Story Alumni

A Music and Technology Pioneer

Elizabeth Chapin

 

​James Williamson: Cal Poly Pomona alumnus, Sony executive and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer

 

James Williamson joined the legendary proto punk band Iggy & the Stooges in 1970. A few years later, he gave up playing music professionally to pursue a career in electronics. Williamson went on to attend Cal Poly Pomona, where he graduated in 1982 with a degree in electrical engineering. He got a job at a computer company in Silicon Valley, and later worked his way up the corporate ladder at Sony to become Vice President of Technical Standards.

In 2010, Williamson was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Four years later, he was inducted into Cal Poly Pomona's Engineering Hall of Fame—he says the honor is just as big.


Why did you decide to quit music and pursue an engineering degree?

I was kind of in a crossroads. I had developed an interest in electronics. One day in the mid 70's I was at an electronics store and saw the first personal computer I'd ever seen and it captivated me from there on out. I decided: you know what, this is cooler than rock 'n' roll. I was gonna learn how to do that. But the thing was, in order to do that, you have to have an engineering degree.


Why did you choose Cal Poly Pomona?

I had to transfer to a four-year engineering program and Cal Poly Pomona was the best around. Moving nearby also got me out of Hollywood, which was not particularly conducive to studying for me at the time. It was a good thing all the way around.


What was it like going from being in the Stooges to being an engineering student?

It was hard to go from a very visceral music environment to calculus. It was extremely difficult for me for the first couple of years, really. I had not been a particularly good student in high school, either. Fortunately, it was easy to find help at Cal Poly Pomona. I took advantage of it and just worked really hard.


What was your favorite class?

There were many. But "Sequential Logic" stands out. There was a professor there named Wendy Wonderman who was not only a great teacher, but a great person. She ended up being my senior project advisor and she had a huge influence on me. I kept in touch with her throughout my career. I hope that every student has the opportunity to have a Wendy Wonderman.


How did Cal Poly Pomona prepare you for a career in the technology industry?

I think that the practical nature and philosophy of the school was a huge benefit. I knew so many engineers that came out of Ivy leagues and private schools—they knew the theory but not the practice. I was actually hired right out of school to a company in the Silicon Valley based on my senior project. It's a huge bonus if you're looking to get a job.


Why did you decide to rejoin the Stooges in 2009?

At first I turned down the offer. But I felt like I kind of owed it to those guys, even though I hadn't worked with them in all those years. I took an early retirement and took it on, and I'm glad I did. We had become quite popular by then. Within a short order, I was in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, touring all over the world, and so on. Being of the first induction class of Cal Poly Pomona's Engineering Hall of Fame was quite a huge honor. I'll probably be the only person in the world to be inducted in those two halls of fame.


What advice do you have for students who are considering pursuing an engineering degree?

I'm living proof that you can do it. I think if a Stooge can get into Cal Poly Pomona and succeed in engineering, I'd have to say that really anybody can. The question is how committed are you? Are you willing to put in the effort and time the degree is going to require?