Computer innovator supports tenacious Badger engineers

Posted on 25. Jul, 2014 by in Alumni, Features, Gift Report, Issues, People, Students

Jim Stinger

Jim Stinger (photo courtesy of Jim Stinger)

During the 33 years Jim Stinger spent working at Hewlett-Packard, he saw to it that he stayed on the technical side of the company’s research and development lab. He had opportunities to try his hand at management, but never lost his relish for mixing electrical engineering with computer science.

On an even more basic level, he says, his time as an undergraduate at UW-Madison gave him the confidence to help advance what was then a fledgling computer industry. “I remember a drafting class that took place in one of the World War II Quonset huts on campus,” Stinger says. “It gave me discipline, because it was very structured and you have to get the lines just right and use the tools.”

Such fundamentals, along with the basic computer-science courses UW-Madison offered at the time, emboldened Stinger to delve deeper into computing matters. After he graduated in 1966 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, Stinger earned a master’s and PhD in computer science from MIT. His graduate work there included assisting with some early forays into computer-aided design, and working on a hybrid digital-analog computer.

After grad school, Stinger took a job with HP in Palo Alto, California, where he spent the next three decades researching future products, often trying to anticipate what the company might be making five or 10 years into the future. In the mid-1970s, he researched the use of electron beams to produce integrated circuits, working on some of the software behind that innovation. In the early ’90s he worked on a “smart clipboard” device that read the user’s pen strokes and stored them digitally—a novel concept at the time. “The whole philosophy was to try new things, and if you fail, that’s OK, and you go on to the next thing,” Stinger says. “That kept my interest up, because I was moving from one project to another in a fairly short time.”

In retirement, Stinger has led a more right-brained life, taking up watercolor painting, yet his inner engineer still shows up in the creative process. “When I paint, I tend to go for the detail and tend to get that right, whereas a lot of painters will be very free and not worry about detail,” he says. “That’s definitely my left brain and education coming into play. I’m not a Jackson Pollock, if you will.”

Like many engineers, Stinger says that what he does is essentially problem-solving. But having spent his entire career in a field undergoing a period of whirlwind change, he’s learned just how essential that underlying set of problem-solving skills really is. He credits UW-Madison for helping him develop those skills, and is making a $200,000 gift to the College of Engineering to help future Badger engineers reap the same benefit, and to help financially disadvantaged students afford a UW-Madison education. “I believe strongly in multidisciplinary sciences and engineering fields,” Stinger says. “It has to be not so much a silo of different engineering or science fields. They need to work together to solve the problems that are out there today.”

Even though engineering and computer-science fields changed a great deal between Stinger’s beginning college and his retirement in 2005, he says successful people in the industry still need tenacity and a willingness to go after the hard problems. “I look toward the person who is dedicated and disciplined,” Stinger says.

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