Before They Were Educators: Dr. Mark Holliday

Dr. Mark Holliday of the mathematics and computer science department teaches computer science at Western Carolina University, as well as conducts research on database systems.

Before he came to WCU, Holliday traveled around and engaged in software development for places such as NASA. Having a father who was in the U.S. Army, Holliday and his family moved around a lot. According to Holliday, he was born in Naples, Italy, and his brother was born in Taiwan. Holliday went to high school in Columbia, S.C. and then went to college in Virginia.

While in college, Holliday took part in two summer internships, one with the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. developing software that dealt with astronomy and the other one with the Research Division of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, also located in Washington D.C., where he worked developing software as well. Holliday described his internships as good experiences.

“That helped after college because I graduated at a terrible time to graduate from college because of a recession,” Holliday said. “It was 1978. It was the time of one of the Oil OPEC Cartel Crises. Almost all of the United States was in a recession, and so there were not many job openings, but Houston, Texas did have some jobs because that’s where the oil industry’s based. So, they were actually booming because of the crisis.”

Holliday went on to talk about how he got his job working for NASA. According to Holliday, the oil companies in Houston hired people who were experienced with software development. Since NASA had trouble competing salary-wise with the oil companies, they had to be what Holliday describes as “more flexible.”

“Even though I had limited experience, they were willing to hire me,” Holliday said.

While working for NASA, Holliday worked with a contractor called the Ford Aerospace and Communications Corporation, which was part of the Ford Motor Company.

“The people that develop the software are not NASA employees; they work for contractors,” said Holliday. “For example, I worked in the Mission Control Center building at the Johnson Space Center and almost no one in the building was a NASA employee; they were almost all with two contractors.”

Holliday explained that the two contractors that worked with NASA were his company, Ford Aerospace and Communications Corporation and IBM.

His group of about a dozen people wrote the software for the downlink from the space shuttle. Holliday and his group wrote the software that gathered the data, transformed it, organized it and modified it. Afterwards, they then sent the data onto the computers that IBM kept.

According to Holliday, NASA kept delaying the start of the space shuttle while he was there. Its first launch happened about two months after he left NASA. A member of his programming team had to sit next to the computer at all times, even at two in the morning, during the space shuttle flight.

“Even at two in the morning,” Holliday said. “If any of the software would not work properly, the person there would hopefully figure it out.”

One of the most exciting times Holliday had with NASA was when Skylab fell. According to Holliday, Skylab was America’s first space station, and it was up during the time he was there. However, it ended up falling and crashing into the earth. Holliday stated that an early space shuttle flight was supposed to shift Skylab to a higher orbit, but due to the delay in the first space shuttle launch, Skylab fell instead.

“Because of the size of Skylab it could have caused considerable damage. Fortunately, it fell in western Australia and did not cause any harm,” said Holliday.

After his time with NASA ended, Holiday went on to obtain his PhD in Computer Science at the University of Wisconsin, where he described the computer science program there as “being active in the early days of the internet.”

Holliday then went on to become an assistant professor at Duke University, where he taught for seven and a half years. According to Holiday, his time at Duke is what drew him to North Carolina and WCU.

“We liked living in North Carolina,” said Holliday. “I also decided that I wanted to go to a university that was more teaching-oriented. I heard that Western had an opening. I applied and fortunately, I was accepted.”

Holliday has been teaching at WCU for 19 and a half years.

“Joining the university here has been one of the best decisions that I have ever made. I am happy to be part of the WCU community,” said Holliday.