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Ellis Johnson: Deep Roots at Georgia Tech

Posted September 7, 2010 | Atlanta, GA

While students were coming to California from all over the world to study in the same program with the man considered the father of linear programming, the esteemed George Dantzig, Ellis Johnson stumbled upon the great teacher, who recognized Johnson’s gift and took him on as his student. In the nearly fifty years since, Johnson, now the Coca Cola chair in the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE), has sealed his own place in the discipline of Operations Research (OR), having made significant contributions to the field both in academia and while working at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research facility. For his efforts, Johnson has been recognized with numerous awards, including the George Dantzig Prize, and an IBM Corporate Fellow, which was responsible for bringing him back to his Georgia roots.

A native of Georgia, Johnson grew up on a farm near Athens. Though Johnson’s father initially wanted his sons and daughter to attend the University of Georgia, Johnson’s older brother, Fred, prevailed in coming to Georgia Tech, and Johnson followed in his footsteps. The deciding factor for their father was Tech’s co-op program, which provided the opportunity to pay for college while gaining valuable work experience.  Johnson, who was initially an aerospace engineering major, spent two quarters as a co-op student at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which later became NASA, at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.

After changing his major to math, Johnson was able to piece together a small scholarship, summer and part-time jobs, parental support, and previous savings to complete his degree. He excelled as an undergraduate math major and was encouraged to continue his education at the University of California at Berkely. At a summer job between completing his masters in math and starting his PhD program, Johnson discovered operations research, and that discovery changed the trajectory of his education and career

Though he had gone to UC Berkeley to study probability theory, Johnson said that “operations research just seemed to me to be a much better thing for me to do than what I was doing.” So Johnson changed his major. He registered for his first OR course, which the director of the program was teaching. As it turned out, that director was George Dantzig, a name which meant little to Johnson at the time; however, Johnson soon learned that Dantzig was “sort of the leading light” in OR. As that first year progressed, a mutual respect developed between the teacher and student, and a bond formed between the two that lasted through the remainder of Dantzig’s life.

Crediting Dantzig with setting his career for him, Johnson explains that his first job after completing his PhD was teaching in the industrial administration program at Yale University. During a junior faculty sabbatical at ETH [the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology] in Zurich, Johnson discerned that he wanted to go into a research environment rather than return to Yale.  Though Dantzig, by then at Stanford University, courted Johnson to join him at Stanford, Johnson declined, instead accepting an offer he had received from IBM. However, Johnson explains that had it not been for Dantzig, “I wouldn’t have known those people at IBM, and they would not have known [of] me.” In the end, that experience gave Johnson the chance to work with OR luminaries such as Phil Wolfe, Alan Hoffman and Ralph Gomory. 

After nearly a quarter century with IBM, Johnson decided that he wanted to return to Georgia Tech as a member of its faculty, but in 1990, IBM offered him a prestigious IBM Fellow. Such appointments entitled Fellows to a five-year period of relative freedom in their work. Johnson thought, “If I’ve got that kind of freedom, I want to continue to work with the software we’ve developed at IBM, but I also want to come to Georgia Tech and set up a Computational Optimization Center with George Nemhauser,” the A. Russell Chandler III chaired professor in ISyE.

As an IBM employee, Johnson worked with Nemhauser in setting up classes at Georgia Tech as well as establishing collaborative relationships with users of the software. Then, in 1995, after the five years ended, Johnson retired from IBM and joined the Georgia Tech faculty as the newly endowed Coca Cola chaired professor in ISyE. With that title, Johnson shared the distinction with Nemhauser of being the first two endowed chair-holders in ISyE.

 For Johnson, however, returning to his roots did not just mean returning to Georgia Tech. As a farm boy, Johnson’s roots grow deep in Georgia soil. When he’s not in Atlanta, or teaching in Georgia-Tech’s Dual Masters program in Shanghai, Johnson is at home on his 100-acre farm in Madison, Georgia. Appropriately called the 100- Acre Farm, Johnson’s land, eighty-six acres of which has been set aside as a conservation easement,  is situated where the Apalachee River runs into Lake Oconee. Miles of trails run through woods and alongside creeks and ponds. And so that others can enjoy the land, Johnson also established the Farmhouse Inn Bed & Breakfast, which in addition to serving eggs from their own farm-raised chickens, is also one of the top ten bird watching B&Bs in the country.

 Bringing his worlds together, for the past three summers Johnson has hosted Chinese exchange students at his farm and shown them Madison’s southern charm. Though, as Johnson explains, it’s the student’s choice about how to spend their time, many like to make this trip to Madison.

Offering students the opportunity for a shared learning experience is consistent with Johnson’s teaching philosophy.  One of the things Johnson cares about is collaboration. “I use the analogy of a tapestry,“ he explains. “You’ve got threads, and some of the threads break, and it weakens the whole thing.” Continuing, Johnson says that he tells his students: “Don’t be the thread that breaks; be the thread that fills in and makes it work.”

The thread that runs continuously through Johnson’s own tapestry brought him back to Georgia. Though coming home was an important consideration for Johnson, the real tug was being at Georgia Tech and holding the Coca Cola chair.  In Johnson’s experience, Tech is a positive place, and there’s a degree of flexibility in making things happen that is unusual for a state school. According to Johnson, people know what they are doing, they know what they have to do, and they feel they can do it. At the end of the day, Johnson said, “It just makes me feel better to be here.”

For More Information Contact

Barbara Christopher
Industrial and Systems Engineering
404.385.3102