Tom Erickson returned to campus to lead the new School of Computer, Data and Information Sciences
UW–Madison alumnus Tom Erickson spent his career helping technology firms around the world succeed, and now he's back.
The September 2021 announcement of a major fundraising campaign — which will include a state-of-the-art building — to help launch the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s new School of Computer, Data and Information Sciences, or CDIS, brought together an array of campus luminaries.
Chancellor Rebecca Blank was there that day at the Discovery Building. So were John and Tashia Morgridge, alumni who contributed a staggering $125 million to the new enterprise, and Erik Iverson, CEO of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, or WARF, which granted $50 million.
It’s fitting that the one best able to appreciate the day in historical context — past being prologue — was the new school’s founding director, Tom Erickson.
As the first UW–Madison freshman ever hired at the engineering building’s computer lab, Erickson witnessed his future more than four decades ago.
The lab was in the basement of the engineering building. This was the 1970s. Erickson actually knew computers — his high school in Mondovi, Wisconsin, had a terminal linked to an early computer at the University of Wisconsin–River Falls.
But the key was that Erickson’s desk in the engineering lab was next to an old dot-matrix printer. All the graduate researchers came by for their printouts.
“I got to meet them,” Erickson says. “They were using these computer programs to solve very complex problems that quite frankly couldn’t be done otherwise. It piqued my interest and was compelling to me, for sure.”
Erickson went on to a highly successful entrepreneurial career in the tech industry that took him around the world, most recently to Boston at Acquia, a web content management software company that had 800 employees and around $175 million in annual revenue when Erickson retired as CEO in 2017.
Now, for an encore, Erickson has come home to Wisconsin, looking to give back to the place where he got his start.
“I love the state of Wisconsin and I love the university,” he says. “It gave me an opportunity I couldn’t have dreamed of.”
Erickson’s dad ran a hardware store in Mondovi that was started in 1905 by Erickson’s great-grandfather and is still operated by his sister.
Erickson absorbed the small-town values, accompanying his dad on a pre-dawn farm visit to help a farmer who needed his water pump fixed to milk his cows. “You took care of each other,” he says.
But his dad also shared stories of his far-flung Navy life, as well as photos and exotic coins that stirred in his son a desire to see the world.
As a UW–Madison junior in electrical and computer engineering, Erickson applied, unsuccessfully, for a cooperative education (outside the classroom) program in then-Yugoslavia. He had better luck with multinational energy giant Chevron Corp.’s co-op program, which took him to San Francisco.
Early on, he was part of a group of Chevron engineers who took a computing course from a company called Program Software and Development Inc., or PSDI. At 19, Erickson was the most computer literate of the Chevron crew. He impressed his instructors enough that when he graduated from UW–Madison in 1980, PSDI hired him.
PSDI was a 30-employee startup based in Cambridge — Harvard Square — though from the outset Erickson traveled extensively. Over time and with different companies — often startups — he worked in Australia, England and France.
An entrepreneurial spirit was his lodestar.
“The notion of creating rather than just doing was always very attractive to me,” Erickson says. “Creating and growing is inspiring to me.” Steering a successful ship? Less so.
Erickson was a founding board member — but not yet an executive employee — when Acquia began in 2007. The company launched an open-source web services product in October 2008, but the first attempt to monetize it failed.
“We orchestrated a pivot in the business,” Erickson says of partnering with a new web-hosting company out of Seattle instead. “We’d put it in the cloud for you and manage everything about your website.”
The nascent hosting company in 2008? Amazon Web Services, a new offering from the Jeff Bezos-founded bookselling colossus.
“We had to convince companies that Amazon wasn’t just a bookstore,” Erickson says. They did. “It took off,” he says.
Erickson became CEO of Acquia in January 2009. Eight years in — after the company had become vastly successful — he stepped away.
Which was good timing for UW–Madison. Chancellor Blank had met Erickson during a visit to Boston. In January 2018, Blank announced that Erickson and Silicon Valley veteran Michael Lehman would lead a working group on the future of computing on campus — where the majors were exploding. (In October 2021, computer science was already the largest single major on campus, and the new data science major was the fastest-growing, according to a syndicated column by Wisconsin Technology Council President Tom Still.)
The group recommended combining the computer science and statistics departments with the information school to create the CDIS. This would strengthen core classes and promote interdisciplinary programs beyond the core sciences — a recognition that there’s no place on campus where computing isn’t relevant. There would be a new building and — announced in fall 2019 — CDIS’ new founding director, Erickson. The working group had urged him to apply.
The new school got its first named professorship last fall, funded by the family in honor of Erickson’s sister, Catherine. She was a public health nurse and passionate champion of children with learning disabilities, and she died in September 2021 of pancreatic cancer. “She was a strong motivator for me,” Erickson says. “An amazing advocate for what we call fundamental human rights.”
Erickson says it’s important to have a senior leader on campus who wakes up in the morning thinking about computing. But he’s really thinking about the students he can see out the fourth-floor window of his current office in South Hall as they walk up and down Bascom Hill.
“We’re building their tomorrows,” Erickson says. “Making sure they’re as bright as they can be.”
Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine.
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