The following excerpt is from a story that originally appeared in the winter 2023 issue of the W&M Alumni Magazine. Read the full article here. – Ed.
If you live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed — home to six states, multiple military bases and much of the federal government — Tim Carroll ’87 wants to know whether your septic system will back up in the next 10 years.
Carroll is the head of Microsoft’s Climate Portfolio, which means he spends his time feeding enormous data sets into computer models, which in turn help forecast the consequences of global warming.
Take rising sea levels as an example. Even a modest amount — say half an inch — can matter when it flows into the Chesapeake Bay. Higher tides can combine with heavier rainfall and dump water aground in a process called “compound flooding.” Consistently wetter ground absorbs less moisture, including — you guessed it — from the septic system that may sit in your backyard. “When people talk about these lofty topics like climate change, the very real impact to individuals may not be that their house gets flooded and washes away, but that their septic system backs up two to three times a month,” says Carroll.
His work is essentially a gigabyte-driven game of connect the dots, and it wouldn’t be possible without supercomputers and software models that can process tranches of data — from flood maps to the United States census.
But the coding and engineering components of their team’s data-driven work are a part, not the whole. Carroll isn’t a meteorologist, a scientist or even a top-notch coder. Instead, he’s more of a data interpreter, collecting information on opaque issues such as climate change and making them accessible to the public. After all, regardless of its breadth, information isn’t useful unless people know how to use it.
“You can’t just take a bunch of maps, throw them in front of people and say, ‘See what’s going to happen,’” says Carroll. “What I’ve enjoyed doing in the tech field is helping people translate problems.”
He, like many others, learned to translate those problems, from general to specific, at William & Mary. From Microsoft to Google, university alumni already work in some of the world’s leading data and tech firms and are helping to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges. Applied science programs on campus are booming and data stands as one of the initiatives in the university’s Vision 2026 strategic plan, so more students will soon follow these alumni’s lead.
And they’re entering the workforce at a crucial time. The World Economic Forum (WEF) argues the global economy is currently in a Fourth Industrial Revolution, driven by a boom in data and artificial intelligence technology. In five years, according to the WEF, there will be 150 million new technology jobs. By 2030, some analysts project more than three-fourths of all positions will require digital skills.
While technical skills matter, though, they only go so far on their own. Rapidly advancing technology involves a host of practical and ethical questions around its use, from privacy to accuracy to prejudice. Hence the need for programs at a university like William & Mary, which fuses liberal arts-style critical thinking with digital fluency, says Dan Runfola, Assistant Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Applied Science. People with that combination of skills, he says, are exactly what the world needs in a time of intense change. “
Not only do I think we are the right place to be doing this,” says Runfola, “I think we’re pretty much the only place doing this.”
McGyver to Microsoft
But when Carroll entered the workforce, no one was doing it at all. In the late 1980s, data and computing hadn’t become cornerstones of business or education. Even when Carroll graduated and moved to San Francisco, things were antiquated by today’s standards.
His first job was at a startup delivering now-clunky VHS tapes to people’s homes. His boss was a computer scientist who was so paranoid that Carroll and the other young employee would break something that he put McGyver-esque duct-tape boundaries on the floor to keep them away from anything important.
(The other employee later went on to work in IBM’s cybersecurity division, by the way.)
“It was great, and I learned an extraordinary amount right up until I was flat broke and had to move home,” Carroll says.
n fact, that experience was what first encouraged Carroll to continue in the tech industry. Back in Maryland, he called up the three biggest computer dealers in his area, and one of them gave him a chance. Carroll began to learn the tech side of the business, moving to other companies such as Compaq, and eventually immersing himself in the worlds of supercomputing and cloud technology. He joined the founder of a software startup that was later acquired by Microsoft, which led him to his current role.
“My differentiator was not that I was a computer scientist or a better coder, because I wasn’t,” says Carroll. “But I am fortunate to be able to translate technical capability into a language that non-technical decisionmakers and policymakers require.”
That same skill set, dating back to his days in government and history courses at the university, helps him now. There are two main pillars in climate security — reducing greenhouse gases and adapting to climate change. Carroll works in the second, and predictive modeling is crucial to his work. To help governments, companies and regular people adapt, they need to know what they need to adapt to.
“The first thing we do is to help people get their arms around the scale of the problem,” Carroll says.
Analysts can mix and match climate and census data to understand the challenges that underserved populations face in a warming world. Companies can mix highway data with sea level rise projections to predict the resiliency of supply chains. States in the Chesapeake Bay watershed can watch trends in the bay to adapt their infrastructure.
“Once you’ve collected the data one time, the number of things that you can use it for, if you understand how, are extraordinary,” he says.
Read the rest of this story on the W&M Alumni Magazine website.
Editor’s note: Data is one of four cornerstone initiatives in W&M’s Vision 2026 strategic plan. Visit the Vision 2026 website to learn more.