When Steve Acterman first received an email about UC Irvine’s 52nd Distinguished Alumni Lauds & Laurels Awards Ceremony, he skipped over it, assuming it was a “save the date” reminder. As an active alumnus of both the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) and the Paul Merage School of Business, he had already saved the date: October 26, 2023. Only later did he realize that he was one of the 16 accomplished individuals that the UCI Alumni Association planned to honor in recognition of outstanding service to the community, professional excellence, and campus involvement.
Acterman, who received both his BS in computer science (’86) and his MBA (’99) from UCI, has prioritized campus engagement for decades, including as co-founder and past president of the ICS Alumni Organization. He has also served as an ICS student mentor, guest speaker and panelist; a UCI Alumni Association board member; and a corporate sponsor/volunteer for a wide variety of ICS and UCI outreach programs. He recently joined the ICS Industry Advisory Board as well.
As Director of IT Vendor Management with Edwards Lifesciences, a leading innovator in the medical device market, Acterman leverages both his technical and business degrees from UCI every day. He also makes time to support ICS and UCI, drawing on his diverse experiences in information technology, vendor management, and IT leadership positions held at various companies, including DIRECTV, Capital Group, Raytheon, Volt Information Sciences, Hughes Aircraft and AT&T.
Learn here what first sparked his interest in computer science, why he’s motivated to stay connected to his alma mater, and how he likes to venture off the beaten path — both personally and professionally.
What first sparked your interest in computer science?
When I was in elementary school, I’d flip on the TV after school and watch endless reruns of the original Star Trek television series. I became fascinated by the bridge of the Enterprise. All of those futuristic control panels, and the fact that you could talk to the computer, was just fascinating to me. A few years later, when I encountered an early “home computer,” I was hooked.
What led you to UCI?
There are a lot of great schools in California, but what makes ICS unique is its independence and interdisciplinary outreach. When I researched other schools, most of the computing programs were either buried inside of engineering or math. At UCI, the ICS program seemed highly focused on computing as an emerging independent discipline, and it was actively collaborating with many other areas of academic inquiry. This more forward-thinking approach certainly appealed to me. And it was just a wonderful coincidence that UCI was also geographically desirable, because I grew up in Orange County. So, choosing UCI and ICS was a surprisingly easy decision.
What led you to return to UCI for your MBA?
As my career trajectory transitioned from software engineering to computing systems management, I found that I was increasingly in direct contact with other areas of the business (outside of IT), and I needed to understand their perspective and speak their language to be truly effective in my role.
At first, I didn’t even consider UCI because I had heard from several sources that it was unusual to attend the same university for both undergraduate and graduate degrees. I decided, though, that only made sense if you are pursuing the same discipline, so I put UCI back on my list. When I compared all of the public and private options within commute range of my job, UCI was the clear winner for curriculum, program format, student support, scheduling, and academic standing.
Can you also talk about your current role at Edwards Lifesciences?
I’m the director of IT vendor management for the Edwards Global IT organization. It’s a challenging mashup of both technical and business responsibilities, and fortunately, I’m uniquely suited for the role with my UCI computer science degree and MBA. I work closely with our technical leaders and internal business unit customers to identify and evaluate commercial technology solutions and service providers, and then provide ongoing vendor relationship and performance management. I really enjoy being able to dig into the technology, assisting with technical requirements as well as solutions, while also optimizing the business side, particularly with enterprise software licensing and contract negotiations.
It’s also a very dynamic position. I typically have 10-20 projects and vendor interactions going on at any given time. I found out early on in my career that just sitting and programming for 8 to 10 hours a day wasn’t for me. I enjoyed the elegance of software engineering and creating business logic, but I just couldn’t focus on the same task all day long and stay at optimal productivity. My current role requires a high level of multitasking, which is my sweet spot.
And what motivates you to stay engaged with UCI?
I like to tell people that the best reason for continued engagement is enlightened self-interest. It’s actually much more than that, but supporting your alma mater can increase the value of your degree. You can recruit the best students. You can help raise the public profile of the university. You can donate and increase the school’s resources. All of these factor into the rankings, which in turn increases the profile of our school and value of our degrees. I hope everyone will find a way to engage with ICS or UCI, if only for that reason.
