Cheryl Cato – Texas A&M University
The year was 1999, and it was the eve of the big football game between Texas A&M University and the University of Texas. In the lead-up to the game, 58 students were building the annual bonfire when the unthinkable happened around 2:40 a.m.: the 59-foot tower of 5,000 logs collapsed, killing 12 students.
News of the crisis reached Cheryl Cato at 4:30 a.m. Her immediate concern was how the university could communicate news to waves of concerned parents. In the wake of the tragedy, the phone system collapsed and cell phone circuits jammed.
Cato, as the manager of the systems group responsible for the server infrastructure, knew the only way to get information out regarding 45,000 students was to go live on the university website, which required an immediate server upgrade. Within four hours, upgraded systems were running and the university’s communications team had revamped the main website with news of the tragedy.
After 30 years at the landmark school, on the eve of her retirement, she described her progression as a female engineer to Toggle, a career that started following her graduation from Texas A&M in 1991.
“If you’re lucky enough to reach the top of your profession, it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down,” Cato says, recalling a favorite quote. “I’ve opened up some doors and am happy to advocate for the next people taking their turn.”
As a child, Cato was told girls don’t go to college, much less pursue a career in IT.
As one of seven children growing up in the blue-collar community of Freeport, south of Houston, Texas, she was expected to take a job at the nearby Dow Chemical plant and call it good. But Cato says early recognition by her grade school teachers was motivating. So, after working in purchasing and contracts at Dow for eight years following high school, she sold her car and house and moved to College Station to enter Texas A&M’s engineering technology program.
“I couldn’t let the dream of higher education go and I was dead serious about achieving something,” she says. “As a non-traditional student, I like to say I lived some of my life before I decided what to do with it. I then started my education and put everything on the line with no financial backing other than myself.”
Cato loved being an “Aggie” and earned her degree in electronics engineering technology cum laude, making her the first in her family to earn a college degree. After graduation, she became a workstation support specialist at the university. Cato remembers how she turned down more profitable offers from recruiters at Microsoft, Amazon and Google.
“But my heart was here, in higher education,” she says. “The school changed my life and I was fulfilled. I wanted to give back.”
Career and technology
Cato’s career progression was reflective of changes in technology itself.
Over the years, she helped install the first research workstations throughout the university, working with Sun Microsystems. When technology evolved beyond mainframes, she was on the front lines of installing multiuse servers supporting a larger user base, integrating the systems to handle everything from campus registration to research projects. As document sharing systems developed, Cato supported the evolving internet.
“Global connections to information exploded at this time,” she recalls of developing on-premises email long before Office 365. “I wanted to understand how everything worked and where it was going.”
On the heels of email came spam, and with it Cato learned how to protect the school. She was also involved in early work on mail server relays and pre-verification.
“We were on the leading edge of what is common now, understanding how populations could both use and exploit that same technology,” she says. “These days that’s evolved to a whole new level of cybersecurity as we look at the latest ways to protect the network and safeguard it from nefarious purposes.”
As her duties unfolded, Cato continuously sought out new challenges and acquired new titles: systems engineer in 1995; senior IT manager in 1997; associate director in 2008; director of infrastructure and operations in 2012; chief technology officer at Texas A&M Information Technology; associate vice president for information technology and CTO; and her most recent post in 2019.
In general, she gravitated toward foundational IT services such as facilities and operations, data center development and networking.
At times, she sought the expertise of San Antonio-based Sirius Computer Solutions on everything from IT strategies and managed services contracts to disaster recovery, HIPAA assessments, network and call center design and implementation, and building VoIP migrations. Sirius installed and supports several hardware environments across campus, says Sue Corrington, a Sirius client executive.
“My duties developed from interactions with end users, diving deep behind the scenes, knowing the numbers of ports and the miles of fiber needed to make it all happen,” says Cato. “Sirius helped us on that path.”
Pandemic in place
Another milestone on the Texas A&M timeline was COVID-19 in the spring of 2020.
Students were initially sent home, allowing the school to assess the situation. For Cato, that meant helping the team create more classrooms to make social distancing easier.
Work started over the summer, with the university installing additional wireless access points in theaters and rooms across campus, and tents with socially distanced tables and Wi-Fi. Her largest project pre-dating COVID-19 was retrofitting a 50,000-square-foot food commissary to support a new $30 million data center. It capped a 10-year effort to bring a state-of-the-art data center to Texas A&M to replace existing aged facilities and provide services that support the security, reliability and functionality required by researchers and faculty.
“Our community expects reliability every day at every hour,” Cato says. “Our mantra is to always be there.”
This fall students are engaged in a hybrid educational model that incorporates both on-site and remote learning. A newly hired associate provost is working with faculty to facilitate online classes, many of them offered through Zoom. On campus, Cato says members of her department are also using data analytics to understand where and when students congregate so the school can develop safety protocols.
“There’s a certain rhythm in education delivery you don’t want to break,” she says. “Our network teams are there to ensure everyone has the appropriate bandwidth, VPN and wireless capability for campus connectivity.”
Cato relishes her service to the school and never questioned her career choice, even if the tasks haven’t always been high stakes, as they are with COVID-19.
“I knew the positive impact higher education made in my life and I wanted to stay involved,” she says. “My experience has been life-changing.”
Cato says her family name traces back to Roman times and she has ancestral roots with the famous stoics and philosophers. To her it’s fitting. The constant desire to learn and grow, and service to the common good, have always been basic tenets which drive her. Come January, she’ll have time to decide her next step—knowing she won’t be idle.
“I haven’t taken a week off in 30 years,” Cato says. “I will always look at ways to help, because the development of people is the greatest gift and they are our most precious resource.”
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