Between freshman year and graduation, Dean Cookson squeezed in a remarkable career.
Dean Cookson upon completing his private pilot check ride in December 2016.
Dean Cookson ’22 doesn’t expect his newly minted college degree to open any doors. But it has helped him to reflect on the many he’s already walked through.
The veteran technology executive received his bachelor’s degree in computer engineering in January, some 35 years after starting classes at Case Institute of Technology. His capstone presentation, titled “How I Spent the Past 30 Summers,” was delivered to an audience of about three dozen graduating seniors.
“He was great,” said the presiding professor, Frank Merat ’72, MS ’75, PhD ’78. “The students loved him.”
The overdue degree represents a milestone for Cookson, although one he’s accepting quietly and with some bemusement. When he added a bachelor’s degree to his lengthy LinkedIn profile, he says, he declined to send out a status update.
“Only 30 years late!” he said, laughing. “I’ve never been good at following instructions. You know, it’s neat, actually. It’s been kind of fun.”
He means the graduation experience, but he could have been referring to his whole career.
America’s tech industry was mushrooming when a young Dean Cookson, a few credits shy of graduation, headed to Boston in 1990 for a co-op with one of MITRE’s research and development centers. One semester of cooperative work experience became two, then a startup drew him into the vortex of the tech boom.
“I was employee number 315,” he recalled. “The next year, we had 1,600.”
He started out as a computer programmer but quickly became a designer of computer systems and an e-commerce specialist. In a whirlwind career, he went from COO at Snapfish to vice president and CTO at the upstart airline Virgin America — “a fantastic place to work.”
A couple of times in his career, he said, a hiring manager asked about a college degree, but the lack of one never held him back for long. “The Bay area tech world is pretty chill about that,” he explained.
He was senior vice president and CIO at Red Robin, the gourmet burger chain, when the pandemic devastated the restaurant industry. Remote school meant his two school-aged sons would be learning from home, in need of supervision. It seemed like a good time to get off the treadmill. He left Red Robin in 2020.
“I had a chance to hunker down at home and think about what I wanted to do,” he said. “I thought, you know, one thing I could do….”
He emailed Dean Ragu Balakrishnan who, to his surprise, responded. Cookson was connected to the Department of Electrical, Computer and Systems Engineering, which was still waiting for his senior project. He was given a list of options to fulfill the requirement, including a presentation on his co-op.
He registered for ECSE 398, paid his tuition, built a slide deck, and flew to Cleveland. On Nov 8, 2021, he walked into a lecture hall in the White Building.
“I did a presentation on 30 years’ worth of co-ops, basically, including 10 years in a CIO/CTO role,” he said, laughing again. “It was fun. I was a little worried the kids were going to be bored by the old guy waxing poetic.” But afterward, several students came up to compliment him. “He just strode in in pants and a t-shirt and tore right into it,” said Merat, approving of the lessons.
In addition to describing several of the systems he designed for various companies, Cookson talked about engineering management, navigating change, “lots of the soft skill stuff that engineers need,” Merat said. “The class loved him.”
At Case, he had started as a double major — physics and saxophone performance — but switched to computer engineering when he realized he was always playing in the computer lab, he said. Still, he feels the physics classes and music lessons gave him a good foundation for jobs where he was often designing systems from scratch.
“A lot of the critical thinking I learned at Case, how to look at the world, how to measure things you can’t really measure, actually helped a ton,” he said.
A Denver resident, Cookson has since joined another tech startup, Mews, based in Prague. He’s vice president of strategy and business operations at a company that aims to transform the hospitality industry.
It’s a new experience for him — his first job with a college degree.