I’ve also always tremendously enjoyed volunteering. Both of my parents were public school teachers, so there was already a strong predisposition to public education and service in our family. I was only a year or two out of school when Essie Lev from the ICS Undergraduate Counseling Office reached out to me. “I’ve gotten a couple of inquiries from ICS alumni asking if we have a group for them,” she said, so we met up with a couple of interested alums and came up with a game plan to create the ICS Alumni Organization. That eventually led me to get involved in many other areas of campus life, such as the ICS Theme House, the UCI Alumni Association, and the UCI Career Center. Later, when I became a Merage alumni, I began volunteering there as well.
There are many benefits from a personal perspective, but the satisfaction you get from giving back and helping current students is incredible.
You also recently enjoyed a trip to Iceland to see the Northern Lights! How was that experience?
I like to do “adventurous” vacations. I went to Costa Rica one year, and Thailand another. Most people don’t think of Iceland as their first choice for a trip, but it ended up being an amazingly cool adventure — no pun intended! It was quite cold, but it was clear and so we were able to view a full display of the Aurora Borealis on two different nights, which is incredibly lucky. We also saw frozen waterfalls, an eco-friendly computer-controlled indoor tomato farm, and the Blue Lagoon – one of the National Geographic 25 natural wonders of the world.
What was your reaction to learning you were a 2023 Distinguished Alumnus?
I actually ignored the message! I’m on numerous UCI email distribution lists, so oftentimes I’ll get multiple messages with the same announcement. When I received this one, I just moved it to the “deal with it later” folder, assuming it was another save-the-date reminder for Lauds & Laurels. But a few days later, something clicked and I thought, “Wait a second … One of those messages was from the dean, and they don’t usually use the dean’s account to send out reminder notices.” When I went back and looked, and found that it was a personal message from Dean Marios informing me of the award, I was quite stunned! I read the message several times before it fully sank in.
Any advice for fellow ICS alumni thinking about getting more involved?
Stay connected and stay involved, whether it’s just to be social or to make new connections for business networking. There’s an opportunity for everyone: Maybe you want an outlet to practice soft skills or to take on a volunteer leadership position, or perhaps you’d like to recruit promising students, or encourage your employer to attend a career fair. Or you might just enjoy meeting up with fellow Anteaters or ICS alums over dinner or coffee.
There are plenty of different opportunities to participate, just find the channel you are excited about. It can do wonders for you personally as well as professionally.
What about words of advice for ICS students?
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the plethora of choices for extracurricular activities. You obviously can’t participate in everything that sounds appealing when you’re a full-time student. I suggest starting with just one club or student organization that you find exciting or intriguing. There are plenty of great student groups affiliated with ICS, and they’re beneficial for both your personal relaxation as well as for developing the soft skills that you’re going to need to stand out from the crowd when you begin looking for a career job. Many people have computer science degrees, but if you were a club officer, or if you helped plan an event, or worked on a volunteer project, those are all experiences that directly translate into success factors as a corporate employee. So it’s a good way to unwind and meet some new liked-minded friends, but it’s also a great way to enhance your personal marketability and confidence.
And can you offer any career advice?
I’m a great example of how following a non-standard career path can take you where you didn’t know you wanted to go. A lot of times when students come to ICS, they’re thinking about a career in software engineering. You can certainly pursue that path, but make an effort to learn about, and be open to, what else you might do with your computer science degree after graduating from UCI.
Computing has evolved into an amazingly diverse domain, with so many options. I came to ICS thinking that I was going to be a software engineer, and my plan was to work for a couple of years, pay off some student loans, and then come back and get my master’s in computer science. But I found that as unexpected opportunities presented themselves, I began to refocus on computer system management for large-scale software development projects, which eventually led to working with an array of commercial technology vendors. So, I ended up in a very different — but still related — career.
You can use your computer science degree as a foundation for many different roles in any industry or domain, public or private sector. There’s virtually no enterprise that doesn’t extensively utilize computing technology now. It’s ubiquitous.
I’ve had the opportunity to work in B2B services, financial services, aerospace & defense, business applications consulting, broadcast/entertainment services, big software, technology solution delivery, and healthcare services. I’ve worked for a very small business software consulting firm, and for a company that was the largest private employer in California. You really can take your ICS degree and go anywhere you want with it.
So here’s my advice: Be open to alternate career paths (and unlikely employers) that might leverage your ICS degree in a way that you never could have imagined!
— Shani Murray