seem to sleep! I review the day’s conference calls; I work remotely from Vermont for part of the week and therefore do a lot via Skype. Part of my day is spent in focused email or Skype conversations with students, checking on status and trying to work through technical problems. Typically there is a paper or presentation due, so some time is spent revising, hopefully using a collaboration tool. After a dinner break (and assuming I don't have some obligation in the community) I'll find time to work on the current boat and do emails.

My primary responsibility is research project management for several concurrent projects of different scales. I provide a critical level of guidance and support between three senior professors and a large team of post docs, graduate students and undergrads. I love the daily intellectual challenge of helping the team create something totally new. Students don't know what they can't do, and therefore create amazing and surprising innovations!

As a graduate student I had to take a feedback and control systems course to fulfill some "core" requirement. This class had a term-ending project --- nowadays it might be called a 'capstone' project --- that usually involved the students using stock instruments from the lab to demonstrate some principle. Having (at that time) about a decade of engineering experience, I decided to instead build from scratch a small robot that would use ultrasound to position itself. It was a very ambitious project that required both analog and digital systems engineering plus some low-level Macintosh programming, using a wide array of self-acquired parts, some of which (like a small battery-powered bulldozer) were found at a toy store! On the final day the "Sonic Ranger" worked perfectly and ended up in a display case in the engineering building for a short time. It was intense work over a short period of time but was a lot of fun!

I'm a builder of wooden boats, homebrewer, vegetable gardener and am a volunteer leader on an annual youth group work trip to the southern US.

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First computer mouse
Douglas Engelbart
Douglas Engelbart

In 1967, Douglas Engelbart applied for a patent for an "X-Y position indicator for a display system," which he and his team developed at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in Menlo Park, California. The device, a small, wooden box with two metal wheels, was nicknamed a "mouse" because a cable trailing out of the one end resembled a tail.

In addition to the first computer mouse, Engelbart’s team developed computer interface concepts that led to the GUI interface, and were integral to the development of ARPANET--the precursor to today’s Internet. Engelbart received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Oregon State University in 1948, followed by an MS in 1953 and a Ph.D. in 1955 both from the University of California, Berkeley.

Router
Sandra Lerner

It is difficult to imagine a time when computers were not capable of sharing information and resources with great ease. Sandra Lerner pushed the boundaries of network computing as one of the co-founders of Cisco Systems, which introduced one of the first commercially viable routers. The router was born while Sandra was working at Stanford University in the 1980’s after earning her Master’s degree there in Computer Science. To avoid the tedious task of transferring information between computers using floppy disks, she and co-founder of Cisco, Leonard Bosack, created a local area network, or LAN, between their campus offices using a multiprotocol router that Bosack developed. Shortly thereafter the pair started Cisco Systems, and began selling the router which was a success, because it could work with so many different types of computers. After Leaving Cisco in 1990, Lerner started the trendy cosmetics company Urban Decay and became a philanthropist and avid activist for animal rights.

Cursor
James Dammann

If you have used a word processor today, moved your mouse on your laptop, dragged an object around on your smartphone, or highlighted a section of text on your tablet, you can thank Jim Dammann. In 1961 during his second year at IBM and just one year after completing his PhD, Jim created the concept of what today we all take for granted -- the cursor. This idea he documented in utilizing the cursor within word processing operations.

After retiring from IBM, Jim went on to inspire future generations of software engineers at Florida Atlantic University. His work there too demonstrated his creativity for he spent considerable effort enhancing their software engineering program by integrating ideas and feedback from local industries into the University curricular. Today, Jim lives in the Westlake Hills west of Austin Texas and spends most of his time in his art studio. He wrote and published The Opaque Decanter, a collection of poems about art, which provided a new view at part of art history.

Turing machine
Alan Mathison Turing
Alan Mathison Turing

Did you know that computing has been used in military espionage and has even influenced the outcome of major wars? Alan Mathison Turing designed the code breaking machine that enabled the deciphering of German communications during WWII. As per the words of Winston Churchill, this would remain the single largest contribution to victory. In addition, he laid the groundwork for visionary fields such as automatic computing engines, artificial intelligence and morphogenesis. Despite his influential work in the field of computing, Turing experienced extreme prejudice during his lifetime regarding his sexual orientation. There is no doubt that computers are ubiquitously part of our lives due to the infusion of Turing’s contributions.

Punch card from a COBOL program
Jean Sammet

Jean E. Sammet was one of the first developers and researchers in programming languages. During the 1950’s - 1960’s she supervised the first scientific programming group for Sperry Gyroscope Co. and served as a key member of the original COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language) committee at Sylvania Electric Products. She also taught one of the first graduate programming courses in the country at Adelphi College. After joining IBM in 1961, she developed and directed the first FORMAC (FORmula MAnipulation Compiler). This was the first widely used general language and system for manipulating nonnumeric algebraic expressions. In 1979 she began handling Ada activities for IBM’s Federal Systems Division. Ada is a structured, object-oriented high-level computer programming language, designed for large, long-lived applications, where reliability and efficiency are paramount. Jean has a B.A. from Mount Holyoke College and an M.A. from the University of Illinois, both in Mathematics. She received an honorary D.Sc. from Mount Holyoke (1978).

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