10 Questions for 2016 IEEE President Barry Shoop

He discusses the new strategic plan and what it takes to be a leader

11 January 2016

As we kick off the year, The Institute caught up with IEEE’s highest-ranking volunteer: 2016 President Barry Shoop. He is the head of the electrical engineering and computer science department at West Point, the U.S. Military Academy.

Shoop joined West Point in 1993 and has held a number of leadership positions there, including director of its Photonics Research Center. While on sabbatical in 2006 and 2007, he served as chief scientist for the U.S. Department of Defense Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, a US $4.5 billion organization addressing the IED problem worldwide.

As an IEEE volunteer, Shoop served on the IEEE Board of Directors from 2006 to 2010. He was 2010 vice president of IEEE Member and Geographic Activities (MGA), IEEE secretary in 2008 and 2009, and Region 1 director in 2006 and 2007. As leader of IEEE’s Enterprise Engineering team in 2006 and 2007, he led the transformation of the IEEE Regional Activities Board, which is now the MGA Board.

Here, Shoop recalls why he became an engineer, discusses his goals for IEEE, and revisits a technology prediction he made some 30 years ago that did not come true.

As a teenager you wanted to be an auto mechanic until your father persuaded you to study electronics. What did he say that made you change your mind?

I was raised in the era of muscle cars. I loved automobiles. In the eighth grade the guidance counselors talked about the opportunity to go to vocational technical school—a trade school instead of a traditional high school—that had programs in auto body repair and auto mechanics. At dinner one evening I told my parents that I wanted to sign up for one of these programs. My father was a truck driver all his life who had dropped out of school in the fifth grade. But he was wise well beyond his years. He told me the area of electronics was taking off and was something I should consider instead.

I went to school the next day and signed up for the electronics program. I reflect back on that day and think what great advice my dad gave me and, as an eighth-grader, how astounding it was that I took it. As a father now myself, it amazes me that I actually listened to my dad. I am thankful every day that I did.

It was at Pennsylvania State University where you fell in love with electrical engineering. What were you like as a college student? And what was it about electrical engineering that captured your interest?

I’d prefer not to say what I was like as a college student. People described me as being much too serious. I was geeky, I didn’t party, and I was very focused. I personally think I was just very mature for my age. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

At Penn State, I fell in love with electrical engineering and the ability to go from an idea to a prototype that you can put your hands on. Moving from a concept to a workable product fascinated me and was incredibly rewarding.

As a professor and a department head, what would you say are the most important skills students must have to succeed in engineering today, and how can they acquire them?

At West Point, we have a broad core curriculum and nationally ranked majors. We educate our students to be what has recently been termed “T-shaped” individuals. The horizontal portion of the T represents breadth of knowledge and experience. For this we require our students to take courses beyond engineering, such as history, philosophy, psychology, and foreign languages, and focus on developing skills like written and oral communications, teamwork, critical thinking, and innovation. The vertical portion of the T represents depth, which is the student’s major.

When I went to Penn State there weren’t many requirements that fell in the horizontal line. The challenge is that engineering is a profession that is not an individual sport but a team sport. The stereotype of the lone engineer sitting in a dimly lit room is not how engineers work. Today’s engineers work in interdisciplinary and multicultural teams, which are becoming more common and will be even more important in the future.

While I don’t want to diminish the importance of the disciplinary depth needed to become successful, today’s students and young professionals must also be effective communicators. They must be able to take an idea and explain it to their teams, both orally and in writing. Other skills, such as being innovative and entrepreneurial as well as understanding the impact of your work on society, are also becoming more important.

To get these skills, students can take additional courses at their universities. IEEE also offers many resources to help, including continuing education courses, networking events, and leadership opportunities at student branches. These all provide an environment to practice communication and entrepreneurial skills without being graded.

The Institute wrote about IEEE’s efforts in fostering startups in our September issue. As president, how do you plan to help those who want to start or grow their ventures?

Providing a home for entrepreneurs and those who want to be entrepreneurs is an important role for IEEE. We must establish a community for these members to get together with those with successful startup ventures and learn from them. IEEE has begun to do that, and I will help continue to strengthen these efforts.

As president-elect, you were active in charting a course for the organization’s future, referred to as “IEEE of 2030.” Now as president, what are some of the first items you will focus on?

