Paul M. Thorn ('76)
Paul M. Thorn
Semi-retired, Government Computer Systems Consultant
Class of ’76
I am a legacy as my father, Paul E. Thorn graduated in 1944 from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in chemical engineering and was later shipped out to the Pacific theater. After graduating from Virginia Tech, I married and followed my wife (Martha Falls, family development ’74)) with her civilian career with the Department of Defense first in Brooklyn, New York.
In 1977, we ended up in Annapolis, Maryland, she with the United States Naval Academy and me with a local software house that developed COBOL software systems for NCR business computer clients. I quickly became the senior programmer because I knew how to program with indexed sequential files. All programming was done with interactive systems software and computer video terminals ($2,500 each!) and I never touched a punched card.
After learning more about the financial aspects of the business world, I developed accounting computer systems (general ledger, accounts payable, purchasing, inventory, time recording, payroll, accounts receivable, billing, tax rolls, budgets, etc.) for a local business service bureau client. After many exhausting years, I decided that I wanted to move away from all the traveling and started working for one of my hometown clients: the City of Annapolis.
For the next 30 years, all I had to do was practically roll out of bed to get to work. I started as the sole computer person in the finance department and the city government. There I redesigned and upgraded NCR’s government fund-management system that later was widely distributed by National Cash Register (NCR). I became the city’s first chief information officer and had a seat at the department head and mayor meetings influencing all of the city’s digital domains. Strategic planning and resulting implemented programs propelled the city into the digital world and it is recognized as one of the top five digital cities in its size class in America. I also served as the municipal representative on the State of Maryland Network Maryland board as well as president of Maryland Municipal Information Technology Association and the College Park chapter of the Data Processing Manager Association.
I am currently semi-retired as a government computer systems consultant. I am a certified “Couch to 5k” and 10k running coach for the Annapolis Striders organization.
How did the department equip you for the ‘real world?
As I mentioned earlier, I was hired by a local software house because I had experience in using relatively new computer disk-based, rather than punched cards, programming with COBOL at Virginia Tech. This knowledge of operating systems, computer equipment, and the use of interactive video computer terminals kept my firm as a leading-edge developer of business software for NCR.
Virginia Tech, in general, taught me how to learn. My knowledge and skills in the area of business functions and especially finance was limited. But using my Virginia Tech educational methodology, I was able to quickly educate myself and seek the knowledge that I needed to keep it up to date. Even courses in English helped me write documentation and to communicate more precisely at all levels of clients and users.
What does being a Virginia Tech alumnus mean to you?
Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), says it all. I began contributing back to Virginia Tech after I began my second career in government service. I am a charter member of what was then the College of Arts and Science Dean’s Roundtable in 1988. We started with the steps of strategic planning and charted a planned course for the College of Science that has led to where it is today. The roundtable has provided the dean a sounding board and feedback of current and proposed future activities with an “outside of the campus” viewpoint.
It means that I can hire, with confidence, any Virginia Tech graduate knowing that he/she will perform at a high level with a job well done. We are “consumers” of the graduates of Virginia Tech and we should contribute some input on the educational experience of the students and expected outcomes.
Of course, being an alumnus also means that you should support, encourage, and provide opportunities for students to attend and graduate from Virginia Tech.
What is your fondest memory of your time in the department?
That would be, of course, interaction with Dr. George Gorsline, the Department of Computer Science founder. His humor and encouragement, even beyond my last hopes of completing my assignments, is everlasting. Learning where the remote job entry (RJE) locations with the shortest line and quickest turnaround time – Sandy Hall – Ag quad! Doing “all nighters” in the back of Burruss Hall and exchanging coding ideas with classmates was awesome too. The worst was the RJE printer running out of paper/jamming (no reprint!) or the mainframe being down.
What is your advice to young alumni wanting to climb to C-level positions?
Learn all aspects and all functions of your business, products and your competitors. Join and participate in a professional organization in your field that has an educational program. You need to have all of the technical knowledge to know how to build computer systems as well as knowing all of the business inputs, processes and outputs required by others. You will be managing people, time, money, policies, equipment, materials, buildings, supplies, etc. at high, intermediate, and low levels. You need to know how it all connects and interacts and with your organization’s philosophy and methodology.
You also need to have a strategic plan of where your organization wants to be in 5-10 years, with tactical goals, objectives programs, budgets and time constraints on how to get there. You MUST get input and support from the other departments that you support and your clients/customers. Policies and procedures are for your people, to set standards for behavior, are not set in stone, and need to be periodically evaluated and updated. Continuously educated and trained people are your most important asset. Pay and respect them well. If possible, periodically talk, vis-a-vis, not email, to every single person in your domain for their inputs and desired outcomes as well as yours. Communication, orally, in public, and in writing is also paramount!
What is your favorite way to stay connected with the department?
I have been an active participant in the College of Arts and Science, now College of Science Dean’s Roundtable since 1988. We have formal meetings in the spring and fall of each year, usually on-campus with remote sessions throughout the year. There is no aspect of conducting science that can function today without some involvement of computers and computer science. Big data, the computer modeling and data analytics curriculum, statistics, support, general coding classes, the new Academy of Data Science and the Innovation Campus, etc. all have connections, integrations and interactions between the College of Science and the Department of Computer Science.