From MITRE Intern to Technology Leader

January 2014
James Tolbert II
James Tolbert II

"One of the similarities that I started to see between computer science and dance is that they're both ways to communicate ideas through the complexities of time and space. With dance, you move your body through time and space. With computer science, a program is allotted only so much memory space and computation time to solve a problem," says James Tolbert II, a MITRE software engineer.

Last year, Tolbert won a Modern Day Technology Leader award at the 2013 Black Engineer of the Year Awards STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Global Competitiveness Conference. He earned recognition for his work developing and testing software prototypes for the intelligence community. He's become well known for his ability to tackle all aspects of a computer science problem: programming, researching, testing, and documentation.

These skills allow him to make meaningful contributions to a project throughout the entire systems engineering workflow. This same kind of dedication to pulling parts into a whole has also contributed to success in his lifelong passion for dance.

Getting to the Root of the Problem

"My job is to create base programs for evaluating testing systems," explains Tolbert. "When developing a testing system, you need to create a base program that verifies your system is functioning correctly before using the system to evaluate other inputs. You verify a program by seeing if the expected inputs lead to the expected outputs. For example, I expect that turning a car key will turn on the car. Therefore the input would be the car key, the program would be the process of turning the key, and the output that you expect would be the car engine starting."

Tolbert finds MITRE's environment a perfect fit for his multitasking personality. "MITRE encourages you to be flexible and creative when investigating a sponsor's problem, not to focus on just a quick fix. You get to take advantage of all the different expertise represented in our workforce. That helps you come up with a solution that addresses the sponsor's problem on a variety of levels."

An Illuminating Summer Internship

Tolbert first became acquainted with MITRE's problem-solving philosophies during a summer internship in 2009. At the time, he was pursuing research in visually based training systems for physical activity while a graduate student in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. "I was interested in incorporating computers into dance training. How could we leverage computers to understand a dance performance, to interpret what the performance should be, and then to teach someone how to perform it better?"

By the end of his internship, Tolbert was convinced he'd found the right place to begin his career. "It was an extremely successful summer. My managers gave me so much freedom to work on different projects. They said, 'Hey, we know you have the skill set, we know you can do a lot of different things. So what do you want to do?' We have so many different areas of research I could look into and so many experts in different research areas I could start making contacts with."

Creativity on the Job and Off

MITRE was the next step in a computer science career that started for Tolbert when he was in high school dreaming of becoming a video game designer. But his passion for dancing dates back even further than that.

"My mom put me in dance school when I was two years old. I had a lot of energy as a kid, but I was clumsy." Tolbert received instruction in ballet, tap, and jazz. He performed in competitions and events such as weddings, church programs and jazz festivals, sometimes as part of a tap duet with his sister.

Tolbert's interest in computer programming steered him away from trying to become the next Savion Glover. But he keeps himself immersed in the dance scene through social dancing and by attending dance congresses. "Dance congresses celebrate the different genres of dance. During the day you attend workshops, and then at night you show off what you learned in the classes."

Despite having to choose one over the other for a career, Tolbert never found his passions for dancing and computer science to be incompatible. "They're both ways of expressing yourself."

—by Christopher Lockheardt

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