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Alumni Spotlight: J.P. Allen’s Journey from Playing Atari in Saudi Arabia to Appearing on Jeopardy

JP Allen headshot

This UCI alumnus fulfilled a lifelong dream by participating in the first-ever Jeopardy Professors Tournament in December 2021. Who is J.P. Allen?

Allen earned his M.S. and Ph.D. (’95) from the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS). Although he wasn’t named tournament champion, he made it to the semifinals and had an incredible experience appearing on his favorite TV show. Here, he talks about his journey from playing Atari as a 10-year-old kid in Saudi Arabia to becoming professor in the School of Management at the University of San Francisco. He shares stories of learning from pioneering ICS faculty, which set the stage for his own pioneering career in digital entrepreneurship. He was the founding chair of USF’s Technology, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship Department and has leveraged his skills to address the growing need for technical expertise in the business world, always bringing a multidisciplinary perspective to his work as he tackles questions around the role of technology in society.

Let’s start with “Jeopardy!” How was it participating in the Professors Tournament?
It was so incredible! I’ve been trying to get on the show for over 20 years, so this really was a lifelong dream. What was doubly exciting is not only that I got to be on the show, but that it was actually a tournament format. Normally, you’re one and done, but it was really nice to spend a little more time with the other contestants. We had a lot of downtime together, and these were all really interesting, smart people, selected for their outgoing, TV-friendly personalities, so on top of this being a lifelong dream, I got to hang out with all these incredible people!

“Jeopardy!” host Mayim Bialik (front) with contestants on the first Professors Tournament, including J.P. Allen (middle, back row).
“Jeopardy!” host Mayim Bialik (front) with contestants on the first Professors Tournament, including J.P. Allen (middle, back row).

Sam Buttrey, who won the whole thing, took us all out for tacos and margaritas afterward and paid for everything. What a great guy! He does operations research, which is very math oriented, and actually I was interviewed by our local newspaper here in San Francisco about whether computer science people have the advantage on “Jeopardy!” That seems to be a topic of interest because super champ Amy Schneider is an engineering manager; Matt Amodio was a computer science Ph.D. student; Andrew He was a software engineer; and the biggest champ of all time, Ken Jennings, was a double major in computer science and English. I feel like that is the killer combo!

What led to your own interest in computer science, especially as a kid growing up in Saudi Arabia?
My parents moved overseas when I was only 8 years old, so I felt like I should follow along and go with them! It was very cool, but it did make it a little harder to pursue my computer dreams. I was already into early gaming — this was in the late 1970s. So, at age 10, the hot game at the time was this console called the Atari 2600. I really wanted one, but they didn’t have them in Saudi Arabia. They were imported at a pretty high price, like 400 bucks, which is a lot for a 10-year-old. Luckily, we were living in Saudi Arabia during the oil boom, so I was able to earn this money by scoring basketball games and typing papers and other things. So, I bought maybe the first Atari 2600 in Saudi Arabia!

The only other thing I had access to were these Casio programmable calculators, and some of them had a real simple version of Basic, so I would do simple games, which was pretty fun. Then, because there was no American high school in Saudi Arabia, I went to a boarding school in Switzerland. I left after a year, but by that point, I had managed to get a Commodore VIC-20, so I could do a little more programming.

Then we moved to Greece, where there was a high school computer club. It was the typical teenager scenario at the time, where the students knew way more than the teachers — which was kind of intoxicating. I knew I wanted to study computer science, so I planned on going back to the U.S. for my undergraduate studies. I had received a brochure from UC Santa Cruz, where they were starting this new computer engineering program. When I opened the brochure, I thought, “I can study computers among the redwoods and by the beach?” I was blown away. So, I came back to study computer engineering and applied math at UC Santa Cruz. I was famous for never really asking my parents for much, but for high school graduation, I said, “Dad, I want this new Apple MacIntosh 128K,” which had just come out and cost around $2,000. He said, “You seem to be serious about this, so let’s do it.” And I showed up in Santa Cruz with my 128K, ready to study computer engineering.

