Back to School: 61-Year-Old Student Earns MS-HCI Degree After Seeing Real-World Need

John Crisp

John Crisp had considered for some time the prospect of going back to school. Already the owner of a bachelor’s degree in management information systems from the University of Virginia and an M.B.A. in finance from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, he was looking to add another dimension to his robust repertoire.

This Friday, the 61-year-old College of Computing student will realize that goal when he joins his fellow graduate students at commencement.

Crisp had worked in software for years as a programmer and software designer at places like Accenture, Bank of America, and Time Warner, and more recently had served as an instructor and lecturer teaching computer classes in business schools at Georgia State and Kennesaw State.

Over the course of his education and career, he grew interested in user interface design, but realized that many of the computer and business classes he took and eventually taught lacked attention to the psychology of how humans adopt, interact, and learn to use certain computational systems.

So, after learning of Georgia Tech’s master of science in human-computer interaction program a few years ago – at a period in life when many others were planning exit strategies for their own careers – Crisp decided to take action.

“Every year, I’d ask myself: ‘Is this it? Is this the year you’re going to do it?’” Crisp said. “Finally, I got to a point where I had one child in college and one about to head to college. I was at a good transition point in terms of where I was teaching, and so I decided to make the move.”

'This is Where We Need Some Help'

Coming out of high school, Crisp looked for a practical degree. At that time, for him, that meant business. He had taken a computer science class in high school – now not a terribly unusual thing, but incredibly rare in the 1970s – and had found it interesting. Considering there might be some more widespread use for those technological marvels years down the road, Crisp earned his bachelor’s degree in management information systems.

“I didn’t even know what that was when I first got into it,” he said.

WATCH: John Crisp discussing earning his second master's degree at 61 years old

After working for a few years, he pursued a graduate degree, laboring over the decision of whether to pursue computer science or a master in business administration. He selected the latter, and ended up at the Wharton School of Business for a finance degree.

For years, his career focus was in business, managing computer systems and developing software. In 2008, it began to take a more academic shift as he began lecturing at Kennesaw State and Georgia State.

Throughout his career, he noticed a recurring theme:

His wife, a doctor, was constantly complaining about the systems for medical record keeping. And whenever he went to get the oil changed in his car, and the individual changing the oil was making similar complaints about his system at the shop.

“Their descriptions were not substantially different from my experiences,” he said. “It struck me that there are plenty of people who can optimize databases and write incredibly complex routines, but in terms of user interface, I think there are so many ways to improve.

“This is where we need some help, and I felt like this is what I ought to do.”

Crisp put his career entirely on hold and devoted all of his time to his degree. He was technically a part-time student, but that was only because of the commute into the city and his responsibilities as a husband and a father.

“Other than my family, though, this was my No. 1 priority,” he said.

Keeping Up With the Times

In addition to the growing need Crisp saw in industry and academia, he also said he pursued the degree to continue to improve himself and make his knowledge more valuable.

“In any career, if you’re not growing you’re making a big mistake,” he said. “You have to develop new skills because the world is changing, and the rate of change is getting faster.”

That’s one of the things that excited him about his pursuit of a degree in HCI.

“It wasn’t going to be like teaching history or English,” he said. “It changes every few years. Or faster. I’m excited about that progression, and this was just a natural transition to learn another set of skills.”

He’s glad he did, and he encourages others his age to consider a similar path.

“Suppose you’re a great salesman,” he said. “You still have to know how to use some of the great tools out there. Like Salesforce, for example. If you’re afraid to use that, you may lose the opportunity to use your great sales skills, because it’s all part of the job now.”

And, he noted, everyone is competing with a younger generation that has grown up with smartphones in their hands.

“They have a different view than other generations,” he said. “You have to develop those skills and learn that language to keep up.”

At Georgia Tech, keeping up wasn’t an issue. In fact, Crisp said, his younger cohorts were incredibly accepting and inclusive of their elder classmate.

“I didn’t realize everybody would be under 30, but I never once had anyone react differently to me than anyone else,” Crisp said. “A lot of cases, people would ask specific questions about my expertise, and then I’d get to ask questions about theirs.

“There’s no place like a college campus, and this is one of the best places you can be.”