This was a very different approach from most strategic planning efforts I’ve been engaged with. Most of the time I’ve dealt with five-year plans—which makes sense for technology but less so for an organization and how it wants to be positioned. To best take advantage of the future, looking out to 2030 was brilliant.

While we don’t know what the technology space is going to look like by then, we do understand IEEE as a professional organization, how it currently supports professionals and the public, and how we can position it to do so in the future. One item in the plan deals with governance, or the structure that defines the organization’s culture. If people are frustrated with the bureaucracy, the organization is less likely to be innovative and creative. Another area is to position the organization so that it can support technical communities, whatever form they may be at that time.

My commitment is to continue to move IEEE forward, positioning it for future success.

In your position statement as IEEE president-elect, you quote ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky: “Skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” Explain how you plan to apply this strategy as president.

The quote is about anticipating and moving to the future; not waiting to catch up to it. If you want to be an innovator and leader, you have to be willing to experiment and accept a certain amount of risk. This goes back to my earlier point about developing both an organizational structure and culture that encourages innovation.

I want to move IEEE into the future. In addition to the 2030 efforts, I put changes in place in 2015 for the organization to improve its long-range research and development through its New Initiatives Committee, and I’ll also work with a new ad hoc committee focused on disruptive innovation. My intent is to bring in forward-thinking technologists such as IEEE Fellow Bernard S. Meyerson, IBM’s chief innovation officer, and IEEE Member Brian David Johnson, Intel’s futurist. I’m inviting people who can think outside the box but at the same time understand our organization. I am committed to setting the conditions so that IEEE can succeed in the future.

Your position statement also expressed the need for IEEE to grow globally, including expanding in Asia and Africa. How do you plan to grow the organization’s presence in those regions?

IEEE will likely open a second office this year in China because of the growth in the country and to be closer to Shenzhen, China’s Silicon Valley, and better support engineers in that area.

In Africa, I believe we’re starting to make progress because we realize it’s not just about humanitarian efforts and philanthropy, but it’s also about business opportunities and partnerships. We have a number of sections across Africa’s 54 countries, but there are issues we have to address to make them stronger, including a better way for members to pay dues. Few people use credit cards in Africa, and if they do have one, the transaction fee is almost as much as IEEE’s membership dues. We need to fix such issues if we’re to increase the size of the IEEE community in Africa.

As someone who is passionate about humanitarian work, what would you say is the biggest issue of our time, and how can technology be used to solve it? How can IEEE help?

What I have seen done in the past, which is not the right model, is to take a solution that may work in the United States and assume it’s going to work in a developing nation.

Even though we’re a high-tech organization, sometimes we have to go back to basics by providing technologies that people can understand and maintain by themselves. One example of this is IEEE Smart Village, in which IEEE members are training local entrepreneurs in Cameroon, Nigeria, and Sudan to set up micro-utilities using solar panels to power homes, businesses, and schools.

One of The Institute’s most popular blog posts is “Five Famously Wrong Predictions About Technology,” which includes a 1977 statement by Ken Olsen: “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Did you ever make a prediction about technology that didn’t come true?

I was around at the beginning of the Internet and, when I first learned about it, I thought it was a passing fad. I never believed it would amount to anything. I was clearly way off—my prediction certainly did not come true. I just didn’t see the convergence of all the technologies that make it what it is today.

But, I don't feel so bad about missing the mark on the Internet. Tom Watson, who was the head of IBM, once famously said that he didn’t think there was a world market for more than maybe five or so computers. Over a decade ago, Bill Gates swore that we wouldn't have to deal with spam e-mails anymore, yet my in-box continues to prove him wrong. I think that puts me in some pretty good company.

Of all your accomplishments, which would you say has been the most meaningful to you?

I get the most personal satisfaction when I contribute to an organization’s or an individual’s success. Leadership is about setting conditions so that others can succeed. I’ve done that in the military, as an educator, and as a volunteer with IEEE. What makes me tick and makes me happy is taking large, complex organizations and helping them set their courses and ultimately succeed. Nothing is more rewarding for me than to have someone say they’ve accomplished their goals because of the conditions that I helped set.

Within IEEE, I was the architect of the Regional Geographic Strategy and the Metropolitan Area Workshop. The former leverages unique circumstances and commonality of a local geographic region to improve membership value and drive recruitment and retention, while the latter focuses on technology professionals to provide professional education, certification, career assistance, and professional networking to support technical and professional needs. Both programs continue to better serve IEEE members and engineering professionals.

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