William B. Phillips

For his outstanding accomplishments as a successful inventor and executive in the computer memory industry, the Schools of Engineering are proud to present the Distinguished Engineering Alumnus Award to William B. Phillips.

Vice President, Technology Operations
Storage Technology Corporation
PhD '66


On pursuing a doctoral degree

When I graduated with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois, I hung up my slide rule and said, "That's enough of that. Let's go have some fun and make some money." When I joined IBM, though, I realized how competitive things were in industry and decided to go to graduate school. I won a competitive doctoral fellowship from IBM to attend Purdue.

Because of my fellowship, I was on full pay as an IBM engineer, but I also had a wife and two small kids on campus, and our housing didn't have great study facilities. To get some office space, I went to the dean and said, "Can I get on staff? I'll take any job you have and work for free." So I became a teaching assistant.

The early '60s were a student-activist time, but you really couldn't see it at Purdue. The schools that put up high standards in terms of achievement and requirements didn't have much student unrest, although we had our share of high jinks. The strongest memory from that time was of standing in the electrical engineering office on November 22, 1963, and hearing over the radio that the president had been shot. We stood there completely shocked, listening to the early reports of the assassination.

During my time at Purdue I learned what distinguished the achiever from the nonachiever: commitment. Two thirds of the people who didn't finish their Ph.D.'s never got a piece of paper out and began writing the thesis-they were missing that "do it" mindset. That was a valuable lesson. To me a Ph.D. is evidence not only of intellect, but it says, "This person can get a job done."

On the computer industry

Working with computers is a never-ending challenge. The computer industry has grown for 30 years without check, and it never ceases to amaze and delight me.

In my doctoral thesis I worked on a control for a moon-orbiting spacecraft, with all the control to be done by a computer on the ground. I speculated that in the future the computer could be put on board. My committee members began asking, "What is it on the spacecraft you're controlling? A half-dozen thrusters and motors that cost a few thousand dollars each? And what about the cost and weight of the computer on the ground?" It was inconceivable in 1966 that, in time, a $3 million, two-ton computer could shrink enough in size, weight, and cost to become a practical component of a spacecraft.

On engineering education

The industry that an engineer goes into will personalize the basic education a great university offers. The role of undergraduate education is to give the basic blocking and tackling of engineering, the "three R's" of engineering that will stand the test of time throughout a career.

There have been changes that the university needs to understand in terms of filling engineers' toolkits for when they go out into the world, though. Today's engineers will rarely design circuits-they'll deal with tools that will help them beyond belief to do basic design. They will be immersed in a world where an incredibly powerful microprocessor that costs only a few cents to put on a board will have to be programmed to deal with the environment. Forty percent of the work done by electrical engineers now is done in some form of software. Engineers need to understand the fundamentals of good software design, and universities need to realize that it's a core subject.

On community and accomplishments

I've been on the YMCA board, done fund-raising for the Boy Scouts, sat on the board of the Colorado Music Festival, and chaired the IBM Development Lab's United Way campaign. I've been on advisory boards for engineering at Colorado State and the University of Colorado, and on Carnegie Mellon's board for its Digital Storage Systems Center. Most recently I've been on the board of the National Storage Institute Consortium. I've been in a payback mode since I was in my early thirties, because I was blessed with a lot of opportunities.

Receiving the Distinguished Engineering Alumnus Award from Purdue is certainly a highlight of my life. You know, when you're around the age of 35, you start thinking about what you've accomplished. What's going to live on after you become dust? Obviously your children will. Few of the things you do in your career will, though. Of all the institutions that existed a thousand years ago, only 60 or so are still around today-primarily universities and churches, and one government. So if you say that churches, a few governments, and universities are the longest-lasting things in our society, then to be recognized by a university makes you immortal, in a way.

1991:
Vice president, technology operations, Storage Technology Corp.
1989:
Vice president, information storage engineering.
1987:
Joined Storage Technology Corp. as vice president, advanced technology.
1986:
Adjunct professor of business and engineering, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.
1984:
Vice president and general manager of Brown Disc Mfg., first manufacturer in U.S. to produce 31/2-inch floppy disk and high-density 51/4-inch floppy disk.
1978:
IBM division president's award for thin film head wear solution.
1978:
Magnetic media program manager, IBM. Developed new media products including the IBM 3480 data cart ridge.
1977:
Technical assistant to division president, IBM.
1973:
U.S. patent for process controlling web tension and speed in a reel-to-reel web transport.
1969:
Senior engineering manager, IBM.
1966:
Project manager, IBM, Boulder, Colorado.
1962:
IBM Ph.D. fellowship, Purdue.
1962:
U.S. patent for high-capacity, fast-access storage system.
1957:
Staff engineer, IBM.

BSEE '57, University of Illinois; PhD '66, Purdue.