Georgia Tech Dean of Computing Charles Isbell

"We Think Big" – Q&A with Dean Charles Isbell

As part of the College's Homecoming celebration, Dean of Computing Charles Isbell participated in a brief Q&A. In it, he shares some thoughts about his time as a Georgia Tech student, how the College has grown, and where he sees it heading in the coming years.

Q: What degree(s) did you earn and when did you graduate?

A: I grew up in Atlanta and Georgia Tech was the only school I applied to for undergrad. I earned a BS in Information and Computer Science in 1990, just before the College was officially formed and just before the degree became just computer science. I also picked up three minors: Spanish, History, and Engineering Psychology.

Q: What were the circumstances of your coming to work at the College of Computing?

A: I was working as a principal research scientist in AT&T labs when the opportunity—what those of us there at the time sometimes call the AT&T Labs Diaspora—came up to return to Georgia Tech. I was excited to join the faculty, and to see how far Computing had come since I had last attended. CoC was well on its way to changing the conversation about Computing, I thought I could be a part of that.

Georgia Tech Dean of Computing Charles Isbell

Q: Prior to this, had you ever thought about coming back to work at GT Computing?

Yes. Despite twelve years in exile in the frozen north, I’d actually always assumed it would happen one day.

Q: What’s one of your favorite memories from your time as a student?

I have too many to count. Almost all of them involve the friendships and connections I made while. I mean, I didn’t belong to a frat, I didn’t join any of the big clubs, but I always felt I belonged to a community.

Q: How has the College changed since you were a student?

Well, the College was founded the year I got out. I was actually the student representative on the committee that hired Peter Freeman, our first dean. So the College has changed in just about every conceivable way since I was a student. Perhaps the biggest change revolves around our ridiculous growth. One could attribute that to our investment in online education, and they would be right, but we’ve also seen a huge growth in our faculty, our on-campus students, and our reputation. When I left we had the possibility of being a top Computing unit. Today, we have achieved that.

Q: How is GT Computing different than similar institutions?

We’re big and we think big. We produce research and graduates at a scale that moves the market. But that’s a side effect of our willingness to take big risks, and to accept the mantle of leadership in a crisis, whether that’s by creating a College in the first place, upending undergraduate education and online education, or creating interdisciplinary research programs.

Q: What do you carry with you from your time as a student that still informs/influences your personal/professional life?

My belief and sense of community, of being home. That is the foundation of my philosophy as dean.

Q: How would you like to see the college grow in the next decade?

I am happy with our trajectory. What I most want to see is that we continue to take risks and be leaders. We are experiencing our next crisis now, and CoC should be leading the conversation around unchecked growth, the chaos of a being in a growing field, and accepting the mantle of responsibility that comes with being in this central discipline. Computing now touches almost every aspect of daily life, and we should be building programs and projects that reflect the reality of everyone who uses them.