Bob Swanson: CS and the Traveling Salesman

“There is a role in the world for CS people who want to be broad rather than deep. You can see connections that a specialist won’t see," said Bob Swanson (B.A. '84). He's made a career out of pointing out those connections.

Rice Computer Science alumnus Bob Swanson (B.A. '84).

“In 1978, I thought computers were already old-fashioned and I was rebelling against what my father did, so I chose Math,” said Rice University alumnus Robert Swanson (B.A. ’84).

His father worked as a computer operator and then as a data processing manager. By the time Swanson was five, he was hanging out with his dad on weekends, cleaning out keypunch machines and working the burster to separate paper printouts.

He said, “In junior high, we worked on a timeshare terminal. I thought it was played out, so I focused on theoretical mathematics at Rice.

“When I got to the upper level math courses, I discovered I wasn’t as enthusiastic as my classmates. My brain didn’t seem to be wired that way and job prospects seemed low, so I looked around. Applied math and science --as in modeling things like traffic flow-- was appealing. That was more in line with Mathematical Sciences and Computer Science, so I ended up a triple major.”

Graduating as the 1980s oil bust began, Swanson considered job offers in different fields. He could work on payload simulations for the space shuttle at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, or he could do field support for Motorola’s minicomputers.

“My personality was just not suited to sitting in front of a green screen and programming all day,” said Swanson, “so I went with Motorola. We had all sorts of 10MB discs that came out of drives shaped like a pizza oven.”

Although he would eventually travel to Rio, Bali, and points between, he first had to travel down the aisle. Ten days before his wedding, Swanson was laid off. Most of Motorola’s Houston customers were in the oil and gas business, which was still in a downward spiral.

He said, “I went straight to my fiancee's office and closed her door. When I told her I’d gotten laid off, she was so happy. She thought I was about to call off the wedding. She said being laid off was nothing. And she was right. It was 1985, and we’re still married. Six months of marriage without me working helped set us up for success later.”

Swanson leveraged his Motorola field experience into post-sales technical support with NCR, and began traveling to fix problems in the communications devices connected to their customers’ mainframes. He often wrote patch code on the spot, and said the longer it took to fix a bug, the larger his audience grew.

“First, it was just the operators watching me figure out what had gone wrong. If it wasn’t fixed quickly, managers began forming a second row. If it still didn’t get fixed, the VPs started showing up at the back.

“On one job, I noticed a single communications line: one twisted pair of wires handling 300 baud bits per second. They told me, ‘If that goes down, it costs us about a $1M an hour because it is linked to the trading floor.’ But my favorite problems involved working with assembly language.”

The need to write in machine code resulted from discrepancies between systems. IBM ran hexadecimal dumps of 16 bits per word; Swanson’s company built custom machines using octal with 8 bits per word. He had to determine the problem, translate and write a patch, then physically adjust the bits on the machine before hitting ‘Enter.’

Swanson’s knack for cool-headed troubleshooting in high stakes environments, his ability to translate on the fly, and his experience working directly with customers in field support prompted his company to move him into to pre-sales support. Suddenly, he was working trade shows and talking architecture with clients around the country.

“Pre-sales in the technology industry means talking with your own sales team as well as with the customers’ buyers and their geeks,” said Swanson. “I became a translator because I could talk to all sides. I’ve filled that role in both hardware and software companies.”

Many of the constraints Swanson had to work around in the 1980s and 1990s no longer exist, and pricing models also changed dramatically. As storage became more widely available and its costs dropped, demand grew for storage-heavy systems like imaging and document management, customer relationship management (CRM), and content and data management. Swanson worked his way across the evolving software industry, enjoying the new challenges as well as the new places he visited.

He said, “Travel has definitely been one of the perks of a sales jobs spanning several industries. Working for a company based in the U.K. had me heading to headquarters in Scotland several times. Working for Siemens meant I was in Germany two or three times a year. If you are selling energy-related software in Houston, you’ll probably spend a lot of time in the oil sands of Canada. Calgary is like a small version of Houston. But colder.”

He jokes that although he was laid off his first job shortly before his wedding, the security he might have enjoyed at NASA also meant he would not have traveled the world. Variety and the adaptability it teaches are two of the reasons he encourages CS students to explore different industries.

“Don’t feel limited to the careers your friends choose. Don’t feel less successful if they go to Silicon Valley and you head to the Silicon Prairie. Most of the tech stories I read are about coding or entrepreneurship, but I’ve found the vast majority of CS jobs are actually about other things.

“There are still jobs you can do that aren’t pure development or architecture or starting your own company. In the real world, there is a wide range of work for people who understand CS and love solving problems. Like a job that has you traveling from a Las Vegas trade show to a hydroelectric dam in St. John, Newfoundland, working in sales tech support for a company specializing in document management systems.”

He doesn’t discredit CS students and alumni who prefer to focus on a particular segment of the industry. His advice is for computer scientists who haven’t yet found a niche or who long to roam a wider world and can tolerate risk.

“There is a role in the world for CS people who want to be broad rather than deep. You can see connections that a specialist won’t see. For example, years ago I went to a small, select show for consumer package goods in the food and beverage industry. One of their speakers forecast a problem: not knowing exactly where their products went. If there was a product recall, whom would they contact?

“Our company had been working on applications with manufacturing facilities in industries ranging from heavy machinery to pharmaceuticals. I was able to tell them about pharma companies having entire systems dedicated to tracking and tracing their products. The food and beverage industry had simply developed at a different pace. That is the kind of connection you can make with a broad range of experiences.”