Booming CS Demand Brings Ex-Acquia CEO Back to His UW Roots

Tom Erickson was ready to retire to Australia. But then the Wisconsin native and veteran technology executive got an offer from his alma mater that he decided he couldn’t pass up.

This month, the University of Wisconsin-Madison named Erickson founding director of its School of Computer, Data & Information Sciences (CDIS). The school, part of the College of Letters & Science, will house the university’s most popular undergraduate major: computer science. It will be a hub that aims to raise UW-Madison’s stature and impact in the computing and data fields, while mining potentially useful intersections with disciplines such as biology and journalism. The new school is also trying to create a stronger entrepreneurial environment, boost its programs’ diversity, and form more partnerships with industry, Erickson says.

Whether Erickson and his colleagues succeed has implications for the business community in Madison and across the Badger State. Wisconsin’s flagship university is a magnet for bright researchers and students, and it’s one of the state’s most fertile suppliers of tech talent. But more resources will be required for UW-Madison to keep pace with the exploding appetite for computer and data science experts, not only at software companies, but in virtually every field, from healthcare to farming.

“We’ve underinvested,” Erickson says of the programs under the new school’s umbrella. Erickson (pictured above), the former CEO of Boston-based enterprise software firm Acquia, understands the situation well. Last year, he co-chaired a UW-Madison working group on computing that produced a report recommending the creation of a new school.

“We’re fully supported by the university,” Erickson continues. “It’s not that the underinvestment was intentional. [The growing demand is] just not something that could’ve been predicted.”

The university’s computer science program, which U.S. News & World Report ranks in the top 15 nationwide, has ballooned from around 500 undergraduate students several years ago to more than 1,560 undergrad computer science majors in 2018, Erickson says.

Last year, nearly 2,700 undergrads and grad students were pursuing degrees offered by the departments of computer science and statistics, and the Information School, which are all part of the new CDIS school. That number could easily tip over 3,000 in the next couple years, Erickson says.

The problem is UW-Madison currently isn’t well-equipped to handle all that interest. Its computer science building is the oldest among the top programs nationwide, Erickson claims—it was around back when he roamed campus as an electrical and computer engineering student in the late 1970s, he says. And the university must hire more faculty to meet current demand and achieve plans to expand the school’s degree offerings. That includes proposals for a data science undergrad program and a master’s in information studies, according to a university press release.

Erickson, who lived in Boston for much of his adult life, says many universities around the country have started to limit the number of slots available in their computer science programs. UW-Madison does that in some disciplines, including engineering and business, he says. But his school is “trying our damnedest” not to put a cap on the number of students that major in its programs, he adds.

One of Erickson’s priorities will be fundraising for a new building to house the school. He declined to give an exact funding target, but says the center will likely cost more than $100 million. In addition to classrooms, Erickson wants it to house the American Family Insurance Data Science Institute that launched on campus earlier this year, as well as collaboration spaces for the school’s students and faculty and the people they’re working with from departments across campus.

Former Acquia CEO Tom Erickson (left) with Acquia co-founder and chief technology officer Dries Buytaert. Photo courtesy of Acquia.

After graduating from UW-Madison in 1980, Erickson worked at around 10 software companies worldwide, including two stints in Australia, he says. Most recently, he was living in the Boston area, where he led Acquia for about eight years, until the end of 2017 when Michael Sullivan took the helm. Acquia sells products and services built on top of Drupal, an open-source web publishing system created in the early 2000s by Acquia co-founder and chief technology officer Dries Buytaert. Erickson helped to grow the firm to more than $150 million in annual revenue and more than 800 employees. He has also invested in startups and served on the boards of companies including TaskRabbit, Localytics, and VoltDB, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Erickson’s new position brings him back to Madison. He wants to use his tech and business expertise to help the university boost its collaborations with the business community and “build a stronger entrepreneurial ecosystem,” he says. He says those efforts will involve studying what has worked for universities located not only on the coasts, but also in cities in middle America such as Chicago, Indianapolis, and Pittsburgh.

Erickson emphasized he wants to partner with leaders located in other parts of the state, particularly Milwaukee, to try and solve issues such as “brain drain”—the departure of highly educated people to other locales. For various reasons, there historically has been a lack of collaboration between Wisconsin’s two largest cities, despite … Next Page »

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Jeff Bauter Engel is Deputy Editor, Tech at Xconomy. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @JeffEngelXcon

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