Staff Spotlight: Debra Brodbeck’s Unique Background a Perfect Fit for Institute for Software Research

March 10, 2020

When Debra Brodbeck first came to California at age 19, there was no way for the Pittsburgh native to know that her spontaneous decision to pack up and move across the country would lead to a long-term and mutually beneficial relationship with UCI. In fact, when she first transferred to UCI at age 23, she had no idea she would eventually become the assistant director of UCI’s Institute for Software Research (ISR), advancing software and information technology through research partnerships. She knew she had a knack for programming, but she didn’t know she could manage large projects and events. She knew she was good at math, but she didn’t know she could facilitate collaborations and lead fundraising efforts for student fellowships.

“Part of it was luck — I happened to end up in the right circumstance at the right time with the right boss and I flourished,” says Brodbeck, who after more than 30 years at UCI will be retiring in June. Here, she explains how she ended up at UCI, double majoring in math and computer science, and built ties that would pull her back in after earning a master’s degree in computer science from the University of Pittsburgh. She talks about how that computer science background has been instrumental in helping her build and manage ISR, and what comes next as she prepares for life after UCI.

What first sparked your interest in computer science, and what led you to UCI?
I was always good in math, and after high school I went to a technical school for programming for 15 months where I learned Cobol, RPG, Fortran and Assembly. That was in my hometown, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I came to California shortly after that, had difficulty finding work, and ended up baking chocolate chip cookies at a store in Laguna Beach. Someone recommended that I go back to school, starting at a community college if need be, with the goal of getting a degree at UCI. And that’s what I did! I started at Saddleback College and then transferred here into the Department of Information and Computer Science (ICS). Once here, I decided to double major with math because it only took an extra year to get both bachelor’s degrees, and because I really enjoyed math. In my final year, I got hired as a programmer analyst on the Arcadia research project, investigating software engineering tools and techniques. In particular, I focused on concurrency analysis, contributing to alumnus Michal Young’s (Ph.D. 1989) dissertation work. I stayed here for a year as a programmer, and then I went to get my master’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh.

After earning your master’s degree in computer science, what made you return to UCI?
I always intended to come back to California. My master’s degree took two years, and in the summer between those two years, I came back and was an Arcadia programmer again. When I was first hired, Dick Taylor and Rick Selby were my supervisors. When I came back in the summer, Debra Richardson was my supervisor. A year later, when I finished my master’s degree, the software faculty hired me back again. I worked half time as an Arcadia programmer and half time as an assistant director for the newly established Irvine Research Unit in Software (IRUS), which emphasized building relationships with industry.

Arcadia programmer analysts and friends Kari Nies and Debra Brodbeck with their supervisor, Richard Taylor, in 1993 after receiving the APS Distinguished Staff Award.

IRUS later became the Institute for Software Research (ISR), so you’ve been here since the very beginning, correct?
Yes. After a few years we put together a proposal to become an ORU [Organized Research Unit], and I enjoyed coordinating that project. The approval process took several years, with IRUS ultimately transforming into an ORU called the Institute for Software Research (ISR). This was just before ICS became a school. The faculty members who were part of ISR in the beginning also formed the nucleus for the Department of Informatics; it was nice that ISR could provide support to them in that effort.

Can you talk about your role as an event organizer?
I didn’t know how to manage events when I first started here, but that’s one of the things that I spent a lot of time on over the years. Because I came from a technical background, organizing events with technical people ended up being a good fit. I had been on the Arcadia research project as a programmer and had gotten to know a lot of researchers, and in IRUS I got to work closely with technical people in industry. So my background was rather unique. And the position that I was in at ISR was also unique. I managed a lot of events along the way, as small events turned into small conferences, and small conferences turned into big conferences. One of my biggest accomplishments was managing ICSE 2011, which was in Hawaii. I worked on that conference for more than four years. We had almost 1,100 attendees over nine days. For me, it was a tropical blur! But after that, I had a lot of confidence in myself. If I could do that, I knew I could do anything.

Having ISR be successful for so many years was really satisfying, as was getting to know so many members of the research community from managing the conferences. I really feel like I’ve been a part of something important with ISR, in part because we were able to provide so much service to the research community.

What did you like best about working for ISR and UCI over the years?
I got really lucky. Dick Taylor was a great boss. He would give you interesting work and would let you try new things. And if you succeeded in something, then he would expand your responsibilities in that area, and if you failed at something, that was okay. He’s just very kind and supportive, and was exactly the kind of boss that I needed. He had faith in me, and I flourished in that particular environment. One of the things that he did was to tell other people when I had done a good job, which is so impactful. So I learned to do that too. If somebody has been helpful to me, I will send an email to them to thank them, and I’ll copy their manager, or I’ll send the email to their manager directly and will say how helpful they have been. Because telling other people makes a difference; it provides visibility.

ISR Director Emeritus Prof. Richard Taylor and ISR Assistant Director Debra Brodbeck at Taylor’s Retirement Celebration in June 2013.

And the software research group — whether it was the Arcadia group, IRUS or later ISR — it’s always been a very collegial group of faculty, staff and graduate students. We’ve always gotten along really well, and there’s always been a lot of collaboration and a lot of interesting research projects. So it was a really good environment to be in, and I made a lot of friends along the way.

I also like working at the university in general. UCI is a very beautiful campus and is such a nice place to be. I’ve been very fortunate to be here for so long. I tell people all the time that I only thought I’d be here for a couple of years, just until I figured out what I wanted to do when I grew up! But here I am 30 years later, getting ready to retire.

Looking back, what has been most rewarding about your work?
One of the things that has been most rewarding for me is helping to get the Richard N. Taylor Graduate Award in Software Engineering set up. I’ve maintained relationships with many of our alumni over the years, and so when Andre van der Hoek asked me to help bring in donations for the fellowship, I was very eager to help. We had about two months to reach the target goal of $100,000, and we needed to bring in $85,000 to get there. Andre and I split the work and, between the two of us, we brought in those funds just in time to announce the fellowship at the ICS 50th Anniversary Celebration!

While I was working on the Taylor fellowship, one of the alumni I approached was Rosalva Gallardo Valencia (Ph.D. 2012), who told me that she wanted to set up her own fellowship. So I learned what to do, working closely with the fantastic Catherine Rupp, and helped create the new graduate award in Rosalva’s name.

Alumna Rosalva Gallardo Valencia, now a privacy program manager at Google, and Debra Brodbeck.

These fellowships are wonderful for Dick, and wonderful for Rosalva, and I feel I’ve contributed to something permanent that’s going to benefit students long after I’m gone. For me, that is really meaningful, and being part of this effort has been very rewarding.

It’s been a good career. I’ve been fortunate.

What are your future plans?
When I retire, I’ll be able to help out more with my elderly mom. So from a family perspective, retirement comes at a good time. From a personal perspective, I’d like to just relax and enjoy the holidays for once — maybe bake some holiday cookies! I also really want to spend time in my garden. I love digging in the dirt and tending to my plants, and I love doing crafty things, but I don’t have enough time to do any of these. Now, if I make it out into my garden, I have to spend all day to get everything done and it’s a chore, instead of a pleasure. I’m ready to slow down and enjoy it. I also like to make jewelry and do some cross-stitch, and I like to sew. I’m looking forward to all these things. It’s been a good transition working shorter hours this year. I originally got hired in 1988, so it’s been 32 years. I’m ready for the next phase.

Shani Murray