McQuillan Still Whiz Kid

May 5, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Today it is a pretty common yearning for a young person to want to make a mark in the computer and information technology field. But how about having that desire back in 1969, when computers were bigger than Buicks and mini-power plants were needed to run them?

Wanting to make a mark in computers back then indicated someone with foresight who was willing to delve into an uncharted future — the vision thing with a dash of courage added. It wasn’t all that common nearly 40 years ago, and the same descriptive can still be used for Thomas McQuillan today.

“It wasn’t that big of a deal back then, but I grew up in a large family; I was one of nine children. My father (Lewis) was a dentist and my mother (Charlotte) was a registered nurse, and they expected all of us children to push ourselves and reach our potential,” he said.

McQuillan began his lifetime interest in math and computers as a student at Parkside High School in Jackson, back when slide rules ruled.

“I can remember my mom and dad wondering what was going on with this kid. My dad, being a professional man and being associated with a lot of professional people, couldn’t figure out what the heck I was doing. It wasn’t until a number of years later that he figured out I might have had a little bit of insight,” he said.

His father’s concern was understandable. Three of McQuillan’s brothers became attorneys and the other three became a doctor, an electrical engineer and a mechanic, while his two sisters both earned master’s degrees — all of them choosing more traditional routes than he did.

Thomas McQuillan
Company: Quill Consulting LLC
Title: Principal
Age: 55
Birthplace: Jackson, Mich.
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Wife, Marianne; grown children Sean and Nicole.
Biggest career break: Being named director of Grand Rapids’ computer department at the age of 29.

But McQuillan recognized that he had strong math skills and an ability to solve problems, so he continued his technology path through high school and college. He came to Grand Rapids after graduating from Michigan State University in 1975 to take an entry-level computer programming job at Foremost Insurance.

“The thing that I was really motivated by was the fact that I was intrigued by it and I always liked the idea that computers could help people do their jobs. I wasn’t the kind of computer geek that really got into the intricate nuts and bolts of the inside of the computer and what made it work. I was more interested in the results that computers can provide,” he said.

Being a pioneer has been standard operating procedure in his professional career.

In April 1982 at the age of 29, McQuillan was named by then city manager G. Stevens Bernard as director of the city’s computer operations. It was a time when mainframes and punch cards were the latest and hottest high-tech rage in an industry that was on the verge of exploding.

“I would consider that probably my biggest break. I had several wonderful opportunities throughout my career. But at 29 and getting that position — in those days, they used to call you a ‘whiz kid,’ you know? Now when they talk about ‘whiz,’ they’re not talking about being bright,” he said, laughing.

McQuillan held the city post until last summer, which means his tenure as director of the information technology department lasted 25 years until he retired last June 30. During that time, city commissioners never denied any request, funding or otherwise, that he brought before them.

But McQuillan didn’t stay retired for very long. Just a month after he left the city, he started Quill Consulting LLC, a firm that gives clients directions on how to collect and maintain data, run operations centers, set up wireless broadband systems and other digital issues like security. In the short time McQuillan has had the business, he has been an invited speaker at summits all over the map, in places like Honolulu, San Diego and Traverse City.

So instead of jetting all over the planet and dealing with other people’s problems, why didn’t McQuillan choose to put his feet up on the back porch railing after he retired?

“One, I still consider myself a young man at 55. The No. 2 reason is, I think I have a lot to offer. I’ve got about 33 years of experience in various functioning capacities in the computer industry,” he said.

“I started out working in the financial industry and worked for a manufacturing institution. I’ve worked in a consulting environment in the past. I worked 25 years for the city as a director, and I just think that I have a lot to offer. I enjoy speaking to groups and I enjoy sharing some of my experiences and try to give ideas to people that they may not have thought of and help them avoid some pitfalls.”

Thomas has been married to Marianne for as long as he has been in the IT field: 33 years. They met as students at MSU, where she also earned her degree. Marianne is a registered nurse at the Kent County Health Department, where she assists expectant and new mothers.

“She is very skilled and very talented at what she does,” he said. “Being married to her has been a nice trip — for me, anyway.”

The McQuillans have two children, Sean and Nicole. Nicole is working toward her doctorate in physical therapy at the University of Saint Augustine in Florida. Sean teaches tennis at Norton Pines in Grand Haven, a sport he picked up from his father. McQuillan played in high school and at Jackson Community College. He still plays on two travel tennis teams through the Michigan Athletic Club.

“I also played basketball in high school and community college, so I was a bit of a jock. I enjoy playing tennis. We have two teams. One we call the regular 4.0 men’s team and that is anybody 19 and over. Then we have what they call the senior’s team and that is anybody who is 50 years and older. We have a great deal of fun and camaraderie with the guys and the ones we play against,” he said.

The past few years have been good for McQuillan. In 2006, he won the Leadership Award at the Michigan Digital Government Summit. The next year, the same year he started Quill Consulting, he was inducted into national honor society Pi Alpha Alpha for his many years of public service.

So what’s in his immediate future?

“I really do enjoy the opportunity to go out and speak to groups and advise them. One of the gentlemen that I worked with recently said it’s a wonderful opportunity to give back and to be kind of like coaching in the business community — giving those people a lot of years of your experience and sharing your stories with them,” he said.

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