What led you to UCI?
When I finished at Santa Cruz, I was really interested in the intersection of technology and policy issues. I was working for a while as a nuclear policy analyst in school, so I wanted to combine those things but didn’t don’t how. Then, just like with UC Santa Cruz, I got a one-page brochure from UCI, and I learned I could study what used to be called “computers, organizations, policy and society,” or I guess what’s now Informatics. “This is the dream,” I thought. “If I have the chance to pursue this, I’ve got to do it.”

So, I bought a plane ticket and flew down to John Wayne Airport, which was a couple trailers at that time, and I was picked up at the airport by Professor Leigh Star. She was one of the giants of the sociology of technology, and her husband, Geoffrey Bowker, is still affiliated with ICS. Anyway, she took me down to Laguna Beach and had me over for dinner with all of these other grad students, who were super brilliant, and I just knew I had to go to UCI. It was the perfect program, just as the Internet was going out into the world. I was like, “Wow, this is the place to be!”

Can you share any memorable moments or tell us about an influential professor?
Oh, there’s so many! Grad school was just so fun for me. First of all, I got married in grad school, so that was fantastic. And my fellow grad students were just so brilliant! A bunch of the students all of a sudden started creating water features, and they would create more and more elaborate water fountains and it turned into a big competition! It was pretty cool. And my roommate at the time, Dave Foster, started an intramural basketball team called the Finite State Warriors. Considering we were all ICS students, we were quite good! I remember Hadar Ziv making some incredible half-court shots at the end of one of our games. We were going absolutely insane!

As far as the faculty, to be with these pioneers trying to carve out whole new disciplines is what I appreciated the most, like my first advisor, Star. And my second advisor, Rob Kling, who was a founder of social informatics, and other giants like John KingMark Ackerman and Jonathan Grudin, who were early pioneers of the computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW) field. To be able to go to the people who were actually inventing these things — it was just such a great group. The CSCW people laid the groundwork for informatics. I don’t think you have the Paul DourishGloria Mark or David Redmiles types without those earlier pioneers. But now I feel like I’m on my rocking chair on the porch saying, “Oh, the world was our oyster!”

Did you always want to go into academia?
I wasn’t necessarily thinking, “Oh, I have to be in academia,” but I figured if I was going to be thinking about these big questions around technology and policy and society, where do I do that? Maybe in government somewhere, or some private think tank, but academia seemed like a really good place to do it, especially when you’re able to hang out with all these incredible professors. It just looked like these people were doing exactly what they wanted — writing these beautiful papers, attending these beautiful meetings, and then going home to these beautiful houses up on the hill.

But the thing I didn’t quite appreciate about academia is that while it gives you a lot of this freedom, it also rewards people who are very specialized. I think the challenge from coming out of Irvine is that we were all very interdisciplinary, straddling all these different fields. So that gave me a lot of intellectual freedom, but I had to be more careful in my career path in terms of how I was positioning myself. Am I a CS person? Or am I really more of a businessperson or policy person?

Can you talk a bit about your career path?
My first job after UCI was as a faculty member at University of Cambridge in England. And I got that job because for my Ph.D. at Irvine, I studied manufacturing information systems, and my beautifully insane advisor at the time, Rob Kling, said, “if you’re going to study manufacturing, you’ve got to really get in there.” He insisted that I go work in a factory, become certified as a production inventory controller, and really understand what’s going on — that was part of his ethos. So, I would commute to Huntington Beach almost every day, where there was a manufacturing plant making keyboards and mice, as I was doing research for my Ph.D.

Then, it just so happened that as I was graduating, Cambridge University wanted someone who had manufacturing experience and who also understood computer technology and business and innovation. And their search of the world revealed me — there was no one else to choose from! So, I got to work at this ancient university, which was founded in the 1200s, and now, to this day, I follow an English football team, Arsenal. It actually sucks for Arsenal supporters right now [they finished in eighth place for the 2020 season], but they were a top team at the time, and I kind of got dragged into it by an Irish Grad student!

After Cambridge, I went to Purdue University in Indiana, which is a great engineering school, but I gradually transitioned from manufacturing engineering to the Business School, which is where I am now, even with my computer science background. People always say, “it’s great to be interdisciplinary,” but it’s a little more work as well, having to always figure out how you fit into things. There’s just not that many people who can play both sides and understand the big policy picture, but at the same time still be grounded in real technical knowledge.

