The way Damon P. Williams (BSIE 02) tells it, he was destined to come to Georgia Tech — and destined to return years after he graduated. A Maryland native, Williams was a high school senior when he first considered engineering for his college major. This meant, he reflected in a recent interview, choosing between the “two best engineering schools in the country: northward to MIT and southward to Georgia Tech.”
It was 1998, two short years after the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, and Georgia Tech’s campus had been spiffed up to welcome the world. Williams remembered touring the Institute, seeing the brand-new dorms and swimming pool, and becoming enamored with the campus. “Georgia Tech was where I wanted to go,” he said. And industrial engineering was a natural fit, because he’s always been the type of person interested in solving problems and improving on solutions.
While an undergraduate student at the Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE), he completed two co-ops for a company that manufactured cell phones. Williams’ co-op experiences were enlightening, to say the least, as he became disheartened by the company’s “get it done as fast as possible” approach to solving problems, which favored employees who came up with quick solutions, regardless of whether the solutions were the right ones.
These experiences eventually led Williams to the realization that he wanted to stay in academia. After graduating from Tech, he went on to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, for his M.S. and Ph.D. in industrial engineering.
In Michigan, Williams’ career path took what some might consider to be an unusual turn: In 2006, while working on his Ph.D., he entered the Christian ministry. After Williams finished his dissertation, his pastor told him it was time for him to go to seminary.
What brought Williams back to Atlanta is ultimately what brought him back to ISyE, where he is now a lecturer and advisor in the academic office. He enrolled in a small Presbyterian seminary, Columbia Theological Seminary, in Decatur, Georgia. After his experiences with two large universities — Tech and Michigan — for his industrial engineering degrees, Williams was looking for a program that could offer an intimate community.
Seminary demanded skills that William hadn’t used since early in his undergraduate career. “My brain is wired for math and science,” he said, laughing. “Seminary was a lot of group work, a lot of reading, a lot of writing. I hadn’t written a paper outside my dissertation since English class my freshman year. Doing so much writing was difficult for me, and I decided to do something that would take me back to my Ph.D.”
Williams reached out to then-ISyE School Chair Chip White (now the Schneider National Chair in Transportation and Logistics), who had also been a professor at Michigan during William’s time there, to find out if there were any teaching opportunities within the School. White directed him to Chen Zhou, the associate chair for undergraduate studies, who immediately contacted Williams about teaching. The School was beginning to admit a larger number of ISyE majors, and as a result, needed to hire additional lecturers.
Williams agreed to teach two ISyE undergraduate courses, took a part-time post-doctoral appointment with Tech’s then-Center for Enhancement of Teaching and Learning (CETL), and continued with his seminary studies until he graduated with his master’s degree in divinity in 2012. “I like my plate to be full,” Williams said.
As Williams was about to graduate from Columbia, the pastor of his Atlanta church asked him, “Do you think you’re ready to lead a church?”
“Because I was a good Baptist associate minister,” Williams remembered, “I did as I was told and applied for the senior pastoral position at Providence Missionary Baptist Church,” which is a large, historic African American church in southwest Atlanta.
“There was no way they were going to hire me,” added Williams. “At the time I wasn’t married, I didn’t have any pastoring experience, I wasn’t ordained, and I had not yet graduated seminary when I applied. Top people in the field were applying for the job.” But over the next eight months, Williams went through the application and interview process, and Providence Missionary called him to be their pastor in September 2012.
At this point, Williams had three jobs: serving as senior pastor, as an instructor for ISyE, and as a full-time assistant director of CETL. He resigned from CETL but continued teaching for ISyE. He explained, “I love teaching, I love students, I love the ‘ah-ha!’ experience. I love taking a student who doesn’t think they can do it and really motivating and encouraging them and showing them they can succeed.”
Williams’ weekly schedule is packed: Sunday is a work day, with two church services and Sunday School in between. He spends Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings teaching early ISyE classes, then heads directly to his church from campus. Wednesday afternoons are spent at multiple church-related activities; Thursdays and Fridays are generally for sermon preparation; and Saturdays are for any church- or ISyE-related work. In between shuttling from ISyE to church activities, Williams reserves blocks of time to spend with his wife and 21-month-old son.
“Then the week starts over again on Sunday,” Williams reflected. “It’s a seven-day-a-week workweek. But the old adage is true: ‘If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.’”
Currently, Williams teaches three ISyE undergraduate classes: Operations Analysis (ISYE 3104), which is a breadth engineering elective; Introduction to Probability (ISYE 2027), which is required for all ISyE students; and Probability & Statistics (ISYE 3770), which is for non-ISyE majors. As an advisor for ISyE, he also has recently added student success initiatives — such as study techniques and time management — to his roster, specifically focusing on ISyE students who are struggling in their classes. He aims to increase students’ capacity for academic success.
“We have the best professors at the best college and the best resources. So students should get the best education,” Williams said. “If they’re not, I want to slide in there and figure out what can be done to make sure they’re getting the best education and the best experience.”
When asked if his two roles complement one another, Williams agrees. “At ISyE I study how to optimize large-scale systems. What is a church? A church is a large-scale system in a community. It has to be optimized and improved. People’s lives have to be improved; people’s relationships have to be improved. Are people widgets? Absolutely not. But can I apply some of the principles that I teach and have learned from my engineering degrees to create better solutions for my church? Yes.
“And then, my students find out I’m a pastor, and they show up at my church to hear me preach. I’ll see them sitting out there in the congregation. There’s definitely overlap — but not because I’m ministering to the students when I step on campus. I’m very aware to keep the two roles separate. But our society has some significant problems, and these millennials who I teach are going to get out there and solve those problems. So I’d better teach them well and love on them hard so they get out there and want to fix health care or our international relations with other countries, for example.”
Williams is passionate about building relationships with the people who cross his path. “Whether I’m on campus or at church, loving people is universal. I feel like I have two churches: a congregation in southwest Atlanta, and every semester — as they rotate through — a congregation of ISyE students. And I care about people and love on people and pour into people.”