My conversation with Suzanne Mello Stark, December 2010

Suzanne Mello Stark graduated from URI in 1985 with a B.S. degree in computer science. She then went on to get an MBA from Babson College in 1993 and is now about to receive her PhD. in computer science from URI. Her career has taken her from software engineer to product management to dean and now professor.

FMC: Wow, Suzanne, you’re on quite a ride! Let’s go back to when you first graduated from URI with a B.S. degree in computer science. Tell us about your first employment. How did you get this position, and what did you do?

SMS: I graduated at a time when computer scientists were in demand. I actually got into programming when I was 16. I was first hired by engineers at NUSC (Naval Underwater Systems Center) who didn't know how to program, and they hired me to do it for them. In my junior year I was hired at Raytheon part time. So when I finished my degree, it felt really comfortable to become a full-time member of the team there.  We built fire control systems for submarines. What we did mostly was fix a lot of bugs. Doesn't sound glamourous but boy did I learn a lot from that job!

FMC: You stayed in this position until 1987. And then you moved on to two other positions, still as a software engineer. Tell us about why and how you moved on.

SMS: A lot of my friends and colleagues headed up to Boston. There were a lot of jobs in the Boston area, and I wanted to be part of the excitement. People wanted to switch jobs back then to gain more experience and didn't want to be considered 'lifers'. I first landed at GTE (now Verizon) where I helped put in the Missile Warning Center in Cheyenne Mountain (NORAD). We wrote the protocol that connected the computers together. You couldn't really buy a good TCP/IP off the shelf back then, and since a secure [network] protocol was needed, creating one was included in GTE’s contract. It was quite the experience, and I spent a lot of time in the mountain underground and in other very secure environments. Just like in the movies!

While working at GTE, I met many people from other companies and had other opportunities. I went with Stratus Computer and became a UNIX engineer. Stratus was a very successful small company that made fault tolerance hardware. We bought UNIX and had to make it run on our hardware.  I learned a lot about porting and building drivers. And of course, I needed to know UNIX inside and out—a skill I still cherish today.

FMC: Along the way, you decided to pursue an MBA. Why and how did you do that? And how did you balance grad school and your career?

SMS: When I was at GTE, I went to Babson College at night to get my MBA. It took me five years to get it. It wasn't one of those wimpy one-year MBAs you see today. It was very tough and there were lots of sacrifices. But I saw a lot of very successful people with technical backgrounds with business degrees, and I wanted to be one of them.

FMC: What impact did your MBA have on your career?

SMS: At Stratus, there were a lot of very exciting opportunities. 60% of our business was international, and I watched the product management team travel the world. I decided that it was time for me to become one of them. It was hard to make the cross over. They saw me as "too technical,” but they let me in part time because of my MBA. That was it. It didn't take me long to work my way up after that. 

FMC: Why did you move into product management? And what exactly is that? What did you do?

SMS: Product Management is the team responsible for a product's roadmap. They are usually in the business department, but work very closely with engineering and all the other departments as well. You work with sales and visit lots of customers promoting your product and figuring out what should be in the next version. A Product Manager needs to work across departments and make sure you are building the right products on time. Not just the software part, but customer support, sales, training, technical documentation etc. All must be ready. Also, you are the front person most of the time, so you need to be able to also take some heat, which is both good and bad.

Product Management is an extremely exciting joblots of travel. I became responsible for a product called SoftSwitch. It was in the days of early dial-up, and we made a fault-tolerant switch that took the data calls off the telephone network and put them on the data network. Companies such as France Telecom, China Telecom, MCI, Worldcom, AT&T, etc. bought the switch. And I got to travel the world, collecting requirements, working with engineering, and building them into our roadmap. At one point, France Telecom was not happy with us, so I had to be in Paris quite often. Three years of hard time on and off in Paris! Like I said, good and bad.

FMC: Why and how did you change positions while you were in the product-management phase of your career?

SMS: When we built the Softswitch at Stratus, we had no idea what a ride we going to be on. We were bought by Ascend Communications, so it would complement their modems. Then Ascend was bought by Bell Labs to be part of their product line.  So I switched jobs, but I kept the same office!

FMC: Why did you decide to pursue a PhD?

SMS: The Challenge! 

FMC: How did you become a professor?

SMS: I started teaching part time at various colleges and really liked it. I loved being on campus again and especially loved meeting computer science students just starting out. 

I spent about two years working as a Program Dean for DeVry University. I helped build their online web-development associates program and helped manage many of their other online technical degree programs. I value what I learned about the business side of running a college, but I missed teaching so when a faculty position opened up at CCRI, I went for it. I hope I can give students some practical advice. And I look forward to following their success.

FMC: Can you give some advice to our current students?

SMS: I would love to. First of all, make your own path. If there isn't a job for you when you graduate, create one. 

Always be the one to think outside of the box. Creativity is rewarded. 

Speak up! Especially if you are a woman. We tend to let others talk, even when we may have the best solution.

Never say "not my job". Always be positive no matter what you are really feeling inside. Negative people do not get promoted. Go home and complain to your dog.

Computer science is hard. It comes naturally to very few people. It takes tremendous study and dedication. Most people drop out because of that. But that's what makes it exciting and challenging as well. 

And always remember that computer science is just one skill of many that you have in your toolkit. Use them all.

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