How did you end up focusing on digital entrepreneurship and innovation?
The entrepreneurship, in particular, came out by accident because I’m not really an entrepreneurial guy. But at an MBA seminar in the Business School [at the University of San Francisco] in 2008, when we asked folks what they wanted to do, they said they wanted to learn technology.

J.P. Allen at the University of San Francisco.
J.P. Allen at the University of San Francisco.

At the time, business schools spent a lot of time teaching technology by giving students definitions of things and maybe some case studies, but as a CS person, I wanted to provide hands-on learning. So, I had people start spinning up some servers and putting stuff on the web, and they loved it! Learning technology became so popular with our entrepreneurship students that I actually wound up changing departments and moving over to entrepreneurship.

Then I wrote a book a few years ago called Technology and Inequality because I was interested in how those things relate to each other. It was a little bit of a depressing book, because there’s still growing inequality despite the fact that we are in this digital or technological age. Or is technology contributing to the inequality? I felt like one of the pieces we needed to emphasize to make entrepreneurship and innovation more inclusive was to make it so it’s not just the usual suspects and big tech taking over everything.

And how do we do that?
It’s a three-pronged attack, so there’s the cultural side, there’s the regulatory side, but there also has to be space to bring different people into the process to actually build stuff that’s different, so that’s the CS part of me. Yes, we do need to regulate things better, and we do need positive role models, but we need more diversity in the spaces, not just around the people but also around the kinds of things that people are trying to achieve. We have this very goal-sensitive technology that can go in a lot of different directions. It could be about making people smarter, or it could be about financially rewarding misinformation. How do we create spaces where people can build technology for different kinds of goals and purposes?

I’m studying these nonfinancial buy-nothing groups as they do these guerrilla operations to build communities outside of the normal venture capital field and big tech paradigm. I’m interested in the future of those kinds of initiatives. What is it that we’re trying to achieve with technology? We have this capability to better connect people and create healthier communities, yet it seems like too often, we’re creating the exact opposite. How do we recover that positive energy of technology and make sure that along the way, it doesn’t get translated into reinforcing misinformation or making people more hostile toward each other? That’s my next book project.

Another interesting thing I was discussing at a conference session recently was environmental information systems. There were these researchers from Finland giving a presentation on different carbon footprint calculators, but that opened up all these questions about why is it on the individual and not big industrial players? Every year, Oxfam reports another unbelievable statistic, like about how the top 200 billionaires own half the planet. Maybe when people see the extreme unevenness of the carbon budget that some of these people have, like our pal Mr. Bezos blasting into space, maybe that’s another way to get through to people. Environmental impact is a really interesting lens for looking at inequality.

Do you have any words of advice for ICS students hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Spend as much time as you can with the professors. So many people don’t want to take advantage of that person-to-person connection. They feel like they’re imposing on people, but it’s just like relationships everywhere. You have to open yourself up a bit and put yourself out there to make those connections.

What is really noteworthy is when you connect on the intellectual side and then realize, at a higher level, how the intellectual is also tied in with the personal — the life stories and life trajectories. It’s amazing to me how often that personal life then becomes part of their intellectual development and work. My first advisor, Star, was famous for writing about her onion allergy. It was just part of her biology, but it opened up a world of [exploring] people who are allergic or excluded from things. How does that work out in these bigger systems, and how are people classified as allergic or not allergic? And then she and her husband became these giants in the sociology of classification. So, invite yourself to become part of people’s intellectual journey — and not just your direct advisor or people in your field. A lot of times, just a little input from outside gives you that fresh perspective on what you’re doing.

I think back to all my fellow grad students, who were such a cast of characters and they’ve gone on to do such incredible things. But when you’re in the moment, grinding it out, you’re not stopping to look around and think about what an incredible group of people this is and what a unique moment in your life. It’s hard, because you’re obviously very busy, and you have to focus on certain things, but stop to think about the people around you and what has gone into assembling this incredible cast, kind of like the Jeopardy Professors Tournament. It’s all the dream of a lifetime.

— Shani Murray