UNT computer science: 45 years of changing lives and technology

Monday, April 17, 2017 - 19:19
Computer Science Alum Willie Barber
Computer Science Alum Willie Barber

For decades, the University of North Texas has helped lead the way in computer science. UNT’s program is one of the oldest in the nation, turning 45 this year. To commemorate that anniversary, the College of Engineering will host a dinner reception at Apogee Stadium on April 28 (Friday) starting at 6 p.m. Tickets to the event cost $10. That evening, current students and returning alumni will be celebrated. Alumni like Willie Barber, Greg Thurman and Tyseanah Spell, who together, tell the enduring story of UNT’s computer science program.

In 1977 Apple Computers released the first personal computer with color graphics, the first modem for home users hit stores and Willie Barber graduated from the University of North Texas with a master’s degree in Computer Science. He was part of the very first class to graduate from that program.

“It took me 10 years to get my master’s degree,” said Barber. “I was just so excited to have finally achieved that goal. At the time, I didn’t realize I was one of the first. We were pioneers.”

From the time he was a small child, Barber decided he was going to get his master’s degree. Both of his parents only had an eighth grade education and he wanted to make them proud. He earned an undergraduate degree in mathematics in 1967 and was going to graduate school when he was drafted at the height of the Vietnam War.

“I was close to that degree, but Uncle Sam said it was time to go,” he said. 

 Thanks to a summer spent working with computers, Barber was assigned a position as a programmer for the Army in Germany.

“I spent two years in the service. I had a good military occupation. I was a computer programmer, working in the office of the Deputy Chief of Staff,” Barber said. “I feel I was fortunate that both my brother and I served during Vietnam and both of us came home.”

 He used his experience from the Army to continue working as a programmer, landing a job at Mobil Oil Corporation in Dallas.

“I was on my way, but I realized I had not completed a master’s degree,” said Barber. “It was an unfinished personal achievement that haunted me every day.”

With a family to support, Barber and his friend Roy Rogers, another programmer at Mobil, decided to try out a new program at what was then called North Texas State.

 “Roy and I decided to try out this new computer science program. We commuted from work to Denton daily. Sometimes we were even in the computer lab all night.”

While his friendship with Rogers grew, the newness of the school lead to several other friendships and even a close relationship with his professor.

“Everyone was so friendly,” said Barber. “Dr. Denis Conrady especially, he was one of the kindest gentlemen I ever met. He invited me to his house to talk about my thesis while we sat in his backyard by his pool. It was an ideal time to be a student. It is really amazing to know that we were the first students in this program.”

After graduation, Barber saw his career flourish. He worked for numerous companies along the way and was part of an industry that was always evolving.

“Computer science changes so fast and you have to be flexible and change with it,” said Barber. “When I started, we were working with card punches and binary fields.  Now, one tiny chip can hold a massive amount of memory. We were the forerunners of it all.”

At 72 years old, he is still working in the computer industry, currently as a IT Specialist for the Internal Revenue Service. Barber is also a father of four, a grandfather to seven and has been married to fellow UNT alum Mary Barber for 47 years.

“What a deal to happen to me,” said Barber. “I had no idea that this is the life I would get to lead. It all just happened and I’m so very happy. I’m proud to be able to be part of a great school in a great country that has afforded me so many opportunities.”

More than 20 years after Barber graduated from UNT, Greg Thurman got his bachelor’s degree in computer science. By 1998, computers were common in homes but a new technology was emerging.

“The internet wasn’t really around when I graduated,” said Thurman. “Netscape came out right at the end of my education. I remember a point when I didn’t know what the internet was. Someone opened it up and showed me. I was like, ‘wow!’”

It’s that kind of excitement for new technology that made Thurman love computer science. However, when he first got to UNT, he had no idea that would be his path.

“I was undeclared for my first two years,” he said. “I was planning to go to law school, but I was also interested in engineering. One day I was talking to a computer science major and he recommended taking the 101 class, after that I was hooked! I absolutely loved every aspect of it.”

