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A conversation with 2016 Benson fellows Marc Vetter and Matthew Macfarlane

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During Summer 2016, PLU students Marc Vetter and Matthew Macfarlane worked as the inaugural Benson Summer Research Fellows, receiving generous funding for their faculty-student research projects.

Image: 2016 Benson Summer Research Fellows Marc Vetter and Matthew Macfarlane in Xavier Hall. Photo: Halvorson

June 6, 2017
By Michael Halvorson
Benson Family Chair in Business and Economic History

PLU Student-Faculty Research on Health Care and High Technology

A conversation with 2016 Benson fellows Marc Vetter and Matthew Macfarlane

The following excerpts were gathered from a May 26, 2017 conversation between Benson Family Chair Michael Halvorson and the 2016 Benson research fellows Marc Vetter ’17 and Matt Macfarlane ’17, who have completed their projects and are now graduating from PLU. Benson fellows conduct research during the summer and fall months and then present their findings to the PLU community. For more information about the fellowship program and the work accomplished by the current Benson fellows, please email halvormj@plu.edu.

Michael: “Good afternoon, Marc and Matt. I’d like to introduce you to our blog readers, who are reading this to learn more about you and your Benson fellowships in business and economic history. You two were the first to be selected for these fellowships, and you worked during Summer and Fall 2016 with Peter Grosvenor and me. I’d like you to begin by introducing yourself, and going over some of the traditional background stats that define you. Will you go first, Marc?”

Marc: “Hi, everyone. I have been at PLU now for four years, and I’m doing an individualized major with a focus on global health and economics. Over the past year, I’ve done a Global Studies capstone in relation to this major, and I’m organizing the curriculum so that it prepares me for medical school and (hopefully) a future career in medicine and public policy.”

Matt: “Well done, Marc. Everyone: I’m Matt Macfarlane. I am majoring in Economics and History, and for the last several years I’ve also competed with the track and cross country teams here at PLU. For my first two years, I worked intensively on the History major, and then over the last two I worked on Economics.”

College Life

Michael: “The people reading this blog would love to know a little bit more about you, I think. Do you mind telling us a movie or two that you found interesting over the last year?”

Marc: “Sadly, college students don’t get to watch too many movies! But, the film that really struck me over the past year is La La Land, the musical about dreams of success in L.A. I really liked the music, and I’m especially into Jazz, so it was great fun.”

Michael: “Great—I’ve seen that film, too. This is the film that begins on a crowded L.A. freeway, and suddenly—POW!—the people are all singing and dancing on the overpass in the bright Southern California sun.”

Marc: “Apparently, filming that took about three days and the freeway was closed most of the time. They really shut down L.A. for it!”

Matt: “Strangely, I haven’t seen La La Land yet. But we did have a fun student film night here at PLU featuring the old classic Nacho Libre, which I really enjoyed. This is the film starring Jack Black. Marc was there too, actually, and it was great—such a funny move for college students to relax over, with many memorable quotes. I guess that since I grew up with School of Rock, Jack Black will always be a favorite.”

Michael: “I agree that Nacho Libre is an important comedy with lots of potential for college student laughs. I still offer up Nacho Libre quotes from time to time in History lectures. And hey: I’m glad that you’re getting together for movie nights—well done.”

Thoughts on the “PLU Experience”

Michael: “To get us rolling here, I want to ask you how your PLU academic experience has been? What aspects of PLU’s programs, faculty, or community have you found noteworthy in your time here?”

Marc: “There are many things, of course, but I would like to begin with what I saw as the really optimal size of PLU. Because of our smaller footprint, you really get to know professors well here. This helps so much during your first years, because often just a simply question or comment from them—often at a crucial moment in your program—can make all the difference. I’ve benefited a lot from the give-and-take of the PLU experience, especially in the individualized major that we created to pursue my career goals.”

Marc: “Also, the study abroad programs organized through PLU are very rich. I’ve been able to study in Oxford, England, through our International Honors program at Regent’s Park College, and in Montevideo, Uruguay, where I pursued language training in Spanish.”

Matt: “As Marc said, the availability of professors at PLU is awesome, and you can really get to know them. Right off the bat they’re willing to engage you when you find a topic or question that interests you. For me these interactions led to conversations about travel and research, and I have now completed two research fellowships at PLU. I have also visited Italy two times. For a kid from a small town in Montana, it seems pretty amazing.”

