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Michael Austin ('91)

Alumnus Michael Austin

Michael Austin
Professor of Practice, Computing, East Tennessee State University
Class of  ’91

I grew up in Danville, Virginia and was the first in my family to go to college. I interned with Eastman Chemical during the summer of 1990, then moved to Tennessee and went to work there after graduation in 1991. After 30 years with Eastman, I’m retiring at the end of June and fulfilling a lifelong dream of going into teaching. This fall, I will become a professor of practice at East Tennessee State University. This will give me a chance to help build the next generation of computer scientists and give back in a very special way. My wife Melanie also went to Virginia Tech and we love coming back to campus every year for our anniversary and sporting events.

How did the department equip you for the ‘real world’? 

When I interned at Eastman, I was immediately able to see my structured programming, data structures, operating systems, and database classes come to life. As I started my career, I was able to make a tangible difference quickly in solving manufacturing and business problems. Over my 30 years in the field, I’ve designed, built, and supported systems on many platforms, operating systems, and languages. The foundation I received from the Department of Computer Science at Virginia Tech equipped me to be successful regardless of how technology has changed over the years. 

Being a Virginia Tech alumnus means...

It means being part of something bigger than myself. Being part of a group that lives out Ut Prosim (That I May Serve). Being a part of a group that wants to make the world around it a better place now and for the future. It means coming from a world-class institution and never taking for granted the privilege I had to attend. It means showing Hokie Spirit wherever I go.

My fondest memories of my time in the department are...

This is a totally geek answer, but memories of getting to the end of a project and seeing it solve the problem. We had so many challenging, difficult projects, but they taught us how to think and how to use technology to do what people could never do. I loved seeing the finished product work.

I also have really fond memories of several professors who went the extra mile. Dr. Balci, Dr. Arthur, Dr. Hartman, and so many others. I can still remember Dr. Arthur, “Operating systems are ‘kinderspiel’, child’s play”. I am also thankful for the advisors in the office who took a real interest in us as students. They really looked out for us and helped us be successful. 

From working in so many sectors (manufacturing, supply chain, finance, corporate strategy, etc.), my advice to students and young alumni trying to figure out their path in computer science is...

Over my career at Eastman, I was offered many assignments. I said yes to most of them. It was a way of continuing to learn and grow depth and breadth in the field. Later on, that perspective helped me understand how all the pieces fit together. I would advise students to not lock in on one area to specialize too quickly. Take assignments in various areas and explore the many aspects of computing – infrastructure, cyber security, application development, etc. and explore the various applications of technology.  

Also, take some time to see what’s out there. What I have found is there are typically two types of people – some who like to constantly change and learn new aspects in the field; and then those who like to specialize and become deep in a particular area. Both are needed and valuable. Before specializing however; take some time to see what’s out there. 

I use IT outside of work by...

I volunteer my time with a lot of outside organizations, including the East Tennessee Chapter of the Virginia Tech Alumni Association, Young Life, Kairos, Toastmasters, and my local church. For the alumni association, I created the first website, writing HTML by hand in Notepad before there were HTML editors.  

In Young Life, we run a golf tournament fundraiser. We used to spend countless hours having people fill out paper sponsor sheets, manually printing out forms, manually addressing envelopes,  and mailing sponsor letters (around 5,000 a year). I developed a standard form for people to use – that could be reused each year they played, and then combined all the sponsor forms into a database that could auto print, stuff, and address the letters. What used to take days/weeks of manual volunteer labor could be done in hours and was completely automated. I love using technology to solve problems while serving my community.