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Leadership focus draws Johnson to Berkeley computing program

In the emerging era of “big data,” Kevin Johnson is passionate about applying computing power to address societal challenges. But it’s the intersection between computers and people–both as end users and as system developers–that led him to an intensive one-year master’s program in computer science at the University of California, Berkeley.

Kevin Johnson '13

Kevin Johnson ’13

In addition to technical training, the program features a core set of leadership development courses. The program also includes a capstone project in which self-selected teams work to solve challenges drawn from real-world business cases.

Johnson, from Farmington, Minn., anticipates developing skills and relationships that may lead to employment with a nearby Silicon Valley tech firm. But he’s also considering ways he might apply technology to his interests in politics and social change, perhaps building on his senior honors study of online voting by becoming a political analyst.

In his thesis, Johnson asserted that a well-designed online voting system can overcome concerns about security and anonymity, and that it promises real societal benefits that go beyond convenience. As an example, he cites his own experience of voting in Iowa and being confronted with a list of judges and local candidates he was not familiar with.

“If you’re voting at home from a computer, you can have all the information available to you to make the most informed decision,” he said.

Johnson credits politics professor Rob Sutherland for teaching him one of his most lasting lessons while at Cornell. Sutherland assigned his class to critically review a particular argumentative paper, and Johnson’s first response was that the author made no sense. Sutherland told him not to dismiss the essay so quickly and to approach the assignment again by first understanding the author’s point of view.

“Until you understand something from the other person’s perspective when they wrote it, you will never be able to argue strongly against it,” Johnson said. “Everyone has reasons for what they think and do that make sense to them—once you understand their assumptions, you understand people.”

Kevin Johnson’s highlights

  • Honors thesis on online voting
  • Summer research  on non-linear plane contouring with computer science professor Ross Sowell
  • Vice president of Chess & Games and Zombie Outbreak Management Facilitation Team
  • Web editor of The Cornellian
  • Planning to publish own role-playing game based on Dungeons & Dragons