After 40 years at 'Big Blue,' Randy Moulic came north to teach

by Kathleen McCoy  |   

Randy Moulic and Briana Williams Stewart

Randy Moulic works with student Briana Williams Stweart in a computer lab at UAA.
(Photo by Phillip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

At this point in his career, Randy Moulic could do just about anything he wanted-including nothing-if he so chose.

This UAA professor of electrical and computer engineering has done a lot:

  • 40 years as a researcher and senior manager at IBM in upstate New York
  • 40 years teaching at NYU-Poly, Columbia University and Polytechnic Institute in NYC
  • Holds 34 U.S. and international patents, with more in process
  • Founded and managed the IBM Deep-Blue World Champion Chess Computer research project, including arranging the Garry Kasparov game events
  • Led the systems architecture, design and prototyping of IBM's ThinkPad "TransNote" notebook
  • Led concept creation, system design and research prototype for IBM's fastest and environmentally responsible supercomputers
  • Devised a 3D computer graphics workstation that earned IBM $1 billion plus

I could go on, but I think you get the picture. At 66, why isn't Moulic sipping a cool beverage with an umbrella in it, on some tropical island somewhere?

Well, for one thing, he's always wanted to see Alaska; his dad served in the Army Air Corps here during World War II. "I'd seen the pictures and heard the stories," Moulic said.

But there's more to it. The second bullet above offers one hint: The man loves to teach. And the parallel four decades spent taking dreams to reality for IBM suggests another: He sees what needs teaching.

"What I could see over the years, as I hired any number of summer interns or even new people coming into our group, is a bit of erosion in some of the fundamentals."

Garry Kasparov in 2007

Former chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov in 2007. Moulic founded and managed the IBM Deep-Blue World Champion Chess Computer research project and set up the games with Kasparov. (WikiMedia image)

He holds up an iPhone: "A lot of young people use these every day. The assumption is, just because you have one, you understand it. But this is more of a computer than the first large mainframe that I worked on at IBM. It's huge! And yet, the user interface hides and abstracts many of the details underneath."

Hence, we use them, even program apps for them, and still don't understand them.

In contrast to our ubiquitous and happily naive use of a complex iPhone, Moulic conjures the stiff intellectual expectations of his own doctoral thesis advisor, a rather formal fellow.

"He was a wonderful gentleman from eastern Europe," Moulic said. "He'd been there during the war when it was taken over by Russians. So, he was taught all his mathematics by very strict Germans and Russians. He never used a calculator; he did it all in his head or on a piece of paper."

What Moulic sees-in all the students he's taught and in the newly minted engineers he once hired for IBM- is "they've lost track of the real foundations."

He's not quick to blame the education system. Instead, he says, this is the price we've paid for such rapid advances in computer development. The next new shiny thing quickly grabs our attention.

But "I can be the bridge," he says. "I know the past, and I live in the future. I can help with the breadth of fundamentals I see missing."

So what does he mean by fundamentals, exactly? He's talking hardware. Software and mobile app development may be sexier, but they still need hardware to run.

For the last four semesters at UAA, he's been developing and teaching introductory hardware and systems courses, "the fundamentals," he calls them. After the intro course comes digital computer design, and finally integrated circuit design.

"Those were all being addressed here as independent monolithic entities," he said. "What I have done is homogenize them and allow students to learn the fundamentals and then move on to the tools. These are the same tools that are used in industry."

Although he has taught for decades on the East Coast, his students there were always graduate-level. He came to UAA to strengthen his approach to undergraduates.

Moulic says he has been "very pleased" with the students he finds at UAA. "What I have found, on the whole, is that almost everyone is motivated. That matters."

Already about 180 students have passed through his hardware courses. "I might have seen two or three who were just sort of wandering around aimlessly. The quality is good."

And he's proud to report a success. A December 2014 graduate from UAA stepped from the "Pomp and Circumstance" celebration at the Alaska Airlines Center before Christmas into a job at IBM in January, thanks to Moulic's mentoring and connections.

"He's not designing the big boxes," Moulic said. "He's designing the chips that go inside, the core."

Moulic has spoken with the UAA alum a few times since his career move east. That first day on the job, his former student had a story to tell his old mentor. It involved one of the tools that Moulic had added to his hardware courses-a programming language called VHDL, a language that allows you to program the way hardware is built.

''That is the very first thing they gave me," he phoned back to Moulic, "and I knew just what to do!"

A version of this story by Kathleen McCoy appeared Sunday, May 10, 2015 in the Alaska Dispatch News.

Creative Commons License "After 40 years at 'Big Blue,' Randy Moulic came north to teach" is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.