Nora Kirstein to retire after 42 years in information technology at Virginia Tech (2024)

If there ever was a Hokie through and through, it’s Nora Kirstein.

During her time at Virginia Tech, she has

  • Earned two degrees in computer science
  • Held numerous positions with the Finance Applications team across three departments
  • Worked in five campus buildings — as well as over the former Big Al’s in downtown Blacksburg and from home
  • Married a fellow Virginia Tech computer science alumn and current Division of IT employee, Dean Kirstein — they met as students
  • Raised two children who, of course, are also Virginia Tech alumni

Kirstein, applications analyst within the Division of Information Technology, will retire July 1, after 42 years of service. “I have been affiliated with Virginia Tech in almost every way possible,” she said.

While a student, Kirstein worked as a wage employee and as a graduate teaching assistant and participated in Phi Beta Kappa. As an employee, she’s worked full- and part-time roles, as a supervisor, and, in her words, a “regular worker bee.” As alums, the Kirsteins are active in the Department of Computer Science community to this day. And, as proud parents, they have seen their children experience Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, the D.C. area, and at the Steger Center for International Scholarship in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland.

The “filler” course that launched a career

Kirstein’s computing career began by accident. During her senior year in high school in Alexandria, she took a computer programming class just to fill an elective.

“It literally changed my life,” said Kirstein. “We had a teletype machine with a punched tape feed connected to the school system’s mainframe. It looked so exotic — something we saw on TV but would never type on ourselves.”

Programming came naturally to her, as did teaching it. “I would finish an assignment early, and students would come to me for help when the teacher was busy. I was good at helping them work through their problems without writing the code for them.”

Before that class, Kirstein hadn’t planned on going to college. After discovering her aptitude and interest in programming, she now had a reason to go. With some help from her guidance counselor, she found her way to Virginia Tech. “First, this dedicated woman arranged for me to visit with programmers at Langley, the headquarters for the CIA —another amazing thing one only saw in the movies. Then, she pointed me toward Virginia Tech as the place to go for technical degrees, and she mapped out a path for me to get here.”

Kirstein earned her bachelor's degree in computer science at Virginia Tech in 1979 and her master’s degree in 1986.

Working with the finance team

Initially, Kirstein went to work for Control Data Corporation, but she returned to Virginia Tech just two years later. “My full-time jobs have all been with the finance team, but over the years our group has been part of the Accounting Office, the Controller’s Office, and finally the Division of IT’s Enterprise Systems unit,” she said.

“When I reflect on Nora’s contributions to Enterprise Systems, what comes to mind are her passion for Virginia Tech, her dedication to excellent service, and recognition of her vital role in the support and innovation of technology for the financial operations of the university. She has always exemplified the critical balance of stability and innovation in all her work that is the essence of enterprise applications,” said Deborah Fulton, who led Enterprise Systems for over a decade.

As an applications analyst, Kirstein helped develop and maintain software for a variety of business processes at Virginia Tech. In addition to supporting applications for the Bursar’s Office and Controller’s Office, her team worked on projects for Hokie Passport, Dining Services, the Office of Sponsored Programs, Virginia Tech Foundation, Parking Services, Virginia TEch Athletics, and the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, to name a few.

“Nora has built a career-long reputation of both technical and functional expertise for the business units she supports. Her excellent documentation, numerous system contributions, and above all her kindness, have created a lasting legacy for those who’ve worked with her over the years,” said Lauren Lawson, university bursar.

One of Kirstein’s most memorable projects was to help get Virginia Tech’s systems “Y2K ready” ahead of the new millennium. Up through the 1990s, most computers calculated dates based on two-digit years: “02” for 1902, etc. The concern was that when Jan. 1, 2000, came around, computers would recognize the “00” part only —essentially interpreting the year as 1900 and creating widespread errors. “It was the big deal in 1999, as the world had become so dependent on computers,” said Kirstein. “There was real worry that bank systems would crash, power grids would fail, and so on.” For several years, she and her team worked to make sure all university program code was updated to perform calculations using four-digit years. They were successful, and the 21st century began smoothly for Virginia Tech.

Computing through the digital revolution

The timing of Kirstein’s career coincided with the evolution of computing technology. Her computing experience encompasses nearly every level of hardware, from punch cards and mainframes to the “luggable” IBM portable personal computers, to laptops and smartphones. She’s learned a swath of coding languages, from assembler languages and COBOL with hierarchical databases, to Java with relational databases and web apps.

“I’ve seen a lot of change over the last 42 years: new languages, new equipment, new procedures. Much of it is just a different take on long-established computer science concepts, but some have been different enough to seem very new and strange at first,” said Kirstein.

While she recalls that using a mouse took some practice getting used to, the biggest change from her perspective is that it is no longer just the computer scientists who use and understand computers —it is everyone. “We all carry these machines in our pockets, which we use without a second thought…a far cry from when many people were so intimidated by computers that they were afraid to press the enter key,” said Kirstein.

Giving back to the next generation

The Kirsteins remain actively involved with the computer science department as alumni. In addition to attending numerous alumni events each year, they contribute to several scholarship funds. The Kirsteins were co-creators of the Anne and George Gorsline Endowed Scholarship in Computer Science, established in 2000. This scholarship is awarded each year to a female student majoring in computer science, as a way to encourage more women to pursue degrees and careers in the field.

In 2010, during the department’s 40th anniversary celebration, the Kirsteins were presented with the Distinguished Service Award for their contributions to the department.

Beginning in 1992, “Dean and I began hosting reunions for our friends in computer science that included many students and professors from these ‘good old days.’ It’s been fun for us to keep everyone up to date on the computer science department, changes on campus, and news from our beloved Mrs. G throughout the years,” stated Kirstein, referring to Anne Gorsline, who was married to the first department head in computer science, George Gorsline, both of whom were known for making students feel welcome.

As for her decision to retire now, “Douglas Adams had it right ... 42 is ‘the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.’ My years at Virginia Tech covered it all,” said Kirstein. “I think of my retirement as 42 years with an asterisk: everything, and then some more.”

A reception honoring Kirstein will be held Wednesday, June 26, from 3 to 6 p.m. in the Data and Decision Sciences Building atrium.

Nora Kirstein to retire after 42 years in information technology at Virginia Tech (2024)
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