Alumni Profiles

Beyond Bits and Bytes
A different kind of high-tech exec

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Mike Ross/UNH Photographic Services

When Erica Johnson '01, '11G and Timothy Winters '04 walk into a conference, they often get a funny reaction. "It's the age thing," says Winters. "Some people wait awhile before they say, 'How old are you?'"

Johnson and Winters may be half the age of many of their peers at a forum on, say, Internet Protocol version 6 standards. "But as soon as we start to speak about the technology, we become part of the gang," says Johnson, who is already a leader in the data-communications industry and an adviser to the group that promotes the deployment of IPv6 worldwide.

Johnson was just 29 in 2008 when she took the reins at the UNH InterOperability Laboratory, where she oversees 20 full-time staffers and more than 100 UNH student workers in a 32,000-square-foot facility. Established in 1988, the lab has enabled hundreds of companies such as Apple, Dell, Samsung and Cisco to test their equipment for compatibility in a neutral setting. At the same time, the financially self-supporting lab gives UNH students valuable experience that virtually guarantees them jobs upon graduation.

Johnson grew up in New York, an only child who would be the first in her family to attend college. When she received her first computer, at age 15, she was enthralled with her new ability to communicate with friends and cousins via online chat rooms. "I'm different from the typical computer scientist," she says, "in that I don't see it as bits and bytes so much as connecting people and advancing knowledge." As an undergraduate, she was one of only a handful of women in her computer science classes. Since then the number of women in the major nationwide has dropped even further, says Johnson, "and there's still a perception that only males can be engineers." When she started working at the IOL in her sophomore year, she says, "I wasn't afraid to sit next to a male colleague and go back and forth over what I thought was correct. I needed to prove that I deserved to be here. Females need to know that over time you will be respected."

"She doesn't have a chip on her shoulder," notes Winters, who is one of Johnson's senior managers. Acting as a role model for young women, she visits UNH classrooms and participates in UNH science and engineering programs in public schools. At the IOL, she makes sure women have the support they need to succeed in a male-dominated field, and since she took over, the percentage of employees who are women has more than doubled to nearly 20 percent.

Being a role model also means being herself. Johnson, who has a keen eye for fashion, has been known to show off a new pair of boots—after asking how the TRILL control plane test is going.

Johnson, who earned an MBA in 2011, has the ability to "step in both worlds" of engineering and business, says Winters. "It's like engineers are building the foundation, where she's building a mansion. She can say, 'When you solve that problem, here's how we can help the whole industry.' And that gets students involved with a big project.'"

The big projects help propel both students and staff, most of whom are alums, toward a better career. Losing a staff member can be bittersweet, Johnson says, but "to be able to say I affected a person's life because of what I was able to do here at the IOL—that's what I treasure most."

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