“I think the U is an amazing place — there is so much enthusiasm, energy, and optimism here. I often tell people: Look at the demographics of this state. Who are our peers in terms of population, size, location, etc.? Nothing in Nevada, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho or Colorado comes close to the U. We are THE school in the Mountain West.”

Ross Whitaker: School of Computing’s New Director

Ross Whitaker became the new director of the School of Computing in January 2014. Since joining the School of Computing in 2000 as an assistant professor, Whitaker has watched the department, along with the College of Engineering, outpace other institutions in the Intermountain West. Whitaker shares his insights into how the School of Computing is preparing students to become leaders in a data-centric society.

Q: What traditional School of Computing strengths would you like to build upon, and what new direction(s) would you like to see it take?
A: My predecessor Al Davis has a great set of experiences that guided him as a director, and I still consult with him often to get advice. Our program is strong in leading edge research and research expenditures. As Utah’s premiere research university, we want to stay on the cutting edge of computer science. One of our new goals is impacting the university more generally. This will happen through our active efforts in collaborative research, and educational outreach.

Q: How do you plan on building upon the department’s strong reputation for student research?
We have strong graduate and undergraduate programs. Our students are getting great jobs and it’s challenging to pace demand for our students locally and nationwide. We’ll continue our time-proven strategy: hire the best people and give them opportunities to be productive and grow. We’ll be strategic about getting new skills in areas that we believe represent the most exciting prospects for the future, with input from business leaders and legislators. Much of this effort relies on recruiting, and getting the word out about what a great place this is. We plan to push hard on outreach to the local community, to the state and nationally.

Q: How do you envision the department continuing to prepare graduates to lead our high-tech economy?
As technology, science and culture change — sometimes quite rapidly — there are fundamental ideas that change slowly: the logic behind computers and software, basic principles for managing computational resources and methods and principles for designing applications and user interfaces. These fundamental skills could last an entire career. There are also more timely issues, such as particular computer languages, applications, architectures, hardware and devices. We teach these timely topics but use them as a context to learn the fundamentals. We are preparing students not only for today’s technology, but also to adapt throughout their careers.

Q: How do you see the School of Computing evolving to continue addressing society’s growing dependence on data-related sciences?
The future of computer science research is going to be less about building new devices and more about people and data. What are the new ways in which computers can impact the lives of ordinary people? What new paradigms exist for how people think about and use computers? What new capabilities can computers offer through analyzing very large data sets? These questions will dominate computer science in the next decade. These questions will generate new skills and ways of thinking about computers, while increasing interaction with other disciplines — both in engineering and across campus to the medical school, social sciences and the arts.

Q: Looking down the road, what do you feel are the School of Computing’s greatest areas of opportunity?
The demand for our students is growing faster than ever, and we are structuring ourselves to accommodate this need. Our computing degree has new tracks in data management and analysis, as well as networking. Recently, we have hired top researchers in important and growing areas such as data visualization, scientific computing, big data analysis and networking.

Students from all disciplines are realizing that “computational thinking” is a general skill set, which enables them to take advantage of computational advances in their respective fields. We are positioning ourselves to address this widespread interest.