Build Your Career: Interviews 


TITLE: Professor, Department of Information Systems and Decision Sciences, California State University Fullerton; managing director for the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching (MERLOT); IEEE Computer Society vice president-publications

ACADEMIC DEGREE: PhD in computer applications, University of Toronto

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Working for IBM, being on the founding board of IT Professional magazine.


Technology and Teaching

An interview with Sorel Reisman

DP: Where are you in your career right now?

SR: Currently, I am the managing director of a project called MERLOT, which is a high-tech consortium essentially funded by the California State University system, with members all over the world. I’m on leave as a professor from California State University, Fullerton to work on this project.

DP: Tell me more about MERLOT.

SR: It’s a digital library, and it’s fairly extensive. It has about 60,000 registered members, and a library of about 20-odd thousand holdings. It’s a really, really interesting challenge. It brings together a lot of things I’ve done in my career, from the development side, marketing side, corporate relations side, intellectual property licensing side. It’s a lot of fun because I’m using stuff that I’ve done for decades with all the multinationals that I worked for.

DP: MERLOT supports educators, doesn’t it?

SR: It’s mainly for faculty in higher education who want to use technology for teaching. It’s a library of teaching and learning materials that are open source. Anyone who wants to teach, for example, an electrical engineering, computer science, or even biology, course, can go to the library and find online materials that they can use, either in their lecture classes, or if they’re designing and building online courses, to implement and integrate into those courses.

I’ve been in the industry, I hate to say it, for more than 40 years. I think back to when I did this, or when I did that, and here I’m bringing it all together in a great place—and there really isn’t a lot of external stress at all. There’s a lot of internal stress—to do a good job and do lots of things, and do them soon because the industry moves so fast. It never used to move this fast.

DP: So when you were a youngster in Toronto, what factors led you to choose the career that you eventually pursued?

SR: Well, things have changed since when I was in high school, but when I was in my last year of high school, I had applied for and been accepted into pre-med. But my math and science grades, when I finished my last year of high school, were so good that I decided to go into engineering instead. So I turned down the acceptance to the pre-med program, and went into civil engineering. I spent a year in civil engineering, and I decided this is not for me, and transferred into electrical engineering.



DP: What factors drew you into to choose this career path?

SR: Pretty much that people who had good grades in math and in science went into something like engineering. Not into law, not into dentistry, not into all these other professions, and this was sort of, Hey, everybody, look how well I did in high school, and now I’m gonna be an engineer. Isn’t that terrific?
I graduated from engineering and went to work for GE for a year as an engineer. I really liked working at GE—Canadian General Electric. We did lots of thing there that even today are very useful.

I worked at GE when they were selling the GE timesharing system, which was based on the Dartmouth BASIC timesharing—the first timesharing environment—back in ’66, ’67, ’68 when GE was still in the computer business. That was a pioneering work. It was really terrific. I got a lot of programming experience, learned a lot of different languages, taught programming to engineers, and that’s what decided me that I have to go back to school. So I went back into computer science at the University of Toronto. Things just evolved from there.

DP: Was there a particular person in your college or graduate school days who had a special influence on your career?

SR: One of the other reasons I went into engineering was that a couple of guys I knew had graduated from engineering—guys that I admired. They seemed like they were old to me. They were 22, I was 18. In graduate school, sure. There were a couple of people who were very influential in helping to develop my career. When I was doing my master’s thesis, and later my dissertation, my supervisor, Professor Ron Ragsdale, gave me a lot of wonderful advice. He encouraged me to publish. I had many papers published as a graduate student, so by the time I graduated, I already had a pretty good resume. He was a model for me. He is why I always wanted, eventually, to become a professor.

When I got my PhD, I was living in Toronto and there were no academic jobs in Toronto. I didn’t want to leave the city, so instead I went to work, wound up at IBM, and eventually, though, after a few decades in industry, wound up back in academia and discovered it’s nothing like I thought it was when I was a graduate student. It’s quite a different beast.

DP: So as you moved through your career, what was your smartest decision?

SR: I’ve worked for a number of companies. I worked for GE, as I said, as an engineer, and I after I got my PhD, I worked a year for a management consulting company, and got hired away to IBM, into development and then marketing. They later transferred me to Southern California, and I worked for Toshiba and EMI before I went into academia.

The best thing I ever did was go to work for IBM. I liken it to guys who were in the Marines. When you get out, no matter how old you are, whoever you meet, you are part of a group. Maybe less so today, but certainly through the late ‘80s, it was a great training experience for industry. The best. The absolute best. The guy who ran the photocopier, he was the best photocopier runner in the whole world. The guy who worked in shipping—the best shipping guy in the world. I don’t know if that’s so true anymore, but everybody there was really outstanding at their jobs.

DP: Was there a dumbest decision?

