Leaders in High Technology

Written by: 
Adrienne Nettles and Leslie Wimmer

Modern technological phenomena such as the web, cloud computing and mobile apps bring information to our fingertips and the ability to connect with people instantaneously. And technology evolves at an exponential speed.

As director of engineering at Microsoft, one of the nation's leading computer software makers, Larry Sullivan ('92) is at the forefront of this revolution by helping to redefine how people come together through technology. At the company's headquarters in Redmond, Wash., Sullivan manages a team of 25 developers and engineers in Microsoft's Cloud and Enterprise group who have built and run the next-generation cloud computing platform Microsoft Azure, assisting millions of consumers through everyday activities.

Thanks to their innovations in cloud computing, a grandmother in France can join her 3-year-old grandson's birthday in the U.S. via Skype with reduced lag time. Gamers can compete with one another together in a virtual world more quickly through the interactive video game platform Xbox Live. And employees separated by oceans can more productively meet face-to-face at a moment's notice through video technology.

"Azure provides a secure infrastructure for computer, gaming and mobile applications to stream media, and store and process large amounts of consumer data within minutes," Sullivan says. "It also provides the platform for huge data centers around the world to run efficiently and effectively."

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Sullivan is among UNT alumni impacting consumers' lives through their professions in high-tech communications fields. They're driving innovation, creativity and discovery at leading national companies as pace-setters in software development, rail logistics, copper and fiber optics assembling, cybersecurity and learning technologies.

And they credit UNT's distinguished faculty and state-of-the-art facilities for giving them real-world experiences and the skills and knowledge they needed to become forward-thinking industry leaders.

Ahead of change

Microsoft employs 90,000 people across 190 countries, but Sullivan sets himself apart among the many engineers, researchers and developers by staying ahead of change. In his 20 years with the company, he's served on teams responsible for building Microsoft's Windows 95 and Internet Explorer versions 2, 3 and 4 and creating the .Net Framework.

"Having the desire to continually want to learn is critical to being successful in a high-tech field because, in our business, things are constantly changing," Sullivan says. "UNT gave me a great foundation and prepared me well."

Sullivan chose UNT's computer science program for his undergraduate studies because it was ahead of other universities' programs. He says his mentor, retired professor of computer science and engineering Tom Jacob, instilled in him the drive to learn and stay relevant in his field.

Today, Sullivan is an avid supporter of the College of Engineering, the fastest growing college at UNT. He serves on its capital action team to help steer the direction of the college in preparing future engineers — such as electrical engineering technology alumni Kenneth Adam Marlowe ('09), Bryan Cotanch ('09) and James Parker ('09). The trio recently received a patent, the first undergraduates to do so, for work on motorcycle safety that was part of their senior design project.

"When I look back at the foundation I got at UNT, I'm very grateful," Sullivan says. "I'm in a position now to give back. I want other students to have the same experiences I had. Microsoft and UNT are alike in that they're both about achieving quality with great value."

Big data

Every day, BNSF Railway train cars travel across 32,500 miles of tracks, delivering goods through the U.S. and Canada. Employees at the company's Fort Worth headquarters use the latest technology to monitor operations, market their services and keep the trains running safely and efficiently. One of the leaders behind that technology is UNT alumna Lettie Haynes ('82).

When Haynes was a student studying computer science, she gained hands-on experience in the university's microcomputer lab working with Texas Instruments-990s, which were among the most innovative technologies of the early '80s.

Today, Haynes is BNSF's assistant vice president of technology services, overseeing IT initiatives involving everything from the company's customer web and mobility software and intermodal hub logistics systems to future cloud computing applications that will help streamline business processes.

"When I arrived at North Texas, I was certain I wanted to work with technology or computers," she says. "At the time, I wasn't sure whether it would be software programming or the actual computer hardware configurations, but I knew computer science was the right field for me."

In her 20-year career at BNSF, Haynes has worked on a range of technology initiatives, covering areas such as application development, infrastructure, budgeting, marketing and strategic planning.

Currently, she also leads teams who are creating mobile applications for the company and its clients and are researching how large amounts of data from transactions, events and other sources can be leveraged to gain insights and help predict trends for the company.

"'Big data' has become somewhat of a buzz word in the IT industry, and corporations mostly use large amounts of data to look backward and evaluate past performance," Haynes says. "But we're creating an environment for our data that will enable us to explore patterns of information so we can identify opportunities and take action focused on preventative measures."

And Haynes is investigating how cloud computing can improve BNSF's technology offerings.

"It's exciting to see how we can leverage the cloud for certain services," she says. "We're looking at quicker information delivery speeds for our business partners and faster, better software and application upgrades, which are all appealing, all while having strong security processes in place."

And while in her current role Haynes focuses on the latest industry trends, she credits UNT with giving her an opportunity to build a strong knowledge base around computer science, programming techniques, basic logic and database design.

"Once you really know the fundamentals of software and development, you can learn anything," she says. "Today, information technology is everywhere. It's a large part of every industry. When students leave UNT, they will be able to apply those skills to any business function."

Big applications

Consumers might not think much about the technology behind the checkout system they use at a convenience store or how the government works to keep our borders safe, but Jay Chenault ('84) does as CEO of Custom Computer Cables of America.

Since acquiring the multi-million dollar manufacturing company in 1999, Chenault has taken a hands-on approach to improve consumer experiences and help U.S. military operations through cutting-edge engineering and cable and fiber optic technology.

As a leading manufacturer of custom copper and fiber optic assemblies, the company is the force behind tiny and often unseen materials driving technology at some of the country's major cell phone and automobile companies and retailers. When consumers talk and text on their cell phones, miniscule fibers manufactured by Custom Computer Cables enable their devices to process the information. The company also supplies retailers such as 7-11 convenience stores and Chili's restaurants with cable products that help to power point-of-sale systems, making customers' checkout experiences more efficient.

