When US Air Force Maj. (Ret.) Teri Centner ’89 took on the job of reverse-engineering Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles soon after graduating from MIT, she found that in some ways the technology the US Air Force had was not as sophisticated as what she’d used as a student at MIT.
“I was trying to email back to MIT from the little dorky computer that I had at my first assignment, but their system wasn’t good enough yet,” says Centner, who now works as an IT specialist for the Library of Congress.
Back then, Centner didn’t know she was destined for a career in information technology. She just happened to be on the cutting edge because at MIT she’d been able to use Athena, the networked computing system the Institute launched in 1983.
She also had a longstanding interest in computers, having built her first one—a Timex Sinclair 1000—with her mom in high school. Still, her focus in college was to have a military career, and the military wanted engineers. She majored in aeronautics and astronautics.
“It never occurred to me not to join the military,” says Centner, explaining that her father served in the Army Reserves and her grandfather was a Navy veteran who had survived the kamikaze attack that sank his ship during WWII. “I knew I wanted ROTC.”
Serving in the military meant moving around, so Centner says that once on active duty, she always made a point of finding MIT clubs and connecting with sorority sisters when she arrived at new posts. (She was a founding member of MIT’s chapter of Sigma Kappa.)
First MIT Class on Web
MIT’s network proved a boon to her career—as did the experience she’d gained on campus. In the mid-’90s, for example, Centner was able to leverage her background as an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) worker in the composites lab of the late Professor Paul Lagacé ’78, SM ’79, PhD ’82 to land a position designing repairs for the C-17 cargo plane, which incorporated advanced composites. Two MIT alumnae (Allegra Hakim ’82 and Jocelyn Seng ’84, SM ’85) already worked at the office, which helped, Centner says. “Both women said, ’Pick her, pick her!’”
It was soon after starting that job that Centner noticed an intriguing message in the Class Notes section of MIT Technology Review. “I remember Henry Houh [’89, ’90, SM ’91, PhD ’98] writing: ‘We’re the first MIT class to have URL on the World Wide Web,’” she says. “I wrote him and said, ‘What does that mean?’”
Centner enjoyed experimenting with computers, so after that she got permission to download Mosaic (an early browser) and started surfing the web. “There were, like, 100 sites,” she says. Then she created a website for the USAF Advanced Composites Program Office and had a realization: “I was having such a good time, I was like, ‘Hey, could I be an IT person?’”
In the military, changing specialties can be challenging, but Centner eventually managed to switch from engineering to IT in 2001. Her first IT role was running the network for Los Angeles Air Force Base, where she focused on keeping military systems secure at a time when few people understood the risks of, for example, emailing secure documents. “It was like the wild, wild West,” she says.
Specializing in IT eventually enabled Centner to land a coveted posting to Europe, and she closed out her Air Force career at US European Command headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, where she worked to ensure the interoperability of US systems with those of foreign allies.
Loving the Geek Vibe
After retiring from the military in 2009, Centner worked for Booz Allen Hamilton and earned her master’s in information technology management from the University of Virginia. She joined the Library of Congress in 2014 and says she loves the “geek vibe” of the place. “It’s a librarian geek vibe, but I’ll take it. I like to be around a geek vibe,” she says.
All along, Centner has kept up her strong ties to MIT. She is a former president of the MIT Club of Washington DC; a founding member of the Indigenous Alumni of MIT (she is a citizen of Chickasaw Nation); and a former board member for the MIT Alumni Association. “It was really cool to be on the Alumni Association Board of Directors. I met so many people,” she says.
Recently, Centner returned to campus to attend the Alumni Leadership Conference (ALC), and she says she always recommends the event to fellow alums. “ALC is like reunion without the class lines,” she says. “It’s just fun.”
Top photo illustration by Mary Zyskowski; images courtesy of Teri Centner and Unsplash. Inset photo courtesy of Teri Centner.