Inside Track, Higher Education, and Technology

Inside Track: Hope professor spends sabbatical as intern

Ryan McFall, computer science department chair, is keeping pace with new technology at OST.

November 29, 2013
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Ryan McFall
Ryan McFall’s interest in computer science technology is sparked by how the details keep changing. Photo by Michael Buck

Open Systems Technologies’ “Intern Ryan” is quite possibly one of the most educated and experienced interns you’ve never heard of.

“Intern Ryan,” as he’s called by his OST peers — almost all of whom are about 10 to 20 years his junior — is better known as Ryan McFall, professor and chair of the computer science department at Hope College.

For more than a decade, McFall, who holds a Ph.D. in computer science from Michigan State University, has been training students in the computer arts at Hope, where he himself double-majored in computer science and mathematics, earning a bachelor’s degree in both.

Since September, McFall has been on sabbatical, spending his “vacation” working as an application development intern at OST, a Grand Rapids-based IT consulting firm.

RYAN MCFALL
Organization:
Hope College
Position: Professor of Computer Science and Department Chair
Age: 42
Birthplace: Holland
Residence: Zeeland
Family: Wife, Leanne; children Lauryn, 13, Nathaniel, 10, and Rachel, 8.
Business/Community Involvement: Association for Computing Machinery, ACM Special Interest Group in Computer Science Education.
Biggest Career Break: Finding an open position at Hope College at the same time he was finishing his Ph.D. at Michigan State University.

 

So why is such an experienced professor with a Ph.D. in computer science interning at OST?

He said he still feels like he needs the experience.

“I did consulting work while I was in graduate school and undergrad, and I haven’t really worked full time as a software developer since,” he said. “I can read everything that I can and try to understand what the newest technologies are doing, but (I came to OST) to experience what the real world is doing with technology.”

There’s a great need in today’s classrooms for those who teach to continue learning in hands-on ways about their fields, McFall said. Many professors tend to read theoretic-heavy academic journals more than they read applicable, trade-associated journals, he said. But he believes that, when it comes to staying relevant, especially in the field of technology, professors need to work with outside professionals to keep pace with a racing industry.

Part of that exercise is to keep developing new programs his college can use and letting the students do it with him, he said.

“When I was at Michigan State, I wrote a (similar system) to Survey Monkey. … We wrote a system that was essentially a way of gathering data about the student’s impression of their course — a standard course evaluation,” he said.

“One thing I learned: Don’t write software that can be generic in a very specific way. We thought hard about how to write a system where you can ask questions and get answers.”

Interning at OST is McFall’s way of continuing to practice what he preaches. The more experience he has in current technology, the more he can serve the students’ needs, saving them time and money, he said. And the only way to learn is by doing, he said.

“If you’re a computer scientist, that’s how you’re going to learn. You have to go out and build things and you have to use the newest technologies that you can find,” he said.

“I don’t have a lot of experience, but everyone says, ‘Well, he’s got a Ph.D., he must be really smart.’ Having a Ph.D. means you’re smart, but it doesn’t mean you’re brilliant.”

Even brilliance can’t always be relied on in the world of technology, particularly with the rapid advances made in the last 25 years, McFall said.

The World Wide Web was just in its infancy in 1993 when he graduated from Hope, and at the time, no one was even speculating about what the world would look like if everyone had personal computers on their cell phones in their pockets.

Much of the material he learned in his first year of college was out-of-date by his final year, he said, even if the bones of it were still important.

“The specific details of technologies, programming languages — those change quite dramatically. I learned a language in undergraduate that was irrelevant by the time I was teaching,” he said. “But that language was very similar to languages that were being used in that timeframe after that.

“So the concepts … are timeless, but the environment changes.”

One of the challenges of teaching computer science is to stay on top of material that keeps changing, he said. His brother teaches military history in Kansas, and McFall often finds himself jealous, he said, because history doesn’t change. Even though sometimes new interpretations may arise and new findings may be brought to light, for the most part the facts stay the same, he said.

However, for McFall, teaching a topic that doesn’t change “would get awfully boring after a while.” And while computer science is challenging, it’s also rewarding.

“It’s a double-edged sword. It keeps me up at night, keeps me awake early in the morning, but it keeps me going and learning new things,” he said. “One of the main reasons I’m here is that question.”

McFall’s journey with OST began while he was teaching a two-credit senior capstone course, Senior Project Seminar, a class he took when he was a Hope student back in 1992. Now as a professor, McFall wanted to add a business connection component to the course by bringing in professionals in the field to work with his students.

After making a connection with a fellow Hope alumnus at OST, McFall suddenly realized he had an opportunity to not only open the door for his students to learn and intern, but for him to gain experience, as well.

OST liked McFall’s idea and invited him on board.

“It’s very beneficial. It benefits us as faculty and it benefits the students,” he said. “I’m not going to be telling students much different than I told them before, because what I told them before has now been reflected in my experience, but I can tell them it’s based on my experience.”

McFall will be interning with OST until mid-December, and said he’s enjoyed every minute of his time there, calling the staff “outstanding.” Already he’s learned about concepts such as “dependency injection” and “Twitter Bootstrap,” and said he plans to implement them in the classroom.

More businesses should look for ways to offer employees opportunities to engage in out-of-house training, he said, an experience he never could have had, had it not been for the support of Hope College.

“Hope will pay half my salary for the whole year, so essentially, if I go on a semester-long sabbatical, I don’t have to find any money: OST gets me for free,” he said. “Basically, Hope pays my salary and then I’m here. If I wanted to stay for a whole year, then I’d either have to get OST to pay me or survive on half my salary.”

It wasn’t only OST and Hope College’s generosity that afforded his opportunity, McFall said. The fact is, the technology industry has evolved enough in West Michigan to allow for his exploration. Thankfully, there’s now a flourishing IT community in Grand Rapids, he said — a community that didn’t exist a decade ago when he began teaching.

“If I was on sabbatical 10 years ago and I wanted to spend it with a development company, I wouldn’t have known where to go,” he said. “Now, I had four options as to where I wanted to do it. The tech community in West Michigan is growing.”

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