SR: I moved to California to the States with IBM. That was a major, major thing. You move from another country, even though it’s Canada, and you think that there’s not so many differences, there are lots of differences. It was a big cultural change. I can’t even imagine how people come from countries where they don’t speak the same language. For a lot of years, I thought that was a big mistake, moving here. Our family stayed up in Canada. They’re still up there now. But now, as I get older and wiser, and I like the warm weather, I realize that was no mistake. Everybody up there, all our family members, they praise us. They think that was a smart thing to move down here.

DP: And both your kids live in the DC area?

SR: Yeah. Our kids, of course, grew up here, went to school here. One went to Cal State Fullerton, and the other one went to University of California Irvine. They both wound up in DC. They’re both in the industry. Their wives even are in the industry.

DP: You’re currently the vice president of Publications for the Computer Society, and you were the vice president in charge of the now-defunct Electronic Products and Services Board. You were a founding member, or driving member behind IT Pro magazine. Which of those engagements has been the most rewarding?

SR: Every one of the things that I’ve done here has been terrific. But IT Pro—being on the board of that, and helping to found that, continues to be, for me, something I’m pretty proud of. Because I see IT, not computer science, as being necessary for the continued success of the Computer Society. If we’re to grow, we have to grow in IT. IT Pro has the elements of the foundation we need for the Computer Society to grow. The people who are on the boards, the advisory and editorial boards of that magazine, they are just the best.

And they’re the ones—they’re the practitioners, so whenever I plan anything as a vice president, whenever I’m in a board meeting, whenever I can promote the notion of IT being the future of the Computer Society, I do. And I think about the IT Pro folks as being people I can solicit and recruit on committees, and I do. And more and more, we’re seeing those people as being senior volunteers who contribute a lot to the Computer Society.

DP: So what advice could you give a young person who might want to pursue a career something like yours?

SR: Well, these days you can’t stop with a bachelor’s degree, that’s for sure. If you want to be a practitioner, I don’t think you should bother with a PhD, but absolutely a master’s degree. Electrical engineering or computer science and an MBA make a perfect combination because even if you’ll wind up a project manager working on interesting projects, you’ll have an awareness of the practical business aspects of what you’re doing. So I would encourage engineers or computer scientists to be practitioners and then go back to school and do an MBA, whether full-time or part-time.

DP: What do you think will be the most startling advance or change in your field in the next five to 10 years?

SR: Yesterday on television, I saw an interview with Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and he was promoting the Kindle II, the electronic book reader. All these new devices—the iPhone, for sure—are absolutely changing the world. So who knows where this stuff’s going to go. Certainly those little screens that we’re sort of stuck with, they won’t continue. There will be a solution to that small screen problem, small keyboard problem. Bandwidth will not be a problem. It’s less and less of a problem. I was in India recently, and I had my BlackBerry, and wherever I was, I was on the top of a mountain, I was in slums, and here’s my BlackBerry. I’m getting email from the United States. I’d like to live for a long, long time to see where this is all going to go. We’ve sure come a long way since General Electric timesharing days.

DP: So here in the US, the big news is we have a new Administration. What would you like to see the Obama Administration pursue?

SR: It’s hard to answer this and be apolitical. I think we’ve had eight years, prior to this new Administration, where science, all aspects, were denied. Stem cell research, global climate change, all kinds of things. Fuel, different kinds of fuel issues like clean coal. What we need now is an Administration that is truly rooted in science, data, and doesn’t make decisions to do science based on anything other than the scientific method, and I think we’re going to see that. I think we’re already starting to see that. I think that’s incredibly important.

DP: Okay. So I know that you are a candidate to be the Society’s president. And what’s your vision for the Computer Society down the road, let’s say 10 years from now?

SR: I would like to see many more members of the Society who are much younger than I am, much younger than most of the people, the volunteers that I work with. We need youth. The society has to be driven by youth. We also need a much more international spectrum. We need many more members from countries and regions like India, China, and South America. We’re an international organization, and we need to have much broader international membership than we do. If we had much more international membership, we’d have much more international volunteerism, international leadership, and so forth.

So 10 years from now, that’s what I would hope the Society would look like. Younger and more diverse. Also in gender. We know that, for example, there are fewer women going into engineering and computer science in the last handful of years than even the preceding years. I’m not sure why that is, but we need to address that also.

DP: Do you have any final words?

SR: I think it’s really important for recent graduates, computer science and engineering graduates, to join the IEEE, join the Computer Society. You can’t know until you’ve become an active member how much being a member of a society like the Computer Society or IEEE, how much value that brings to you. Not just professionally, but also socially.

I have made incredible friends in the Computer Society. I love the people that I work with here, that I play with here. It’s great. And I just would encourage everybody, anybody who qualifies, to join. CW (14 April, 2009)



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