When Beth Phalen arrived at WPI as a freshman computer science major in the fall of 1981, “data protection” meant a strong rubber band.
“My first semester, we still used punch cards,” she explains, “We had to go down to WACCC [Worcester Area College Computation Center in Gordon Library]—and I remember late at night or early in the morning leaving with my punch cards, with a rubber band wrapped around them to keep them in the right order. You’d hand that stack in and they would run it through the system. You would get the output on paper, and you’d review it, and then you would have to update the cards.”
Phalen laughs as she thinks about how technology has changed. She and her classmates once worried about accidentally disarranging their punch cards before their programs could be run on the IBM mainframe. Today, she is president and general manager of the data protection division at Dell EMC, the multinational information technology corporation headquartered in Hopkinton, Mass. She and her customers around the globe now have far more complex concerns.
“The way I talk about it is, it’s our responsibility to make sure that customers—corporations all the way down to the small- to medium sized businesses—can access their data no matter what happens,” she says. “And their needs are really changing. The amount of data is growing exponentially. Meanwhile, businesses are becoming more and more dependent on that data—its importance is also increasing exponentially.”
She took on this high-stakes leadership position in 2016 and now oversees a global team of 1,700, from software engineers to salespeople, who create and market software and hardware that help companies archive, back up, and recover their data. This career trajectory has brought her a long way from shuffling punch cards, but her current role makes sense to friends she bonded with during late nights at WACCC.