On June 1, Ian Gorton began his new role as director of computer science programs at Northeastern University–Seattle. Gorton has 25 years of experience working in the software industry, academia, and government labs in the United States and Australia, and he comes to Northeastern from the Carnegie Mellon University Software Engineering Institute. Prior to Carnegie Mellon, Gorton worked as a lab fellow at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. His research at both organizations focused on software architectures and technologies for scalable, Big Data systems in various scientific, engineering, and health-related domains. Gorton is widely cited for his work in software architecture, performance modeling, and Big Data systems, and he is a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Computer Society and a fellow of the Australian Computer Society.
Northeastern University-Seattle continues to experience momentum and growth both in enrollment—particularly in its computer science programs—and its impact on the region by preparing students to enter high-demand fields in science, technology, and engineering. Here, we asked Gorton to discuss his vision for his new role and where the computer science industry is headed.
What is your vision for the Seattle campus’ computer science program?
My major goal is to continue distinguishing Northeastern’s offerings in the market by making them heavily focused on providing students with skills that match the high-tech industry’s needs. It’s important to be very responsive to these needs and the enduring trends in software development that require highly qualified professionals.
Another priority is Northeastern’s ALIGN master’s degree program in computer science, which is designed for students with undergraduate degrees in other disciplines who are switching to computer science. A particular focus of all of Northeastern’s ALIGN programs is to attract more women and underrepresented minorities. Diversity is very important in computer science and other high-tech fields, but I don’t just mean diversity in race and gender. It’s also about diversity of thought. Some of the smartest computer scientists I know have received prior training in areas like biology, architecture, and the law. Having people with different backgrounds is important both educationally and culturally, and it leads to clients receiving much better technologies because diverse software developers bring a more holistic view of how to design and deliver a project.
How has the field of computer science evolved in recent years, and where are the industry’s most pressing needs right now?
There have been profound movements in the past five years. This is a fast-moving industry, in part because there’s no manufacturing phase in software, and improvements and modifications can be made daily. But two key areas immediately come to mind.
The first is that the scale of systems that we build has grown phenomenally in the past few years—and it continues to grow. The example I often use is to think back only 10 or 15 years to when Facebook and YouTube didn’t exist. Now these companies, along with Google and Amazon, manage the largest collections of data and have the largest number of clients that have ever been supported by any systems on Earth. And now we’re seeing the “Internet of things,” whereby we have Fitbits and clothes and cars with sensors in them. They all generate data, and it must be stored, processed, and responded to. Hence the scale of the systems we’re building is getting larger and larger, and as a software engineer it makes you realize that you must design systems very carefully. As you scale, the tiniest of software imperfections can be quickly and cruelly exposed.
The second is that we’ve entered this era of Big Data, in which companies have massive warehouses that just store data. We can gain deep, new insights from this data, so the area of data science is expanding. The need to gain insight from this data is a business and societal imperative, and there are simply not enough computer scientists who understand the techniques for analyzing it, especially at scale. This is another area where I see a real opportunity for our programs here in Seattle to collaborate with industry.
Where do you see Northeastern’s place in the Seattle region’s tech sector?
It’s critical that our campus and its students be deeply embedded locally, and Northeastern’s co-op model is an excellent way of doing this; we’ve already developed some good relationships with co-op employers in the area. I also see an opportunity for us to partner with companies that have an interesting speculative problem, but don’t have the resources to tackle it. That’s where our students can come in. Our students could work on capstone projects that are guided by local industry and that provide important learning experiences. All of this is focused on building a signature for our campus in computer science, where we’re focused on addressing the region’s most pressing industry needs.