State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Staff Spotlight: Darryl Shaw, Computer Guru

The Staff Spotlight series features Earth Institute staff members from across the Morningside, Lamont and the Irving Medical Center campuses. The series is intended to highlight the important work our staff members do to keep the Earth Institute running smoothly and to support our mission of guiding the world onto more sustainable paths. These interviews discuss staff members’ careers, their interest in our institute, and insights that might be relatable and useful for the rest of us.

This month’s Staff Spotlight features Darryl Shaw, who works as assistant director for the Earth Institute’s information technology department.

What inspired you to work in information technology and join the Earth Institute?

darryl shaw and wife
Darryl Shaw, assistant director of IT at the Earth Institute, and his wife. Courtesy Darryl Shaw

I was getting back to work in early 2016 after a break, and this position happened to fall into my lap by chance. I was both intrigued and scared, since I had only worked at two other colleges in my past; at MIT as an ROTC instructor, and at Greenfield Community College as the student and alumni trustee. With 24 hours to prepare, since my predecessor was leaving in a week’s time, I was the fortunate winner of the coveted position. Since being here I have been both amazed and perplexed by the goings-on. It has taken me these past four years to get somewhat used to how things work differently at a university versus in corporate America, as that was my life for the past 20 years.

What is your background? Do you find that helpful in your current position?

I come from a loving but broken home. I am very fortunate and thankful that we got the opportunity to live with my grandmother in a new suburban community in East Elmhurst, Queens. I was raised by a single mom with help from her mother (my Nana), and with my two brothers; one older and one younger. One of the running jokes in my family while I was growing up was that when I came home from the hospital after being born, I was so big my 4-year-old sister ran and hid behind my father because she was so afraid of me.

I went to a Catholic elementary school (St. Gabriel) for the first eight years of education, which included being an altar boy, then dropped out of high school after my first year. One day two years later, after I’d had a long night of partying and sleeping all day, my mom tells me, “I’m coming home early from work tomorrow, and I want you to be here when I get home.” I thought she wanted me to help with groceries. As she returned, we get to where I thought was the grocery store, but instead she walks into the military recruiting station! I have never forgotten her words: “Son, I can’t afford to feed you anymore, so I’m sending you to someone who can.” I was shocked! I certainly was not ready to go into the military. I was having way too much fun with life. My mom had to sign me in because I was too young to volunteer on my own.

Darryl Shaw as a young soldier in uniform
Shaw served in the U.S. Army for 13 years. It was during that time that he became interested in computers. Courtesy Darryl Shaw

Turns out that move probably saved my life. I spent the next 14 years traveling the world as a soldier. It was one of the most exciting experiences I have ever had. I got my first chance to play with a computer as a soldier in the U.S. Army, and from the first time I touched one, I knew that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I was 30 years old at the time, and after 13 years of service, I left the military. I attended the local community college in Greenfield Massachusetts soon after. I got my first IT job — outside of being a work-study — at the college computer lab during my final semester in college, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The things about my background that help me with my current position, and most other positions I have had in my career, are the things that I have been taught by my mother, grandmother, and the rest of the community that helped raise me. “It takes a village to raise a child,” and my village of East Elmhurst Queens in the wonderful city of New York helped, taught, and molded me into the person I am today. I carry their teachings with me to this day. I believe it has made me a better person.

What aspects of IT within the Earth Institute do you find exciting/challenging?

Exciting: All of it. This is the first place I have been where I get to call the shots, and do what I think is best for my EI family, and I love my job!

darryl shaw and three adult children
Shaw and his children. Courtesy Darryl Shaw

The first challenge I faced when I started was getting over the fact that no one seemed to have any money to buy anything. Coming from corporate America after 20-plus years, this was a first for me. That is usually the last thing I hear when it comes to getting new equipment. The one thing I did learn is that it helps to know what you’re talking about, and to have a big mouth! Another challenge for me was getting people to trust me in getting things happening, like getting everyone newer equipment. Once that was done, the rest has been a lot of fun. I have a blast every day I come to work … until Uncle COVID showed up and decided not to go home!

The one commonality here as with all of my previous jobs is the people. One of the biggest reasons I do what I do is because I love talking with and meeting new people. It is the highlight of my day when I can put a smile on someone’s face, especially if you know the person is not having a good day. That might be the one time they get to smile, and they do appreciate it.

Please share some of your travel adventures with us.

I have lived in two different countries, Italy and Turkey, while in the Army. I was fortunate enough to travel throughout Europe playing basketball for the Army team while in Italy. I spent two tours in Italy. The first was in a town called Vicenza. I got there when I was 17 years old, scared out of my mind, since this was my first time out of the country in a strange new land. Yet I had the time of my life. I literally grew up there. It was one of the most wonderful experiences of my lifetime, and I have been trying to get back there for over almost 40 years, but have not for one reason or other. In between my tours in Italy I got to serve two years in Izmir, Turkey, which was one of the most surprisingly wonderful places I have ever been on this planet. The city is beautiful, the country and people are amazing, and it was one of the safest places to live at the time.

What are your past time favorites? Favorite food/games/hobbies?

I was sort of a jock growing up. I played a lot of sports, mainly basketball, and also baseball, softball, volleyball, soccer, flag football, swimming, track and field, which I was pretty good at — most especially basketball, which was my first love in sports.

darryl shaw and grandchildren
One of Shaw’s favorite activities is spending time with his grandkids. Courtesy Darryl Shaw

My favorite food before I had cancer was pretty much anything that’s bad for you. After my prostate cancer surgery, though, I have been much more careful of what I eat and how much. I eat more fruits and vegetables than I have probably ever eaten in my life. I still eat some of those things that are “bad” for you, like hamburgers, and yummy things like that, but I just am a lot more mindful of how much I eat. This has helped me to lose over 50 pounds since this COVID madness started.

One of my favorite things is spending lots of time with my two beautiful granddaughters. They are the light of my life and help to keep me young. At least young at heart! Zoom and phone are keeping the world connected for me. My wife and I are being very careful to not get this virus, as I know of friends who have passed and their loved ones as well. We talk a lot with our granddaughters as much as we can, but I have not been able to be with them in a long time. Zoom and the phone can only do so much. It has been hard for us all.

Any IT advice for us, since almost everyone is working from home these days?

Yes, VPN, VPN, VPN! I couldn’t resist saying it one last time. Other than that, I would say be careful, and be smart when using these wonderful toys that almost everyone has. They are very addictive, and can sometimes cause more harm than good.

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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Claudia Dreifus
3 years ago

Judy, what a terrific interview. I read it and thought, “Wow, this interviewer really got her subject to trust her and tell his stories. Then, I saw the by-line. Congrats to you.

Reply to  Claudia Dreifus
3 years ago

Thank you so much, your comments mean a lot! I am surrounded by amazing coworkers 🙂