The art of gadget design
By Gerard O'Brien of the Montana Standard
‘Tech has great connections with companies that are loyal to Tech, such as Micron. Recruiting fairs always draw big companies.'
Living in a remote Alaskan village on the Yukon River, Steve Marmon became a jack-of-all-trades when it came to keeping computers running.
"We had three teachers in our high school and about ten for kindergarten through eighth grade," he said recently. "There was no additional staff to maintain the computer lab. So I began fooling around with it in my spare time, maintaining the network and keeping everything running. That really ignited my passion for computers, and led to me pursue a degree in computer science."
From the town of Emmonak, Alaska, population 831, Marmon moved with his parents to finish up his last two years of high school in Wolf Point, Mont., a town of about 1,200.
Now he's had fruitful internships at Apple Inc., Caterpillar and Micron Technologies under his belt and is smack dab in the middle of the Silicon Valley at Stanford University. There he works as a teaching assistant while he obtains a master's degree in Human- Computer Interaction.
"My experiences showed me that most people get frustrated with computers because they are simply too complicated. People start battling the complexity and become overwhelmed. My passion became finding a way to make computing an easier experience."
Q. Why did you choose Montana Tech over other schools?
A. Their computer science program was the best fit for me in Montana; there's a great student-toteacher ratio and they have very competitive scholarships to cover the costs. I was largely looking at colleges in Montana. Since I knew I wanted to go into computer science, I looked at the U.S. News and World report rankings of colleges. I talked with the professors and got a feel for the aptitude of the school. I especially liked the very small class sizes. Most people have a negative view of small classes because they think they must be unpopular. It's just the opposite. Small classes are often the most popular of all, but are just hard to get into. They also afford a much better learning experience. I've TA'd big classes and I can tell you that people get much less out of a large lecture hall.
At Tech, classes were five to 10 students. The whole computer sciences student body is about 50 students.
Also, lets you specialize in particular areas of computer science, such as communication. You have a lot of leeway in choosing your focus, be it in design, engineering, business, or something else. I studied the interplay between computer science, psychology, and communication.
Q. What is your proudest moment in your career?
A. Being accepted to Stanford University for graduate school, thanks to my stellar undergraduate program at Montana Tech. Tech really gives you the tools to go wherever you want to go. You come out with a really solid foundation and a great skill set for either going into industry or pursuing graduate school. It is especially good for motivated students who have a passion for a particular area of study.
One project I'm particularly proud of at Tech was one I worked on with Mike Stickney of the Earthquake Studies Office. The focus of the project was to simplify the way the earthquakes are detected. Their old system involved shuffling data between multiple computers on floppy disks and analyzing it using old DOS software. I built a much simpler one-computer system so that Mike can spend less time doing analysis and more time doing interesting research.
Q. What goals did you accomplish or project of which you are that you are most?
A. One project that I am especially proud of is one I worked on during my internship at Caterpillar. I designed an internal product called the Caterpillar Safety Stoplight system, which is a computer-based safety monitoring and notification system. It was so successful at reducing injuries at Caterpillar that it has since been sold to another company so that it can become a commercial product.
At the beginning of this project, we were charged with reducing work-related accidents by 50 percent. We noticed that many spots in the factories used traffic lights to indicate when it was safe to use machinery to enter a particular area.
Since people were so used to looking at these lights, we decided to build some of our own, but with computer screens attached. Whenever there was an accident or a near miss somewhere in the building—no matter how small—our safety stoplights would change color and show a message describing what just happened.
We built 14 of these safety stoplights, and ran a pilot test for two months. People instantly started flocking to the screens when they saw the stoplight change due to an accident. In that time, we saw accidents drop 47 percent. After that, Caterpillar ordered 1000 more and awarded our intern team the Safety Project of the Year award.
Q. Tell us about some memorable college experience.
A. Becoming layout manager and then editor of The Technocrat (Montana Tech's student newspaper). This helped me develop my visual design skills, which has proved enormously useful in my work as a humancomputer interaction designer.
I joined the Technocrat mainly to get experience in design and fell in love with print. I became very passionate about improving the quality and readability of the paper. At the same time, I was also taking 18 to 21 credits per semester. Consequently, I worked on the Technocrat from Friday night to Sunday morning. I really didn't have much of a social life then. But it was all worth it when we saw papers flying off the stacks the morning it was released.
I was also president of the local Associate for Computing Machinery (ACM) chapter at the time, which also contributed to the obliteration of my social life. In hindsight, I would encourage people to participate in the clubs and activities at Tech, but keep a balance in their social lives.
Q. Who is a favorite hero to you, mentor, public, private and why?
A. Jonathan Ive, the VP of Industrial Design at Apple. I admire him not only because he is one of the great designers of our time, but because he firmly believes that well-designed products can truly make a difference in people's lives. He remembers that people, not technology, are what really matters in today's gadget-ridden world. Apple embraces both design and engineering; they believe they are producing art. That is the culture that really works well for me.
Q. How did Tech serve you in your past, current or even potential, future jobs? Give us some examples.
A. It was through Tech that I was able to get my first two internships, at Micron Technology and EchoStar Communications. And, of course, the knowledge and skills that I gained there have proved invaluable in subsequent internships and at grad school.
For a small school, Tech has surprisingly good connections with companies, both locally and nationally. Many are very loyal to the school, and will pick Tech students as their top choices for positions.
One important thing for me was that, in order to attend Stanford, I needed to be proficient in nine key areas of computer science. Most incoming grad students are only proficient in about twothirds of those, and must take extra classes to catch up. My one-on-one education at Tech covered all of those areas. This put me ahead of the game from day one in grad school.
Q. What advice would you give high school students who are considering entering college?
A. Go to college. Spend time to find the school that is right for you—regardless of where it is located. You can figure out how to pay for it later. Once you are there, take lots of classes, including ones that have nothing to do with your area of study. You will be surprised at what you find. And do stuff outside of school. Join clubs, teams, societies, or whatever else suits your fancy. The connections you make there will be as valuable as the skills you learn in class. And take lots of pictures. Your four years will be done before you know it.
About Steve Marmon
Location: 3863 Alameda de las Pulgas, Menlo Park, Calif., 94025
Current employment: I presently attend Stanford University where I am getting my master's degree in computer science. I work as a teaching assistant in the Human-Computer Interaction program and at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design.
Brief history: Interned at Micron Technology — Summer 2005; EchoStar Communications (e.g., DISH Network) Summer 2006; Caterpillar Electronics Spring/Summer 2007; Apple, Inc., — Summer 2008
Attended Tech: 2002 to 2006
Degrees earned: B.S. in Computer Science; B.S. in Software Engineering; Minor in Mathematics; Minor in Professional and Technical Communications.