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Trojan Engineer Gets a Hearty Handshake from Bill Gates

December 20, 2007 — It’s one thing to be part of a crowd applauding Bill Gates as he is about to preview the latest Microsoft tabletop computer; it’s quite another thing to be the one introducing Gates to the crowd. 

But that’s what Michael Johnson, an electrical engineering graduate student in the Viterbi School, found himself doing earlier this semester. The Region 6 chairman of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) got to shake hands with the Microsoft chief himself, in his own territory — Redmond, Washington — during NSBE’s annual conference.

“It was unreal,” said the 24-year-old graduate student. “I was so excited and so nervous. I still don’t know what happened. It was awesome…like the icing on the cake after putting that conference together.”

Prof. Alan Willner of the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering called Johnson, "a wonderful credit to the Viterbi School" who displayed great leadership skills and presence.

"Michael gave a rousing and impressive welcome at the meeting.  For him to chair a 2500-member organization and chair a meeting for hundreds of people so early in his career, and in such a humble way, shows incredible future potential.  And when I saw him introduce Bill Gates, I was just floored," said Willner, one of Johnson's professors.  "He's a very special person, mature, bright, personable, and extremely well rounded.  He is what we'd like all of our students to be."

Johnson’s ambition, drive and vivacious personality probably had something to do with pulling it off.  But without the help of his NSBE friends and colleagues, Johnson never would have become a first-year Trojan engineer. 
Michael Johnson

A native of Pasadena, he enrolled in Cal Poly Pomona after high school in 2000, but wound up on the academic probation list and dropped out to join the Air Force Reserves. He fought his way back, got into Pasadena City College, then Cal State Fullerton and, finally, earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering  -- seven years after he started.

After all that work for his degree, Johnson figured he was done with school.

“I was just supposed to go out and make money,” he said.

But his involvement in a group he joined two years ago set him on a different path. In 2005, Johnson joined the National Society of Black Engineers, an organization dedicated to promoting engineering as a study among African American students and fostering career opportunities for graduates.

When a spot opened up for chapter president at Cal State Fullerton, Johnson jumped on it, and the young engineer started a climb through the organization that has helped bring him to USC – where his father also attended college and ran on the track team.

Instead of heading off to a job with his bachelor’s degree in hand, as Johnson was leaving Cal State he was encouraged by a friend and member of the NSBE to take advantage of a leadership void at the society’s regional office.  Again, Johnson sprung into action, and with his election as Region 6 chairperson of the NSBE, he was headed back to school, this time in Viterbi’s Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering.

These days, Johnson is a very busy man. Aside from the academic rigors of his first graduate semester, he also works part-time at Northrop Grumman, is still in the Air Force Reserves, and now oversees NSBE's activities in 13 western states.

Johnson shakes his head a little when thinking about the workload he has created for himself.

“It’s difficult, and it’s rough,” he said. “But I look at it like it’s giving me my work ethic.”

His NSBE leadership has also created memorable opportunities for him. Gates was the first.  He hopes there will be others.

“That right there was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Johnson said of meeting the technology icon.

Though it’s part of a very busy schedule, Johnson said his work with NSBE is gratifying, and he is quick to credit his fellow members and the local chapter president with making the organization run smoothly.

“You don’t owe it to yourself,” he said of the work NSBE members do for young engineers, “you owe it to the ones who are coming up behind you.”

-- Benjamin Murray