Our Department isn't defined by the physical space we occupy on the campus of UCSD - it is defined, rather, by the remarkable individuals who make up our community. The lifeblood of any community is its people, and this is especially true of a community that relies on ideas and innovations. In recognition of this, the Department of Cognitive Science at UCSD presents our new "Alumnus/Alumna of the Month" feature.
The goal of the Alumnus of the Month program is to celebrate some of our outstanding Alumni, while giving all students - past, present, and future - an opportunity to meet some of our graduates, and to see some of the amazing things that people from our community have accomplished - in the field of Cognitive Science and beyond.
The hope is that it will both put a more 'human' face on Cognitive Science, as well as be a testimony to the wide range of interesting things that one can do with a Cognitive Science background. In addition, of course, it's a means for CogSci alumni to see what other alumni are up to.
Mike Monaco is the Vice President of Integrated Solutions at Ascendant Technology, in Austin, Texas. He has been active in the distributed computing industry for 15 years, and in the course of his career has worked at companies such as Sun Microsystems, BEA Systems, and IBM. Mike graduated with a degree in Cognitive Science in 1994, taking advantage of the interdisciplinary nature of the department to explore both neuroscience and computation. In his spare time, he enjoys spending time with his son and daughter, and is an avid fisherman.
When you were at UCSD, how did you decide to major in Cognitive Science?
I kind of stumbled across it by accident. At the time, it was a fairly new department within the school, and I actually came into UCSD as an Applied Math major. I went through all the pre-reqs for the applied math discipline, and found out that it’s probably the most boring subject you come across. I kind of like applying skills — applied math sounded good at the time because it’s applying mathematics to solve real-world problems, but it turns out that it’s incredibly theoretical. And I really liked computer science at the time, so I was contemplating going into computer science, as well as pre-med. I was really interested in doing neurobiology. One of my friends, a guy by the name of Sam Ramji, found out about Cognitive Science, and to me it was a prefect blend of my passions. I really like working with computers, as well as neuroscience. Combine the two to actually solve real-world problems — it was kind of a no-brainer. And so I got into the program fairly early (I know that a lot of the curriculum was still being developed at that time) and I had a really good time with it.
So once you had found Cognitive Science, what experiences did you find particularly interesting or enjoyable?
You know, it was actually just collaborating with other people. Especially the professors. They were running experiments, and I was constantly participating in some of their work. Folks like John Batali and David Zipser. Everyone was contributing to some pretty cutting-edge research at that time. It was really interesting being a part of those projects and actually helping to contribute. And also the people that were part of the program weere some of the brightest people that I’ve ever come across. It was an interesting blend because, at the time, there were almost two separate tracks. There were the folks that really liked the neuroscience aspect of it, and were doing neurobiology and so forth, and then there’s the computer folks that were going into hard-core computer science programming. And having that blend of different types of people that you interact with on a daily basis provided a lot of variety.
Would you have placed yourself in the middle of those two tracks?
Yes. In fact it was kind of rare. There were a few of us that straddled both lines, and I was definitely one that was in both camps.
Once you graduated from UCSD, what was your career path to where you are now?
It was long and sordid! I initially left the CogSci program, and went to work for a company by the name of Sun Microsystems. They’re a pretty big computer company, building distributed computing platforms. I was actually recruited into there. At the time if you graduated with a CogSci degree, there were somewhat limited options. The gaming industry was starting to pick up, so you could go build AI engines for some of the video game platforms. On the flip side of it was defense and military, and you need a government clearance to actually get into that. I was unqualified for both of those options, and so I decided to go the systems route. My first job was at Sun Micro, and I was responsible for building out some of the environments for their network computing platforms. And then over time, I just kind of fell in love with some of their high-end distributed platforms. So I became a systems engineer, and worked my way through the systems track. I was building out those platforms for various customers.
After Sun Microsystems, I got interested in the application layer, trying to answer the question, “How do companies take advantage of these platforms?” So I went to work for BEA Systems. I was a director of technical solutions there, and built out architecture patterns for how some of the new application frameworks, such as portal frameworks and integration frameworks, could take advantage of distributed computing. And then there were a couple of detours along the way, but I ended up at IBM. At IBM, I was a product manager for a product that the called “Webify” which is basically a platform for building composite business applications. Think of web services, SOA [Service-Oriented Architecture] based technologies, and being able to build applications off of that infrastructure. That’s what that particular product was geared for. A lot of cutting edge companies, especially in insurance and banking industries, are starting to move to the point where they’re actually assembling applications rather than buildingapplications, leveraging SOA as a foundation. And then I got tired of interational travel — there’s a lot of it at IBM — and decided to join a local boutique consulting firm,Ascendant Technology, which is where I am today. We’re about a 300 consultant company that specializes in IBM solutions. Kind of getting back to the idea of being able to apply solutions and technology as opposed to being more theoretical about products. So, I’m working with some very large customers. A lot of health care companies right now — the Blue Cross Blue Shields of the world — as well as companies ranging from Cisco to Harley Davidson. Basically, anyone that’s in the Fortune 500, we’re providing some level of support or building solutions for.
In your job as it is now, what does a typical day look like?
I run a division at Ascendant that is all the back-office solutions. So anything that falls under SOA or BPM [Business Process Management] integration falls under my business unit. Within my business unit, we have approximately 40 consultants, mostly senior architects, so on a daily basis I’m helping to drive sales and working with customers to figure out a particular solution. I also oversee the quality control on a lot of our larger products, making sure that we’re delivering solutions on time and on budget. And then everything else associated with the business: marketing, hiring people, recruiting in good talent, setting up training programs for our consultants. I do a lot in a day! It’s fairly random, but as you go up and become an executive these are type of things that you have to do to keep the business going.