While he loved it, college wasn’t always easy, yet he says he still had a good time even when it was difficult.

“I had a lot of good teachers,” said Thurman. “Don Retzlaff, a retired lecturer, was one of the best. A lot of the coursework is very difficult so you can’t equate it as fun, but he could actually make it fun. I ran into him at Apogee Stadium recently and told him how much impact he made on my life. He stopped me and ran and got his wife so I could tell her. It was so funny!”

After getting his degree, Thurman spent 10 years as a developer/programmer. Now he’s the director of Clinical Information Systems for Sonic Healthcare USA. While he’s in more of a leadership role than hands-on work these days, he says he still has to keep up with the technology.

“As for computer science, the fundamentals are always the same, but what changes is the framework and additions to the technology,” said Thurman. “It’s an ever evolving thing. Today we focus more on user experience, we also mine a lot more data, we do more intelligent business and figure out how to let computers help us do things in more effective and efficient ways.”

 Not only is Thurman keeping up with the ever-changing world of computer science, he’s making sure he can help the next generation.

“The thing about my profession is that it is rapidly changing,” he said. “The things I learned in college were in a lot of ways theoretical. I serve on a UNT advisory board to help keep them knowing what the industry is using. It’s changing just so much.”

What has never changed is Thurman’s love for computer science.

“I feel so grateful that I’ve been able to be in computer science for 20 years and that’s what my degree is in,” he said. “I’m so blessed. If I retired today, I would feel like I accomplished everything I wanted. UNT played a big part in that.”

By 2016, UNT was seeing a generation of students who didn’t know a world before computers, tablets had taken over and social media had become part of everyday life. That was the year Tyseanah Spell graduated with her computer science degree.

“I honestly don’t even remember the first computer we got,” said Spell. “I think we had one in my house my entire life. Now I do remember my first social media account. It was Myspace and I had to lie about my age because I was too young to get one.”

While computers have always been a part of Spell’s life, it wasn’t until her senior year in high school that she realized she wanted to make a career out working with them.

“I wanted to know why the computer was showing me what it was showing me,” said Spell. “I wanted to know the reasoning behind how everything worked, so I had to go into it.”

Spell was in the top 15 percent of her graduating class at West Side High School in Houston in 2012 and was automatically admitted to UNT. She says she always found school fairly easy, but one particular professor challenged her like no one ever had.

“Dr. Robin Pottathuparambil was the only person in my entire life to give me a C,” said Spell. “I had to take a different class with him and redeem myself. With Dr. Robin I had to really study, I couldn’t just memorize. He pushed me to actually learn, to work harder.”

That hard work paid off. While attending a College of Engineering career fair, she got not one but two job offers before she had even graduated with her undergraduate degree. She decided to accept a position with L3 Technologies in Rockwall.

“I’m really using my degree in this job. I’m a software engineer and UNT gave me the background I needed,” said Spell. “At L3, we modernize planes, and I help with updating them with the latest technology. Our biggest customer is the U.S. government, the military in particular. I work a lot with coding, always trying to make it better and keep advancing what’s out there. I’m still learning on the job, but I know I’m in the right place.”

It’s not just the work that Spell says students should keep advancing, she worked hard to advance herself. While at UNT, she found joining organizations helped her broaden her horizons and make friends.

“I learned so much in class,” said Spell. “But in those organizations I learned about leadership and resumes and really life lessons.”

Spell was part of the Society of Black Engineers, the Society of Women Engineers and the NAACP. She was also a student tutor, helping others who struggled with math, physics and, of course, computer science. While Spell is part of the latest generation of computer scientists, there are many more to come and she has advice for them.

 “Keep a list of goals,” said Spell. “Always keep them around, update them and mark them off as you go. Remind yourself of where you are going and the goals you want to achieve.”

UNT News Service
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