Valpo Engineering Alumni Recognized for Achievement
Two notable College of Engineering Alumni were honored at Homecoming 2023 for their career achievements since leaving their programs. Michael Steffen ’07, a double major in mechanical and electrical engineering was given the Outstanding Young Alumni award, while Ben Macy ’13, an electrical engineering major, earned the First Decade Achievement Award. These two embody the value of leadership that acts as a pillar of the University’s future development plan Uplift Valpo: Our Beacon for the Journey Forward.
Michael was drawn to Valpo due to its identity as a small, Lutheran school where he would be able to make connections with his professors and classmates that may not have been possible at another institution.
“I was really excited about that compared to the other engineering colleges, where I would just be a number,” Michael says. “Valpo felt different.”
Growing up in a family of engineers, Michael was very familiar with the projects his father and uncle were taking on in their careers. His desire to become an engineer himself was intensified after learning about computer aided design tools (commonly referred to as CAD) during high school. On top of majoring in mechanical and electrical engineering at Valparaiso University, he furthered his involvement with the field by joining the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the Society of Automotive Engineers.
One of the most influential experiences Michael had at Valpo was his work in the scientific visualization lab. A precursor to modern virtual reality, the lab utilized a room with giant screens and 3D glasses to create artificial computer interfaces. Using these, Michael was able to create and operate digital controls that allowed him to operate agricultural equipment all the way in Japan.
“The experience I had at the scientific visualization lab, doing that research work, really set me off into wanting to do grad school,” Michael says. “I came to Valpo thinking I’d get my degree and go into the workforce, but that unique opportunity of doing research as an undergraduate really helped me get into computer architecture.”
After Valpo, Michael went to Iowa State University for his graduate and Ph.D. work in computer engineering. There, his focus was on harnessing the power of graphic processing units (GPU) — usually used to generate 3D images on a computer — for scientific computation. During his post-graduate career, he worked with NVIDIA— a leading manufacturer of GPUs and other computer hardware and software — leading to a career with the company upon his graduation in 2012.
Today, Michael works with another leading GPU manufacturer, AMD, who began expanding into the field of using GPUs for computational power in the mid-2010s. He and his wife, Catherine, have two children, 11 year-old David and nine year-old Hazel.
Michael is still an active part of Valparaiso University as part of the board of directors for the Lutheran Diaconal Association. He is usually on-campus twice a year, including coming to Homecoming 2023 to receive his award. Despite his accomplishments, the recognition has come as a surprise.
“I was pretty excited. I was honored to be nominated, and I guess I was a little shocked,” Michael says. “I don’t think of my work as that outstanding. I’m just trying to improve the computational space.”
Beyond technical skills, Michael had one piece of advice to pass on to today’s engineering students.
“A professor told me ‘don’t be a tool,’” he says. “You’re not there just to solve the problem and present data. You need to apply meaning and value to it.’ That really stuck with me throughout my career.”
Ben Macy came to Valparaiso University having never even heard of the institution until he received a postcard inviting him to visit campus. Once there, however, he quickly realized that the University was where he wanted to be.
“I just liked the atmosphere and the people,” Ben says. “I had never heard of Valpo before I received the postcard, but I fell in love with it.”
Ben went into the College of Engineering with a passion for understanding electricity, both as an abstract concept and as a powerful tool for practical, everyday use. That interest, combined with his natural inclination towards mathematics and science, made electrical engineering the perfect choice of major.
Outside of receiving a stellar technical education, Ben’s time at Valpo also afforded him a number of opportunities to develop his leadership skills. In addition to his studies, Ben was a member of Student Senate, the Student Alumni Association, Tau Beta Pi, and Sigma Phi Epsilon. Ben believes the skills he learned outside the classroom were what made his Valpo experience unique.
“The key to the Valpo experience that students get is having all the opportunities to be in leadership positions and develop soft skills,” Ben says. “They can think holistically about education rather than just being technically strong. I use that a lot in my career to advance goals rather than just solving technical problems.”
After graduation, Ben went to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana for his Master’s degree in electrical engineering with a focus on power electronics. After graduation, he was hired at Microsoft, where we worked various jobs on returns, failure analysis, and battery life for product lines like the Surface. In 2017, he worked very briefly at Apple on battery life analysis and thermal modeling support for various systems.
As of April, 2023, Ben has been working for four years at Amazon, and has moved from purely product testing and development to managerial roles. His work includes cameras and “Just Walk Out” technology used for Amazon Go Stores and the Amazon One palm reader. He currently lives with his wife, Haley, and their two dogs.
Upon learning he had been named the First Decade Achievement Award winner, Ben was taken aback at the list of impressive honorees that he would be joining.
“I was honored and humbled,” Ben says. “I looked at some of the past award recipients, and while I have some professional accomplishments, which I’m proud of, I felt humbled looking at the scope of other folk’s work.”
His advice to current students is to take the opportunities Valparaiso University offers to grow as a leader and find out how one can be their best self. “When you see opportunities to do more and step into leadership positions, to step outside of your comfort zone, really take those head-on,” he says. “Taking opportunities is the best way you can grow.”