“”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!”

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

How I got here…

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.

A day in the life…

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.

Why I love my job

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!

An awesome project

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!

Life outside of work

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.

Read more about John S. Erickson (PDF, 79.45 KB)