The Garland-based company also manufactures and supplies products for the U.S. Army's Patriot Missile program and ship-to-shore power systems. And U.S. Department of Homeland Security contractors depend on engineering services and cable harnesses supplied by Chenault's company to plant radiation detection devices at U.S. border crossings to "sniff" for radioactive goods coming into the U.S.

"Our company relies on skilled technicians and advanced automated equipment to design and supply products that benefit consumers," says Chenault, who studied industrial technology at UNT, a program that served as a precursor to today's College of Engineering.

Chenault adds that his UNT degree has helped him succeed in a very competitive and ever-evolving industry.

"Industrial technology touches everything in my line of work," he says, "from the inception of a new product design to what materials will be used and how that material will be manufactured to make it scalable, cost-effective and ready to take into the market."

Chenault credits UNT's engineering metal shop and plastics labs and supportive faculty such as Phil Foster, associate professor of engineering technology, for giving him the perspective on how things work in the professional world.

"I'm still building off what I learned as a student," he says, "and putting it into everyday life."

Secure networks

Consumers are on a constant search for the latest technologies and the next generation of cell phone devices, says Prakash Kolan ('07 Ph.D.). He knows that first-hand through his role as a senior engineer at Samsung Telecommunications in Richardson. Samsung is one of the nation's leading companies for high-tech electronics, manufacturing and digital media with national research centers across the country.

"The growing demand is driving mobile device manufacturers to support new features that require even more computing power, storage and network bandwidth," Kolan says. "The result is that companies such as Samsung have to support these new consumer applications by having mobile devices that can interface with high computation servers in enterprise data centers."

As a member of the Samsung Research America Dallas group, Kolan helps research next-generation server solutions to transform tomorrow's offerings in wireless communication, as well as stay ahead of major competitors who are pushing the boundaries in mobile technology.

"Most of Samsung's current cell phone and tablet models — Samsung Galaxy S3, S4 and Note10 — have some of the features that our group has developed," Kolan says. "Our objective is to get on top of this new technology as soon as we can to get a major share in tomorrow's server market."

Kolan says the knowledge he gained from working in UNT's Networking Security Lab and as a graduate research student of Ram Dantu, professor of computer science and engineering and director of UNT's Center for Information and Computer Security, has been invaluable.

UNT has become a leader in cybersecurity education and research with the help of Dantu's expertise and research. Under his direction, the center has been named both a National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education and a National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Research, designations held by only 31 other institutions nationally.

"The thing that attracted me to Samsung is its commitment to research in the area of networking and security, which I also found in UNT's computer science and engineering program," Kolan says. "Every course I have taken at UNT has some sort of an application in my everyday job at Samsung, from IP networking to security and multimedia communications."

Kolan says CICS is among the many resources at UNT he draws from for his work at Samsung, along with the cutting-edge research of Dantu, whose expertise continues to play a vital role in his professional development.

"Dr. Dantu actively involved me in collaborative research projects with other universities and research centers, which helped me get industry exposure," Kolan says.

Today, Kolan and his Samsung colleagues collaborate with the National Science Foundation Net-Centric Software and Systems Industry/University Cooperative Research Center housed in UNT's College of Engineering. Led by Krishna Kavi, professor of computer science and engineering, the center — which includes three other universities and more than 20 high-tech companies — is pioneering research to revolutionize how complex information is gathered, shared, secured and used.

"The knowledge I acquired at UNT continues to be the foundation for the work I do now," Kolan says.

Learning technologies

As McAfee Inc.'s global learning consultant, Angie Rackler ('11 Ph.D.) is responsible for designing and analyzing consumer product training programs for the world's largest security technology company.

Rackler has been with McAfee in Plano for more than 15 years and has extensive experience in designing training programs in the form of classroom and online lectures to help customers learn to use the company's newest products. She also is in charge of evaluating the results of training programs to make sure customers walk away with as much knowledge of new products as possible.

"What I love about my global learning consultant role is that I get to start from scratch and create entire training programs from the ground up," Rackler says. "I love taking on a challenge."

Rackler's determination to tackle big issues helped her with the decision to enroll in the applied technology and performance improvement doctoral program in UNT's College of Information. The program is geared toward people in corporate training fields who are interested in developing their research skills as well as skills in development, implementation and evaluation of technical training programs.

At the time, Rackler was looking for opportunities to continue her education and grow her career while balancing her work life and life as a single mother. Researching doctoral programs in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, she reached out to Regents Professor Jerry Wircenski, coordinator for the applied technology and performance improvement doctoral program, for information.

"Angie is so full of energy, and she's very determined to succeed," Wircenski says. "She was looking to move up in her organization and was a little apprehensive about starting a doctoral program while working full time and raising a family. But, with our support and support from McAfee, she knew she could do it and she did."

Soon after she enrolled in the program, Rackler took a class on using statistical analysis to evaluate learning outcomes and realized she could apply the analysis skills she was learning to the audiences she trained at work.

"Because I had these captive audiences, I was able to jump in with real-world case studies comparing different types of product training," Rackler says. "It was exciting for me to actually see statistical results for my work, and that gave me the ability to go back to my team and show them the impact of our programs."

Rackler encourages others, especially women, who may be considering an advanced degree in their field to find a support network and get started. She adds that a person who continues to learn about the latest changes in the field can help shape the industry's future.

"I really encourage people to stay in and know that their involvement can diversify the conversations that happen and the direction technology moves," she says.

"For me, this has been an exciting field. Technology is always changing, and it's fun to be on the cusp of what's next."

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