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Don McMurtry


Don McMurtry ’86

Don McMurtry ’86 joined Research In Motion (RIM) — the company behind the BlackBerry — in 1993 when the wireless-data market was just emerging. He became vice president of sales in 1997, and helped launch BlackBerry in 1999. McMurtry retired in May 2006 and this spring returned to Rensselaer to spend a semester lecturing and advising students in the Lally School.

Why did you join RIM?

I was looking for a company that had a certain style of leadership. You can sense it, in a company where there’s chemistry between a small group of employees — they just have a burning desire to really make something.

Why did RIM decide to focus on wireless technology?

Once you have an idea that has resonance — ya gotta resonate it! To succeed, you have to focus. When you’re a small company, if you try to do too many things, you won’t be successful.

What made the BlackBerry so successful?

The product worked! We out-engineered everyone. Our job in sales was to not let down the engineers.

As a student, you did computer programming work for Chemistry Professor George Janz; how did that experience shape you?

There was no logical reason to take a freshman computer science student and let him loose on his database. But Dr. Janz put the trust in my hands to do the work. He gave me the latitude to explore the different things that we were trying to do. It was real; this wasn’t some theoretical problem from class, this was real, genuinely useful software.

Why did you fund a student research award in Janz’s honor?

He was such a strong supporter of undergraduates doing research — and I think there’s a lot to be gained by doing that, whether you’re headed into an academic or research career or headed out looking for a job in industry. It’s a great way to get excited about what you’re learning in class.

Do you think it’s important for students to be exposed to “real-world” alumni success stories like yours?

For me personally, it was really important when I was here. I was the type of student who wanted to hear, ‘how does this get applied?’ It’s fun to be able to get in front of students. I have some experiences that are very relevant to some of the topics. There are a lot of subtleties to execution in the ‘real world’ that are not easily described in a book. If I end up coaxing even one person into starting up their own company, then that’s a huge win in my mind.

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2007 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.