So given that pretty interesting path you’ve taken, how would you say that your background in Cognitive Science has played a role?
Oh, it’s played an integral role. There’ve been clues along the way. When I first went to Sun Microsystems, I noticed that the whole company’s message was that the network is the computer. And, unless you actually come with background in Cognitive Science, you really wouldn’t get that. It’s more than the sum of the parts. And the path of going down and looking at distributed systems wasn’t a coincidence. It’s very similar to how a human brain works. You know, looking at my progression, and being able to understand the foundations of how distributed computing works, then looking at the fundamental intelligence that sits upon those distributed computing platforms — the applications, the decision support systems, autonomic computing — all these things basically are concepts that I learned through the cognitive science program. And so, it’s just evolving those concepts and applying them to digital systems as opposed to a brain.
When you were at UCSD, it sounds like you had this nice joint interest in both the neural side of things and the computational side of things, and then you’ve been able to take advantage of both of those sides in applying it to your jobs and understanding the concepts that you’ve been trying to work with.
Exactly. Especially looking at intelligent systems, it’s something that really is booming right now. If you look at some of the trends that are occuring in the energy sector, for instance, you see smart metering and being able to get on-demand capacity to a distribution center. It’s all basically heuristics. You can also look at some of the trends as far as preventative disease management in health care, and all of the analytics that go into it. It’s evolving to the point that a lot of our customers’ systems are becomming intelligent, and being able to do things autonomically. That’s also where the cognitive science background helps out, because if you just know systems design, you don’t really actually understand how the systems interact with one another in a distributed nature.
You certainly see a lot of things now, where to really understand it, you’re trying to understand the complexity of different systems interacting.
Yeah, it’s no longer just the domain of the gaming industry or missile defense systems. It’s pervasive throughout almost every sector that I provide consulting services for.
Can you remember any specific experiences you had when you were at UCSD that have been beneficial or played a role in things that you’re doing today?
I can’t think of something specific. It’s kind of like the voyage in college. It trains you not for specific, but for generalities. It allows you to apply disciplines, it allows you to apply constructive thought. And so, I think a lot of the mechanics of what I do today, and why I’m really good at what I do today, is just because I (quite honestly) got my butt kicked. You know, going through that department, I had to put in a lot of hours, do a lot of research, and it taught me a lot about discipline, it taught me how to work with people well. It kind of taught me how to think outside of the box in a lot of ways. I think that’s probably one of the biggest things, that because it was such a new discipline, there weren’t known answers to a lot of the questions. And so, you were constantly having to problem-solve as opposed to looking something up in a textbook. So I think a lot of those skill sets apply today.
Those are things that go beyond just understanding the brain and complexity.
Like running a neural network, right? You have no idea what the outcome is going to be the first time around. I remember — here’s one specific thing I remember — that I built a neural network to go over real estate data to actively forecast what the value of a home would be based on the home size, the number of bedrooms, the number of bathrooms, the area, how close it was to a particular school. All this data was cruched through, and the outcomes from that were very different than I thought. It turns out that when you jump from a two-bedroom to a three-bedroom, there’s a huge jump in price. Going from a three-bedroom to a four-bedroom, it’s once again a major multiplier. It turns out that being by a school is a negative, and I thought it would be a positive. So those types of outcomes, you can never really anticipate. So to go through and actually analyze the results, that was pretty interesting stuff.
Switching topics for a minute, what types of things do you enjoy doing outside of work, or when you’re not tied down by the job?
I have two kids that keep me really busy. I have a 9-year-old and a 7-year-old, a boy and a girl. Helping them out with school work, going to soccer games, doing the typical things. I am also an avid fisherman, both saltwater fishing, fly fishing, bass fishing. Anything with a hook and a fish I’m pretty much passionate about. And boating. Those are the areas that I typically spend most my time.
Given the nature of the technical consulting field, do you have any trouble balancing the demands of your job and what you want to do outside of your job?
Yeah, it’s always difficult, and it is a balancing act, especially when there is a lot of travel involved. Just this last year, I was consulting for Blue Cross Blue Shield in Massachusetts, and overseeing a fairly large project there, and I was gone probably a good six months out of the year. So having that and trying to balance family life is a little fun. You know, it’s always a challenge, but it’s kind of what you have to do to be successful in the industry. Now, when I was working at IBM, eventually it got to the point where I couldn’t keep that life balance in place. You know, I was travelling 75% of the time international. So I would go to Taiwan, to Singapore, to Hong Kong, then fly to London, to Munich, to Madrid, then back to Austin, and do that every week. It gets tiring pretty quickly. At a certain point, you just have to make the decision that it’s not quite worth the quality of life aspects, and you have to make your decisions based on what’s best at the time.
Finally, I’d like to ask if you have any advice for current UCSD cognitive science students who are trying to figure out what they’re going to be doing with their lives.
You know, I would wonder how things have changed since I was there to what you’re working on today. I’m guessing that the things that I worked on are probably archaic and are probably sitting on the shelf somewhere in the cogsci department. It’s amazing how quickly technology evolves and how much some of the research opens new doors up. I guess if I had any point of advice, it’s just to really be passionate about the subject and enjoy it. Always look for creative solutions to the problems that come up, because the real world is exactly the same way. Everything I do is about creative application of solutions. Opening up your eyes and trying to look at things from a different perspective. That’s what has really gotten me by and made me successful in my career, and so hopefully some of that little bit of wisdom will help out somebody.
To nominate someone as an alumna/alumnus of the month, or if you would be interested in being featured yourself, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.