Inside the Wondrous Mind of Andrew Putnam

Andrew Putnam at Warrior DashAndrew Putnam aboard NASA's KC-135 aircraft in the Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunity Program

It doesn’t necessarily take superhuman powers to be a triple major as an undergraduate. In fact, for this year’s Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering Alumni Emerging Leader, it’s all in a (very long) day’s work.

To say that Andrew Putnam ’03 was busy as a college senior is understating things in the extreme.

“Classes started before 8 a.m.,” he recalls. “I’d be done between 2 and 5 p.m., then I’d work for eight hours at Raytheon, finishing up between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. I’d go home, do homework, sleep for an hour or two and start all over again.”

Talk about a hard day’s night.

Born in Colorado Springs, Colo., Putnam’s first job was as a janitor at a local tourist attraction, Seven Falls, where he performed more than 6,000 toilet scrubbings and emptied more than 23,000 garbage cans.

“You never know where you’ll end up in life,” he laughs. “It helped to prepare me for long days and hard work. And to realize that you can have fun, whatever you’re doing.”

As a sophomore at USD, he started o as a double major — electrical engineering and computer science — but since he really enjoyed physics, why not go for the triple major?

“Dan Sheehan, one of my physics professors, was extra motivational,” Putnam recalls. “I remember getting the top score on an exam. He told me he was giving me an A-minus, since he knew I could have done better. I liked that.”

While the particular combination of majors Putnam chose would seem to border on superhuman, he was up for even more challenges. He’d been interning with Raytheon when word went out that a bug needed fixing quickly. “It had to do with a production combat system code. I identified the bug and came up with a fix pretty quickly. I guess they were impressed, because they hired me part-time, and before long, offered me a full-time job as a software engineer.”

He didn’t worry when one or two hours of sleep per night became routine. “Part of what keeps you going with those kind of sprints is knowing that there’s a finish line in sight. There was always spring break or summer break or something to look forward to. It’s easy to push yourself when you know it won’t be forever.”

After graduation, he continued at Raytheon as lead software engineer, for the LHD-8 combat system. Graduate school at the University of Washington followed (MS and PhD, computer science and engineering), as did a stint as a graduate research assistant in the Computer Architecture Laboratory working on zero gravity for the somewhat ominously nicknamed “Vomit Comet.” (He had also worked on the project while at USD under the supervision of Dr. Sheehan.)

Now a principal research hardware design engineer for Microsoft Research, Putnam describes his role as being part of a team of people who “want to push the boundaries of what’s possible.”

Specializing in data flow architecture and reconfigurable computing, he describes his focus as enhancing energy efficiency in data centers and cloud computing.

“I created special hardware that goes into servers in the datacenter and massively speeds up certain applications,” he explains. “For web search, you only need half the number of servers, saving huge amounts of money and energy. And this is really the tip of the iceberg of what’s possible with this technology. From computer security to le compression to artificial intelligence, my design provides the computing power to enable the next generation of applications.”

But it’s not all nose-to-the-grindstone for Putnam. “I run, mostly for fun,” he admits. “I like to do the Warrior Dash, which involves mud pits and crazy obstacles.” Oh, and don’t forget kickball. “I’m team captain of many different kickball teams,” he says, modestly. “It’s one of the ways I spend my downtime. It’s super fun, and it’s silly.”

The Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering named Putnam the 2016 Alumni Emerging Leader Award winner at this year’s Alumni Honors soiree. He looks back at his time as an undergraduate — as arduous as it was — with great fondness. “Having such an aggressive program was ideal for me,” he says. “I couldn’t have asked for a better foundation as far as preparing myself for both grad school and life.”

by Julene Snyder


Michelle Sztupkay

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