Don M. Powers
Class of 1959, BS
Don Powers knew he wanted to be an electrical engineer from an early age. “My father was an electrical repairman of mining equipment in the mines,” Mr. Powers says of his rural Southwest Virginia upbringing. “He was always talking about it and working with it and interested in it, and I guess it rubbed off on me. When I decided I had to go to college to get an education that was the foremost thing in my mind.”
After a stint in the military, Mr. Powers opted for Virginia Tech. Where some people can point to a mentor or a professor setting them on one life path or another, Mr. Powers well may owe his career to a magazine article in an electrical engineering student magazine. The article was on the use of binary numbers in computers.
Intrigued, Mr. Powers wanted to learn more about this then-burgeoning science. A professor directed young Powers to a Virginia Tech electrical engineering alumnus who had a “very good job” at a company called IBM. “I was told, ‘Why don’t you write him,’ and ask for a summer job, and I did,” Mr. Powers says.
The summer job led to a full job in Poughkeepsie, New York, after his own 1959 graduation. At IBM – the computing giant once known as International Business Machines – Mr. Powers helped grow the firm into one of the world’s technology giants during a 28-year career. “Those were the glory years,” Mr. Powers says. “That was one of the most exciting industries in the business when it was forming and growing and becoming what it is to today.”
Mr. Powers’ resume reads as a near-history of IBM’s powerful run in large mainframe computing. The change to mainframe computers was revolutionary. His first assignment was for the National Security Agency, on a mainframe that was powered by thousands of transistors and employed magnetic core memory. The room that housed the machine and the peripheral equipment was the size of a football field, with a raised floor to hide the cable connections and conduct the flow of cooled air to remove the heat. The equivalent collective computing power of that machine can be found on a single desktop today.
During his career, he was involved in the design and development of System 360 and System 370. Later he served as product manager for the Model 308X series. He was the manager of the IBM Kingston Development Laboratory, developing software and hardwarefor large computer mainframes when IBM offered an inviting retirement program.
In 1987, Mr. Powers took advantage of an offer, and retired from IBM. But he didn’t retire. Instead he moved from Poughkeepsie, New York, to Minneapolis, Minnesota, and took a position at Control Data Corp. as vice-president of development and research. After a few years of redirecting the computer group, it was decided that the subsidiary parts were more financially viable and profitable than the whole. Mr. Powers was tasked with running another unit, Empros Systems International, which built transmission control systems for power companies. There, Mr. Powers increased new orders from $40 million to $100 million in 1991, and increased profit margins fivefold. Two years later, the firm sold to Siemens, and Powers retired for good.
His impact on the computer engineering field remains strong. Patents and research he pioneered in the early 1970s are still referenced in research papers as recently as 2004. He also served four years each on the advisory boards of the Virginia Tech Electrical and Computer Engineering Department and the College of Engineering. Those in the field still point to his successes.
“His resume is shockingly, shockingly powerful. He was basically at the tipping point of powerful computer electronics,” says Jim George Jr., a fellow Virginia Tech alumnus and Academy initiate who spent his career at Motorola. Mr. George adds that his colleague’s work helped grow IBM to the technology powerhouse it is today. “They have never given that up. They’ve always remained a leader.” F. William Stephenson, former head of the Virginia Tech Electrical and Computer Engineering Department and once dean of the College of Engineering, adds: “He really doesn’t talk much about his achievements which, quite frankly, are astounding.”
For his part, Mr. Powers puts his successes on the shoulders of a higher power. “Looking back, I see the Lord was directing me on a certain path.” He adds that those small actions – reading a magazine, writing a letter, taking a summer job – all happened for a reason, “planned by God.” Now retired in Lynchburg, Virginia, Mr.Powers demonstrates his faith through active participation in his church.
He also remains hooked on computers. He has owned a desktop computer continuously since 1983. “I use Photoshop on it. I also spend a fair amount of time on the Internet. I keep finances on it, play games on it,” he says. He also reads articles in such publications as Wired on the latest computer technology breakthroughs. Knowing how far the computer field has come, he continues to be amazed at the advancements.
Class of: 1959
Year Inducted into Academy: 2011