Pete Olson’s Uncommon Career Path

U.S. Representative and Rice University alumnus Pete Olson said, “Rice CS taught me to reframe and reform questions, and thinking outside the box was very helpful as I hit roadblocks in my career."

CS Alumnus Pete Olson began serving as a U.S. Representative in 2008.

“When I arrived at Rice in 1981, I was overjoyed! I went there to play basketball from a high school team that had been number one in the state,” said Representative Pete Olson. But the Rice University Computer Science alumnus (B.A. ’85) was to be disappointed.

“I walked onto the team and every day, I played with a guy named Ricky Pierce. He did play for the NBA for 14 years. He was named an All-Star and was twice voted NBA Sixth Man of the year. Working out with him every day for two years made me realize I would never play pro basketball.”

Olson was a junior at the time and shifted his attention to Computer Science. Programming was done in FORTRAN on punch cards, but the major was growing in popularity. Then in 1984, Rice got its first Macintosh computers as part of a 24-school Apple University Consortium.

“In my senior year, the first Macs came to Rice,” said Olson. “It was amazing to put your hand on this little ball, click, and see the arrow on the screen open up a menu. Remember, we’d just been typing on punch cards the semester before. Now we had this amazing desktop computer with 128K of memory. Well, that seemed like an exciting kind of career to me. Until I completed my first internship.”

He said the computer room in Brown and Root was air conditioned to a chilly 55°F to prevent the computers from overheating, and he ended up wearing a fur coat to work on the east side of Houston. In the summer.

“It’s July in Houston and I’m walking into work with a fur coat,” said Olson. “And we were working in a darkened room, about ten feet apart, and everyone had their head down. My conversations went something like, ‘Good morning. How are you? Fine. Hey, how was your weekend? Hey, how was your. Hey. Okay.’

“So when it came to actual work experience, I figured out I didn’t want to be tied to a computer in a cold, dark room. I was more of a people person. Luckily, the University of Texas at Austin invited me to join their law school. It sounded nice and warm, and my future job would be working with people.”

He was fascinated by his courses and dove into specialty areas like maritime law. Over the course of two summer internships, he learned about working as an attorney and how to track billable hours.

“And I hated it. Every day, I would work and calculate: 24 minutes? Bill .3 hours to that client. 45 minutes? .75 hours to that client. It was awful and I remembered I’d had another dream at Rice –to become astronaut. By the end of law school, I thought, ‘It’s now or never.’ So the day I passed the bar, I joined the Navy to learn to fly.”

Olson would spend nine years in the Navy, flying missions over the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, and the Pacific. He was assigned as a Naval liaison to the United States Senate in 1994, and his dream of becoming an astronaut gave way to the adventure of fatherhood. His Navy career required him to be away from his family more than half of the time, so he did not re-enlist following his final tour of active duty.

“This guy I’d met in the Navy found me and said, ‘I have a job for you in my office.’ That was Phil Gramm. When he retired from the Senate, I became chief of staff to his successor, John Cornyn. Then in 2007, I moved home to run for Congress against 11 other candidates.”

He has represented the 22nd District of Texas since 2008, joining bipartisan efforts to speed up post-Harvey recovery projects and to demystify technology through the Artificial Intelligence Caucus. The AI Caucus brings together experts from industry, academia, and government agencies to explore the challenges and opportunities presented by this rapidly developing technology. Olson’s computer science degree is proving useful once again.

“AI is the future of America,” he said. “As soon as we opened up the caucus, we were approached by people from the military, the energy sector, auto dealers, the medical community – all across the spectrum. Everyone needs this kinds of technology and we must educate and legislate to get it right.”

He lamented the work of well-intentioned writers portraying AI-driven machines destroying the human race.

“A lot of congressmen – and our constituents – don’t get how important AI is to our future and they may be afraid of it because of what they’ve read or watched. But we’re talking about algorithms, not something that enables a machine to take on a human personality focused on self-preservation.

“With all due respect, our challenge isn’t to thwart technology, but to examine and avoid our own human biases as we develop it. Take health care for example. Using technology linked to AI, we can track changes in your body and identify newly emerging conditions that can lead to cancer long before an MRI picks it up. That means we can kill the cancer before it even metastasizes.”

Olson talked about how the Veteran’s Administration has begun using AI to decrease the amount of time veterans wait for doctor’s appointments. With demand for appointments out-pacing availability, time is precious. Like everyone else, some veterans forget or miss their appointments, lost time another VA patient could have used to meet with the doctor.

“So the VA has been using AI to become more efficient about getting more vets into appointments. There aren’t any more appointments, and the schedule is always full. But maybe a patient has a poor track record of showing up even with reminder messages. Using AI to identify patient appointment trends, our schedulers may identify a patient close by who can make a last minute appointment in case of no show. The time is not lost, patients get care, and the no show gets rescheduled if they choose. That’s AI at work right now in the VA.”

His career path might have seemed nomadic at times, but each of his interests has contributed to his success in Congress. Olson credits lessons learned at Rice for his tenacity and his capacity to change directions.

He said, “What makes Rice so great? Uncommon wisdom. It is the kind of education that empowers you. Rice people look for solutions way beyond the box.

“Rice CS taught me to reframe and reform questions, and thinking outside the box was very helpful as I hit roadblocks in my career: NBA? Boom. Gone. Computer science? Boom. Gone. Lawyer? Boom. Gone. Astronaut? Boom. Gone. My Rice foundation allowed me to follow my dreams no matter where they led or how they changed –all because I’m a Fighting Rice Owl from Jones College.”