Matt: “Socially, I’ve also benefited from what PLU offers. I’ve made friends, participated in the track and cross country teams, and on the weekends we have been able to hop around Tacoma and the surrounding area. Tacoma is actually a cool city, with a very cool waterfront, and there is a lot to do in the area.”

How did you get started on your research projects?

Michael: “Turning to the topic of your summer research fellowships, I wanted to ask how you decided on your research topic and the questions that you pursued with your faculty advisers. Let’s start with you, Marc.”

Marc: “Well, I became interested in the topic of Native American health care in America through a high school connection. I grew up near PLU, and a friend’s Dad worked as a physician for the tribal health authority affiliated with the Puyallup Tribe of Indians. The Puyallup Tribe is part of the Salish speaking peoples of the Pacific Northwest. This is very established tribal community near Tacoma/Parkland with considerable resources. However, they also have a lot of diversity within their population and significant health care challenges.”

Michael: “Can you tell us what part of the system you chose to research?”

Marc: “I began my research with how court legislation changed the way that health care was delivered to many of the tribes in the U.S. in the 1970s. I then focused in on the Puyallup Tribe specifically, and how they created a new model for health care that became the Tribal Health Authority. I visited the Puyallup location many times, and through the process I interacted with several people there. Under Dr. Grosvenor’s direction, my faculty adviser with expertise in politics and public policy, my paper became a kind of health care public policy paper, which showed the changing landscape of Native American health care within the U.S. system.”

Marc: “Professor Halvorson, you were also helpful to me as I got started with the fellowship! You told me about what was possible, matched me with a faculty adviser, and introduced me to Dale Benson at an event last October. Of course, I had you as an instructor for an Honors course my freshman year. It was nice to work with you again!”

Michael: “It is very fun to reconnect with students as they move through their programs. But any student can apply for the Benson fellowships—all the information is up on our website, and we’re interested in proposals from student-faculty teams across the campus with an interest in the wider worlds of business, economics, and technology. For your program, Marc, there were faculty from History, Sociology, Economics, and Anthropology involved!”

Michael: “Matt, can you tell readers how you got started with your business history project?”

Matt: “Sure—It began with my shared interests in History and Economics. In this case, you were my faculty adviser, Dr. Halvorson, so when you described your current research on the early history of personal computing, I was intrigued. The topic that I took up for the fellowship was about the early personal computer software community, and especially the business software that PC programmers produced in the 1970s and 1980s.”

Michael: “What interested you about this, Matt?”

Matt: “We don’t think too much about those early days now, but with the first Apple II computers coming out in the late 1970s, followed by the IBM PCs and clones in the early 1980s, there was an entirely new industry emerging that really produced a lot of interesting software. U.S. consumers were seeing products that they had never seen before. Productivity applications like spreadsheets and word processors really changed what people could do with computers, and to study the origins of the movement I looked at how companies like Lotus 1-2-3, WordPerfect, and Microsoft contributed to the U.S. economy.”

Michael: “How did this competitive marketplace take shape, Matt? Weren’t Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in a battle-to-the-death over these new software products?”

Matt: “That’s the popular understanding of this—that there were intense personal struggles involved and super-hero-like figures such as Bill Gates dominating the landscape. But if you look at it from an economic point of view, these industry executives and their companies were really collaborators working together to create successful business models and new products. The various companies seemingly locked in intense competition were really working together to create a new marketplace that would gradually reshape American business.”

Historical Sources and other Information

Michael: “What sources did you end up using for this business history project?”

Matt: “I was able to find company reports and revenue data to piece together how the marketplace grew during the early PC software revolution. But the really interesting source material consisted of interviews from early software “pioneers” who shaped the industry. Halvorson connected me to archives within the University of Minnesota that contained numerous oral interviews. These are organized within the Charles Babbage Institute, and they provide an interesting “behind the scenes” glimpse of life in the trenches. There were lots of businesses that failed in these early years, but the successful ones really found a way to focus on the needs of customers with their products. It was the beginning of the “customer first” software model—products and services that became successful because they met customer needs.”

