Alumni Spotlight: Retired Two-Star General Ron Johnson Leads NBA Refs

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Ron Johnson (MS OR 1985), retired two-star general and graduate of the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE), oversaw the Army Corps of Engineers’ $18 billion reconstruction of Iraq in 2003 and 2004 and then supervised the clean-up of the Gulf Coast after hurricane Katrina in 2005. Now Johnson is guiding the nation's top basketball officials in his capacity as the NBA's senior vice president of referee operations.

For Johnson, his transition from the combat theater to the basketball arena isn’t as broad a leap as one might think. In fact, in a recent interview in the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC) Johnson stated that, “you should never be surprised that an industrial engineer [IE] is anywhere,” particularly given ISyE’s status as the number-one ranked graduate program in industrial engineering in the nation. IEs take real-life situations, Johnson explains, “and through our analytical talents, we make them better.”

Believing that the value of any level education at Georgia Tech, regardless of the field of study, is measured by the success of its graduates around the world, Johnson is committed to helping students pursue their goals at Tech and take their skills into the world. To that end, he has endowed two scholarships at Georgia Tech -- the Ronald L Johnson Scholarship for African American students who have financial needs and are pursuing a degree in the Stewart School of ISyE and the Ronald L Johnson Roll Call Scholarship Endowment Fund. Johnson shared that he feels blessed to have the opportunity to do this, and he thinks “that it is right to give back when I've been blessed with so much.” 

Prior to earning his master's at Tech, Johnson graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he received a bachelor of science degree with a concentration in Mathematics and Mechanical Engineering.  He is also a "Jedi Warrior" graduate of the Army's elite School of Advanced Military Studies, where he earned a Master's in Strategic Planning. Johnson has received executive leadership and national security training at Harvard University, Gallup University, George Washington University, the University of Virginia, and the Center for Creative Leadership. He was an Army War College Fellow at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

In the interview that follows, Johnson explains how his IE degree has helped him both in his military career and now in the NBA and what his relationship to Georgia Tech means to him.

 ISyE:  You have had quite an illustrious career as a two-star general and then with the Army Corps of Engineers before heading the NBA's referee operations. How has your IE degree helped you as a two-star general and working in the Army Corps of Engineers?

R.J.: I would like to think that my successes from the day that I left GeorgiaTech to the day that I retired from the military were somehow influenced by my experiences at Tech in many ways. The diversity of the student body, the rigor of the Masters in OR program at Tech -- all of that helped me. To be specific, as the Gulf Region division commander in the Corps, understanding a systems approach to a large-scale program/project management in Iraq made it clear that field commanders, government representatives, and the Iraqis should have input to what we were doing IF this reconstruction was going to add value. Understanding how to synchronize all the pieces of the nation's largest public engineering firm as the Deputy Commander General (DCG) was key to success of the Corps. Also, as the DCG of the Corps, I was the lead for our Lean Six Sigma efforts.  There is no doubt that my credentials from West Point and Georgia Tech were key in making me desirable to both Lockheed-Martin and the NBA.

ISyE:  How has your IE degree helped you do your job as the NBA’s senior vice president of referee operations? 

R.J.:  Georgia Tech has given me some quantitative skills that are critical to evaluating our performance. Understanding what data tells you, as well as what it does not is critical to success. Having the Operations Research and Systems Analysis (OR SA) degree from Tech also gives me understanding that allows me to take a systems approach in my position. In other words, it is important to seek input from other basketball operations folks before implementing solutions or even making assessments.

ISyE:  Do you have a formal procedure for scheduling your referees? If so, what is it? 

R.J.: We do have a formal process in scheduling our referees that is not much different from how airlines crews are scheduled. We do not use the classic "travelling salesman" algorithm, nor do we attempt to solve any linear programming scheduling problem because our crews have constraints and restraints that are not conducive to a simple solution.

ISyE:  What is your biggest challenge as the person responsible for NBA referee operations? 

R.J.: This is a leadership position. Leading a highly competent and specialized group of people is very difficult when you haven't done what they have done. What I do bring to the job is proven leadership and a calm style that is necessary to deal with the emotions of our game.

ISyE: What are the logistics questions/issues in scheduling the NBA referees?

R.J.: Of course there are logistical challenges associated with getting crews in place. Many think that referees go to games where they live -- not true -- our NBA referees are rapidly deployable League-wide. They go where they are scheduled, regardless of where they live. We are able to overcome some of the challenges of weather and flight cancellations by having work rules which require referees to be in place far in advance of our games. Therefore we will know far enough in advance whether to send in a replacement referee in the case of transport challenges or injuries/illness. The biggest advantage we have is the dedication of our officials -- they will do whatever it takes to get to their games.

ISyE:  What motivated you to come to Georgia Tech to pursue your graduate degree?  

R.J.: I met a Georgia Tech professor, the late Griffin Callahan, also a West Point graduate, and he sold me on the ISyE's ORSA program.


ISyE:  Describe one of your most interesting moments at Tech? 

R.J.: There are six -- the first was being admitted and accepted in a conditional status; the second was Tech basketball; the third was graduation; the fourth was being named a Distinguished Grad; the fifth was meeting the young man who received my scholarship; and the sixth and most recent is endowing my scholarship - forever.

ISyE:  In your interview with the AJC, you stated that your education at Tech taught you how to think rather than what to think, can you give me an example or tell me why this is important to you? 

R.J.: This is a very important concept. There is a lot of "training" that you can receive in the classroom that teaches you methods of solutions to problems. All you need to do is to just do a lot of problems. In my graduate education at Tech, we were often assigned problems that had no simple or "elegant" solutions. You had to know HOW TO THINK about the problem and some possible ways of solving the problem based upon what you already knew. Knowing HOW to think allows people to find solutions that are NEW. Knowing what to think oftentimes limits you to solutions that already exist.

ISyE:  What advice would you give a student starting the program today? 

R.J.: Carpe Diem!  You are getting a great education and you can expand that education by getting involved in the entire college experience. Trust me – Georgia Tech is a great place to learn and a great place to expand your horizons. Get involved. Get to know your classmates - embrace the diversity at Tech. Your classmates will be leaders of industry around the world. The relationships you build today will be of great help to you in the future.

ISyE: What do you read for pleasure and what are you reading now? 

R.J.: The NBA Rule Book -- I'm still learning.  For pleasure, I just finished the 52nd Floor - Thinking Deeply about Leadership by David A. Levy, James E. Parco and Fred R. Blass; With Honor in Hand by Terron Sims; Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell; and Private by James Patterson.

ISyE:  Finish this sentence: Few people know that....... 

R.J.:  1. I am a very private person.  2. I work very hard every day to get better.  3. I go anaerobic Monday through Friday to improve my fitness (I work out instead of go to lunch each week day unless I'm forced to attend a lunch meeting). 4. I won’t feel that I have been successful until I have the title "Dr" in front of my name.

 ISyE: Is there any one person who has been an inspiration to you? If so, who, and how did they inspire you? 

R.J.: I have three. CW4 (Ret) Don Lesch - he saw something in me that I never saw in myself and dared me to go to West Point, which tricked me into actually doing it. Also -- every soldier and civilian that I have ever had the privilege of leading -- they selflessly serve just to get it done. Finally - my son, Ian. He is learning how to become a man. He does it in a very brave way and in his own way, but it scares me sometimes.


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