Don Winsor: Leading IT support in EECS
Tell us about your role.
I lead the IT support team for the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. We are the largest department in the College of Engineering, and because of all the research involving computers and electronics, we have one of the most complicated IT environments. My team’s biggest impact is in maximizing the productivity of the whole EECS community. We like to operate as a rapid response team, so that researchers can quickly pursue new ideas without bureaucratic approval processes or funding obstacles.
How did you get into this type of work?
I’ve always enjoyed working with electronics and with computers, and also with teaching and helping others. My progress in graduate school was rather slow, and funding was not always consistent, and there was a position opening with IT work that was very interesting to me, so I went for it.
I grew up in New Jersey, along one of the commuter rail lines into New York City. The University of Michigan was my first choice for college, and I received BSE dual degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Engineering. I then stayed on for MSE and PhD degrees, also in Electrical Engineering, and I have worked for the EECS department continuously since my last year of graduate school.
In ancient times I worked as an electronics technician at the U-M automotive lab and at the main U-M computing center (back in the days of mainframe computers). Since the end of 1987 I’ve worked in the IT services group for the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department, and I’ve been the leader of that group since the early 1990s.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Every day brings new projects and new challenges, and I never get bored with my job. I really enjoy it when we can help a researcher get past a difficult technical challenge. Since I work closely with a lot of faculty and grad student researchers, almost everything I can do is a special one of a kind project, and many of these projects push the limits of technology. It is rare that a week goes by without needing to think about a creative solution to a new problem.
What drives you?
Overall, life has mostly been pretty good to me. I grew up in a great family, I had great educational opportunities, and I’ve enjoyed a third of a century working on a great team with great people. I feel some obligation to give back, to try to leave the world at least a slightly better place. Earlier in my life I was especially motivated by technical successes, and in more recent years I’ve shifted some to focusing more on team building, teaching and mentoring others, and working to promote social justice.
Describe the culture you try to create on your team.
The most important aspect is a culture of teamwork; we support each other on everything we do. If one member of the team is struggling with something, others are strongly encouraged to join in and help. We cover for each other when illnesses or family emergencies arise. Everyone is strongly encouraged to speak up with feedback, both positive and negative. I am especially appreciative of members of my team who tell me when I’m goofing up on something; this has saved me many times.
What leadership lesson would you offer to others that they could ascribe to their journey?
Listen more and talk less. If there is someone you are having an especially difficult time with, invest some time in listening to them and understanding their perspective and their concerns. In the best case, you might resolve the underlying issue, and in the worst case, at least you will have better information to proceed with.
What is something others would be surprised to learn about you?
Although I don’t have any pets I greatly enjoy learning about and watching wildlife. I find beavers, “nature’s civil engineers,” especially fascinating, and I’ve had an interest in moose ever since watching far too much Bullwinkle and Rocky as a kid.
What do you do in your down time or what do you do for fun?
I have enjoyed taking on all kinds of volunteer jobs. I helped to coach the Saline High School Science Olympiad team for about a decade. I’ve been a leader of the local amateur radio club for the past seven years. Lately I’ve been volunteering a lot more at my church, mostly on social justice projects including Black and Indigenous rights, women’s rights, and LGBTQIA+ rights. I’m expecting to work more with them this year on civic engagement and voter registration.
What else would you like to share with us?
I have the pleasure of being witness to much history at U-M. I taught EECS 370. This was a fun class because students would build a simple computer from the ground up. They learned so much by getting hands-on experience. I was in the second to last class that used punched cards at Michigan Engineering.