Michael: “What did you end up doing with this information, Matt?”

Matt: “Just like Marc here, I wrote a pretty substantial paper about 25-pages long plus bibliography. The project went through several drafts and comment sessions with my adviser [Halvorson]. I also presented the paper to the PLU community as part of the student research colloquium organized by the Provost’s office in April, 2017. In the meantime, something interesting happened with my work.”

Michael: “What was that, Matt? Did you become a software developer??”

Matt: “Not exactly, but the funny thing is that I began applying for internships at local software companies. When I described this research project to them, I found that most of the people working in software today don’t really know the origins of their own field. By describing the early software systems and PC business models, I had something interesting to talk about with them, and in a way I had a leg up on my competition. Local high-tech companies seemed to like that I had done this research.”

Jobs and Life After PLU

Michael: “Did this lead to a job or other learning experiences for you?”

Matt: “During my senior year, I took an internship at a software company in Bellevue doing sales support—basically helping them with their research and presentations. Then I began interviewing with other software companies for an actual job after graduation. After a series of interviews, I have been hired at a software company in Boulder, Colorado called VictorOPS. This group provides incident management tools for companies like Snap Chat and Amazon. Basically, if a company’s website or software systems “go down,” engineers need to document the problem, follow specific procedures, and get the systems back up and running. VictorOPS provides the tools to help people recover from their problems. I’ll be an analyst in the Boulder office, helping them to do customer research and working to sell and support the products.”

Michael: “This sounds pretty techie, Matt. Can I remind you that you are a History and Economics double major with no programming background?”

Matt: “I know, right? But throughout the interview process, I was consistently told that my background in history and economics was considered an asset to the company. They thought that the skills I learned along the way provided a pathway to do the job well. Essentially, what needed to happen is for me to connect the skills that I learned in college to what they were looking for in their business. I know that this fellowship helped me with research skills. Certainly the topic also provided a conceptual background for how the software world works.”

Michael: “Well, I’m excited for you, Matt. Here you are talking about life after PLU, though we are still in our final week of classes for you seniors. As you look forward, Marc, what does life after PLU look like?”

Marc: “I plan to apply to medical school over the coming year, which is a process that runs through the Spring and into the Summer and Fall. PLU has been very helpful with the process–they have a health sciences team that helps with medical school applications. If all goes well, I hope to enter medical school in the Fall of 2018. But before then, I also plan to travel some and work abroad in various health care settings. Eventually, I hope to continue working on health care policy issues. This is a topic that I first studied in Oxford as a junior, and have gained additional exposure with during the Benson fellowship. I am very grateful to Dale and Jolita Benson for this opportunity.”

Michael: “The Benson family has certainly been very generous with their support. I’m very happy to administer this fellowship and use the funding to match student and faculty collaborators.”

Closing Thoughts

Michael: “OK, guys. Now that we’re near the end of this conversation, do you have any final advice for future Benson summer research fellows? You two are the inaugural fellowship recipients, and so your words of wisdom will undoubtedly be regarded as legendary.”

Matt: “I would say, all joking aside, don’t be intimidated by the prospect of doing an individual research project like this outside the confines of a classroom. It can be a little scary at first, but if you work with your adviser and leverage their strengths, you will be fine. In terms of looking for jobs after graduation, what I did is apply for a lot of jobs (like 5-10 jobs per month), and I certainty encountered numerous dead ends in the process. Just stick with it. You’ll find that if you really study the companies and think about what you did in your PLU classes, you have have a leg up on the competition.”

Marc: “Regarding how the fellowships work… the expertise of a faculty adviser is not just what they know as a scholar, but what they know about organizing your research and the writing process that is super helpful. Peter Grosvenor helped me to mold the research that I was doing into a policy paper that I felt proud of. As my project grew, I consulted other faculty members as well, and they helped me in numerous ways. Matt and I would even text each other and meet from time to time for encouragement–even once at a Mariner’s game. The entire process has been awesome.”

Matt: “Gee thanks, Marc. I couldn’t have done it without you…”

Michael: Well, thanks very much for meeting with me today, Marc and Matt. It’s great to hear your stories and to collect some of your research experiences. Have fun at graduation this week, and we’ll talk to you soon!”

[Edited by Halvorson]