ECE ILLINOIS alums are some of the most interesting people we know. To celebrate them, we’ve decided to ask them questions both serious and fun. Here, you’ll find their Ten Answers.
Ben Gumbiner (BSCompE ‘02) is the senior vice president of process and technology transformation at Universal McCann, one of the largest media buying agencies in the world. He creates technology products that help the company process large amounts of data and make it available to the company’s employees, to help them make the most effective and efficient decisions for which media to buy. This is all done with the ultimate goal of getting the right ad in front of the right person, at the right time, in the right context, and on the right device.
Ben also earned a master’s degree in management science and engineering at Stanford in 2004. After finishing his degree, he remained in the Bay Area and has lived in San Francisco for the last decade. Here are his Ten Answers.
How would your classmates remember you?
I think they would remember me as someone who was really good to work with as a lab partner or group member in labs. That was a big part of ECE, and one of my favorite parts. I think I brought to the table a combination of being able to keep up with the lab but also keeping it a friendly and fun atmosphere, which I think is equally or more important to have a successful team than having people with their heads down cranking away at work.
How has your ECE ILLINOIS background influenced your career?
It’s funny, (ECE Department Head) Bill Sanders was in the area for a visit and asked a similar question. I do almost nothing directly related to the classes, however, the learnings around methodology and process that I acquired through ECE have been invaluable. The way in which you solve problems for something like electromagnetics or processors, from the ECE curriculum, it’s the same type of problem-solving you can do in almost any situation. And I learned from ECE the thought process for everything in my working world, even though my work isn’t directly related to what I learned from my time in classes there.
What is the most interesting or rewarding trip you have taken?
I went to Cape Town, South Africa, a couple of years ago. I’ve done quite a bit of traveling and had been to developing countries before, but I had never experienced something as stark as the environment in South Africa, where the difference between the haves and have-nots is so drastic. You don’t get to experience that in the United States since there’s more of an economic equality standard across the country. So that was interesting.
And then, there are things there that aren’t in the U.S. I got the opportunity to go shark diving and swim with penguins. I got to rappel down a mountain. It was at Table Mountain, off a cliff that looks like a table dropping straight down. You have a rope attached with a harness and you go down, pushing off the rock. At first, it’s incredibly petrifying, when your back is facing the bottom. You’re leaning backward with your back facing the ground, with no idea what’s below. You release and hope to God that the harness and rope hold you. Once you realize that they will and you start pushing off, it’s an amazing experience, with the scenery, flying down the mountainside.
What’s your personal philosophy?
Optimize your happiness. To me, that means maximizing not only what you’re doing on a day-to-day basis by deciding on the tradeoffs of what you can do today that will make you the most happy, but also planning for the future. So you can’t necessarily live a life in which you just get to do the thing that makes you happiest ever single minute of the day, because you also need to plan for future, to also prepare yourself for future happiness. Optimize happiness today while planning for the future. And also take actions on a day-to-day basis that will help yourself to be happy in that moment in time.
When you have 30 minutes of free time, how do you spend it?
Probably outdoors. There are a lot of outside activities to do in the Bay Area. I like rock climbing, hiking, soccer, basketball — a variety of things. It’s important to balance the physical with the mental, so if I get some free time, I let myself work some of those muscles.
What makes you feel energized?
Entrepreneurship. But, specifically, thinking about what products can disrupt given market conditions. I really get energized when I start brainstorming, talking, and whiteboarding an idea. It starts fuzzy without a lot of structure, then you talk more, you get intrigued, sometimes it turns into something that starts to gain momentum. It really energizes me, deciding to get something out there, get people using it, get their feedback, see where it goes and what sticks.
Who has been the biggest influence on your life?
I don’t think it’s any one person, to be honest. I realized very early on that there’s so much to learn in this life, and there are so many people you can learn it from, and that doesn’t just mean that you learn it from someone who does something better than you or who has done it longer, but learning from as many perspectives as you possibly can. I learn from people doing things unrelated to me, or ahead or behind where I am in my career. I have a philosophy to learn the differences and the best of everyone I meet and combine it into one holistic learning or mentorship conglomeration, instead of one particular person who has influenced me most.
What’s your favorite book or television show?
My favorite book is probably Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. I really like the sarcasm, the cleverness of the book, and the way he weaves the stories in, but mostly just how clever it is.
As for television shows, I’ve been binge-watching The Wire, even though it’s probably 10 years old now. I finally have a chance to catch up on it, and I’m pretty hooked. And like in Catch 22, they interweave these different stories together. Even though I’m about 10 years past when everyone else was watching it, I’m really enjoying it.
If you could choose a super power, what would it be?
To be able to pick up any language instantaneously. Even though it’s not really a super power, it’s the closest thing I’d want. To go anywhere in the world and speak the language of whoever lives there, and really be able to interact with them at a level that you can only really do if you speak the language natively. It’s great to go and speak in broken combinations of languages, but it would be far better to really be able to fluently speak any language in the world.
What future or cutting-edge technology would you love to have, real or fictional?
The self-driving car. It is real, and it’s being tested. The barrier is not the tech, but the logistics and operations around it, solving the rules and regulations governing it. I hate driving, I feel like it’s the thing I get the most disproportionately stressed out about. So I’d like to eliminate that. It’d be great to sit down and relax and do something else while the car drives me. And if everyone else has self-driving cars, you don’t have to worry as much about accidents. I’m more of a realist, so I think about things that are more in reach. In the Bay Area especially, it is getting close to becoming a reality.