Mary G. Miller
Class of 1985, MS
When Mary Miller showed her father the letter informing her of her nomination to the Virginia Tech Academy of Engineering Excellence, the 89-year-old retired engineer from McDonnell Douglas had tears streaming down his cheeks. He told her, smiling, “You came from good genes.”
She agrees, saying she inherited her father’s mathematical abilities, and she had strong role models who encouraged her along the way. Her high school math teacher, Sally Werth, took an interest in Mary, and became a life-long friend. So did Barbara Crittenden, whom Dr. Miller describes as the “hardest, toughest math teacher at Virginia Tech. No one wanted to get in her class,” except the unflappable Mary. When she was chosen as an Outstanding Woman Alumna at the 75th Anniversary of Women at Virginia Tech in 1996, Dr. Miller invited Barbara Crittenden to be her guest.
Dr. Miller entered Virginia Tech in 1968, when women were less than a tenth of the student population. As a female in a predominantly man’s world, she was sidetracked for awhile before truly finding what doors her talents could open. She sought her first degree in elementary education because she knew women could get teaching jobs. Certified to teach in K-12, she landed her first full-time position as a sixth and seventh grade teacher in Pulaski County, Virginia. She took a sabbatical after three years to have her two children, Matthew and Mandy.
Her traditional route was about to stop. In 1979, after she had returned to work, teaching math through the Marion, Virginia., Job Corps, she decided to take a class in programming at Wytheville Community College. She arranged child care for her then two- and three-year-old children, and arrived at the fully enrolled class with an attitude. “I planned to force add (the course) even though the professor, Bill Durham, a retired NASA programmer, said no one could be added. I stayed after class, and told him, ‘he wanted me in his class, and that I would be his best student, and I would even help the others.’ ”
Her tenacity worked, and it was later that she discovered she had force added the wrong class – it was the second in a series on programming, not the first. She never let Professor Durham know, and he found her talented enough that he suggested she use his personal processor. “He inspired me to think more, to do more, and I decided to return to Virginia Tech for my computer science (CS) degree.”
So in 1983, she rented a house with her children, Matt and Mandy, in tow, and became one of 30 graduate students in the CS department. “I got involved with computer-assisted learning … which opened fascinating doors, but as a mother I was not mobile,” she recalls. During her second year, she had an assistantship with J.A.N. Lee, who founded the computer science programs at both Queens’s University at Kingston and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst before moving to Virginia Tech. “He had a huge influence on me. He pushed you to think,” she recalls.
Virginia Tech was just beginning to move its faculty into computing, and the Provost at the time, David Roselle, was requiring two faculty from each department to take Dr. Lee’s CS course. Since Dr. Miller was his assistant, she taught a good number of these classes, and by the end of the term, she had four job offers from within the university. Fortuitously, she selected the one from Mitch Giesler who was the dean of extension. “It was a life-changing job. I had one year of a guaranteed salary, and then I needed to fund myself with grant money. Interactive video was just taking off,” she says, and she entrenched herself in the new arena.
The job was to investigate new and exciting ways to deliver information to the citizens of the commonwealth, supporting the outreach mission. Joe Meredith, today the director of the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Park, was working at Newport News Shipbuilding at that time, and had come to campus promoting a new authoring system for interactive video. He challenged the university to get involved and Giesler agreed, giving Dr. Miller the assignment to investigate the power of the technology and write grants.
“My life has always been blessed,” Dr. Miller says, describing how the next chapter started. She was asked to demonstrate the training video at an extension training conference, and in 1986 she was showing what a voice-activated computer could do. Later she and Giesler arranged to present her innovative work on a public-access information system at a private meeting with members of the Kellogg Foundation. The 90-minute presentation on the concept of interactivity using the computer netted another $1.3 million grant, and the lab called Interactive Design and Development (IDD) at Virginia Tech was born. The facility’s first office was in the Old Security Building on campus, and IDD soon was picking up some significant projects such as a grant to produce a CD-Rom of agricultural information for the National Agricultural Library. The groundbreaking disk contained some 50,000 pages with more than 30,000 images. “It was the first CD-Rom produced by Virginia Tech,” Dr. Miller says, and the year was 1989.
Two years later, the national economy took a major downturn and the university offered to let Dr. Miller spin out IDD from Virginia Tech in a budget-cutting move. Nervous, she sought the advice of her colleague, John Moore, who told her, “Failure was in not trying,” and that she could always come back to the university. Emboldened, she started floating the idea of the private IDD, and she secured enough contracts for the first six months. She rented space in a building on North Main Street in Blacksburg, owned by the late Dick Talbot, the first dean of the college of veterinary medicine. From there, she moved to Virginia Tech’s Corporate Research Center, now directed by Meredith, and eventually to her own building on Sheffield Drive.
“My greatest joy in owning IDD is the people and the clients. My life is like a dance. I spin off and do something else. We have reached millions of people. We do serious information technology development and we produce quality educational products,” she says. Her clients include such organizations as the American Federation of Teachers, members of the health care industry, and Fortune 500 companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Citibank, and Dow Chemical.
And in the middle of founding the new company, she decided she still needed to learn more, and enrolled in a doctoral program in curriculum and instruction at Virginia Tech, earning her Ph.D. in 1996 after three years, going part-time. That same year, IDD was recognized as one of the Top 100 Multimedia Developers in the United States.
For the past 20 years, Dr. Miller has served both Democratic and Republican governors of Virginia, starting with the first ask from Secretary of Technology Don Upson in the 1980s to help him confront IT problems. She remains in contact with Aneesh Chopra, the immediate former Virginia Secretary of Technology who is now the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer, as well as Eugene Huang, who is currently helping to craft the National Broadband Plan.
She has assisted in Virginia’s efforts to strategize and implement the use of technology across the state’s agencies and institutions of higher learning, and remains a member of Virginia’s Information Technology Investment Board. She was one of the founders of this board, and served as its chair of the evaluation and governance committee from 2005 until 2009.
She was the first woman to serve as the president of the Blacksburg Rotary Club, and she is the president of the NewVa Corridor Technology Council, representing some 208 companies in the region. She is a former member of Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering Advisory Board and is on the university’s Computer Science Advisory Board.
She and her husband, Jim King, reside in Blacksburg. They are members of the Committee of 100. She has served on the College Advisory Board.
Class of: 1985
Year Inducted into Academy: 2010