Alumnus Thomas Coughlin is 2023 IEEE President-Elect

Alumnus Thomas M. Coughlin was recently elected as the 2023 IEEE President-Elect. Coughlin earned his bachelor’s degree in physics (1977), and his master’s degree in electrical engineering (1981) from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. He went on to earn his doctoral degree from Shinshu University in Nagano, Japan in 2007. An expert in digital storage technologies, Coughlin currently is President of Coughlin Associates, a firm that provides technology consulting services that include storage device and system technology and design, security issues, device and system testing and analysis, and quality versus costs analysis. His clients include startups as well as many larger companies in the industry.  He has been working in the field of digital storage system device and system design and integration for over 40 years, and is a holder of six patents. 

Coughlin first became an IEEE member during his graduate student days. The impetus to join was the discount he could get as a member to attend an Intermag conference in Boston. He eventually moved to Boston to work for Polaroid Corporation on digital storage for an early electronic camera after working for companies in the Minneapolis area for several years. In 1987, Coughlin moved to California to work for Seagate Technology, living in Santa Cruz. He got involved with the Santa Clara Valley IEEE section, and it was there that his engagement with the organization picked up steam. Among the other offices he has held under the section over the years are Past Chairman and Founder, IEEE Society for Social Implications of Technology (Santa Clara Valley Chapter), Past Chairman, IEEE Magnetics Society (Santa Clara Valley Chapter), and Past Chairman, IEEE Consumer Technology Society (Santa Clara Valley Chapter). 

Vision for IEEE

As IEEE President-Elect (2023) Coughlin has some key goals for the world’s largest technical professional society, goals that he hopes will ensure that the organization continues to thrive while serving students, professionals, and academicians in all aspects of the electrical, electronic, and computing fields. In keeping with this, Coughlin hopes to put in place opportunities for collaboration, innovation, and broad engagement that increase general awareness of the organization, increase membership and diversity in membership within the organization, and also draw together existing members to boost the sense of community and support. For Coughlin, a key aspect of sustaining and increasing membership is to ensure that the organization is viewed as a resource and an inclusive as well as safe space by all members. He is a firm believer in enhancing the relevance of IEEE to students and young professionals. 

On the importance of IEEE supporting industry needs, Coughlin emphasizes: "We need to have products, services, and capabilities that meet the needs of people doing practical work."

An existing program that offers a discounted student membership rate has resulted in an increase in membership numbers but he notes that the organization’s retention rates (of students eventually turning into full members as young professionals) continue to stay low. Coughlin sees some opportunities to attract and retain members through career and mentorship programs that are particularly pertinent to them. Key to that would be to recognize that younger members’ needs and ways of working differ from those of the more seasoned members, and develop programming accordingly. Coughlin is also keen on addressing the fall in industry memberships. In his view supporting industry needs is one way to address the shortfall: “We need to have products, services, and capabilities that meet the needs of people doing practical work.” While original work that stems from research conducted in laboratories is critical, most new jobs are created in the industry arena. In his view a significant majority of student members are typically headed for industry positions, and IEEE as a professional organization should be equipped to support both students and industry by providing relevant training, connections, and other tools for success. 

Coughlin is also a keen advocate of member advancement: "We have to make senior member advancement easier and find more ways to recognize our heroes."

Coughlin is aware that for the undertaking to be effective, a lot of the work has to be done at the section level. He hopes that from there it will steadily pervade into the other and larger units, chapters, affinity groups, regions, and so on. Related to member retention is member advancement. Coughlin strongly believes that advancement and promotion of its members will be critical to retaining new and existing members: “We have to make senior member advancement easier and find more ways to recognize our heroes.” 

Coughlin recognizes open access will fundamentally change how the organization operates particularly on the publications (including conference proceedings) front. The pandemic has also changed the way members engage with and participate in IEEE conferences and other gatherings. He believes that to stay relevant and provide value in the changing context, it is critical that the organization seek new revenue streams and formats for engagement while continuing to be a resource for researchers, practitioners, young professionals, and students. The success of IEEE also comes from the time and effort put in voluntarily by its many members, and Coughlin hopes to put in place measures that create value for the volunteers too. Confident in IEEE’s ability to continue to advance new technologies, he also looks forward to strengthening its ability to develop standards and public policies surrounding the new technologies. This he hopes will in part also demonstrate the value of professionals working in the technical fields to society at large.  

To say that Coughlin has several items on his to-do list as IEEE President-elect is a gross understatement. He is aware of the magnitude of the tasks that lie ahead, and keenly appreciates that a lot of the work will have to be done at the local and community levels. Of course, this would entail ensuring that members and office-bearers at those levels have the tools and resources to successfully accomplish the larger organizational goals related to membership, value, inclusivity, and relevance. And that is precisely what Coughlin hopes to put in place during his tenure as President-Elect in 2023 and eventually as President in 2024. 

Thomas Coughlin earned his graduate degree under the guidance of the late Professor Jack Judy. After earning his physics degree, he started working at the Honeywell Research Center on magnetic thin film sensor devices. He learned that Professor Jack Judy of ECE had the equipment he needed to take some measurements of these thin magnetic films, and in the course of using the equipment, he found himself spending time in Judy’s lab whenever he could. A year later, Coughlin was back at the University, this time in ECE, pursuing a master’s in electrical engineering. As a graduate student, he worked on thin film media that could be used for perpendicular magnetic recording technology. He also earned a minor in materials science (Professor Jack Sivertsen was his advisor in Materials Science). He credits Professor Judy with the decision to pursue his master’s degree and the road he is on. He has returned to the University several times and has on occasion given invited talks here. He has been writing a regular column for since 2011 titled “Storage Bytes” and annual reports on emerging non-volatile memory technologies and digital storage in professional media and entertainment applications. Coughlin is the author of the book Digital Storage in Consumer Electronics: The Essential Guide first published in 2008. It is now on its second edition (2018). He is a member of HKN (Eta Kappa Nu), the IEEE honor society, and a co-founder of the IEEE Rising Stars Conference that is designed to bring together, inform, and inspire young engineering professionals and students.