The Power Behind UCF’s Tech Talent Machine

The public is taking notice of what researchers and corporations have known for years: Central Florida is one of the most valuable centers of tech research and talent in the nation.

You’re familiar with the numbers: More than 70 million people visit Central Florida during a typical year. It’s also no secret why most of them come: theme parks. But what visitors and locals alike do not notice at the parks is the software that makes it possible for them to be open and operating.

“Much of the research that drives the parks is done right here at home,” says Rob Panepinto, senior strategic advisor and director Innovation Districts Strategy and Partnerships at the UCF Incubation Program. “Yet the story of Central Florida as a hub of technology is lost on most people, including people who live here.”

The technology isn’t all for fun and games either. Coldwell Banker Richard Ellis ranks the Orlando region No. 25 in the nation and No. 1 in Florida for producing tech talent, with UCF as the main pipeline. UCF is one of the few universities in the nation offering undergraduate degrees and graduate programs and certificates in cybersecurity, augmented reality, virtual reality and fintech. For years, UCF has been ranked the No. 1 supplier of graduates to the aerospace and defense industries. Nearly one in three employees at Kennedy Space Center are UCF graduates. U.S. News and World Report has ranked UCF the No. 20 most innovative university in the nation. Among public universities in the U.S., UCF ranks 25th for producing patents.

The numbers go on and on, and some of them are about fun and games. Princeton Review has named the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy (FIEA) at UCF the top graduate-level game development program for three consecutive years.

“I think sometimes we might take for granted what we have here at UCF,” says Agere Chair Professor in the Department of Computer Science and AR/VR pioneer Carolina Cruz-Neira. “We have tech experts in decarbonization, energy, cybersecurity, healthcare, nanotechnology, blockchain, a broad spectrum of specialties. That’s what makes it exciting as a faculty member — one day we’re working on technology for cancer research, the next day it’s traffic safety, and then mental health. It’s why my husband and I came to UCF in January 2020. We wanted to be a part of this.”

Cruz-Neira and her husband, Associate Professor of Computer Science Dirk Reiners, had known about UCF’s status in tech research and simulation for years. As world-renown pioneers in augmented and virtual reality, they’d travel to Orlando for presentations and conferences. While inspiring others with their own work, they would be mutually wowed with the leading-edge simulation advancements being made in Research Park.

“We were professionally lonely at other institutions,” Cruz-Neira says. “We would try to explain to people the challenging research necessary to produce effective virtual reality applications. Here at UCF, we immediately became part of a larger team of experts in VR and in other fields. Every day we’re collaborating and tackling answers to larger problems.”

There’s an even bigger motivating factor for them: students.

“The students are learning new technologies at the same time we’re researching them,” says Cruz-Neira. “They’re enthusiastic about the material because they have the freedom to apply what they learn in our VR classes to biology, psychology, hospitality, whatever they’re interested in.”

When she was working toward her doctorate in computer engineering in Illinois, instructors would ask Cruz-Neira why she was there. There were no other women in the program. Early in her career, most of the other women she saw working in VR were artists.

“The environment here at UCF is different,” she says. “There are many women in technical leadership and senior positions. For example, the director of the School of Modeling, Simulation and Training is a woman, Grace Bochenek ’98PhD. Instructors come together from all backgrounds to explore the next next big thing, which makes UCF effective in preparing new pioneers.”

Yan Solihin is a professor of computer science and director of the Cyber Security and Privacy faculty cluster at UCF. His research in the high-demand field could have taken Solihin to any institution in the country. He chose this one.

“There’s an energy at UCF that you don’t find in many places,” Solihin says. “The faculty is allowed to look to the future without the restrictions of a legacy institution. That’s among the reasons we have strong partnerships in the technology sector — major corporations know that we’re a growing powerhouse.”

The UCF powerhouse sends graduates into careers with companies that have a presence near campus, like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Siemens, L3 Harris, EA Sports and Google. The U.S. government uses UCF’s deep pool of tech talent to ramp up the Department of Defense and Department of Energy.

As Solihin says, “We have the critical mass.”

In the past decade, enrollment in computer science related majors has more than quadrupled and is approaching 5,000. The majors are aligned with current and future needs. There are degrees at various levels for digital forensics, computer vision, optics and photonics, and modeling and simulation of behavior cybersecurity. Just one year after launching the master’s program in cybersecurity, Solihin believes there will be more than 100 applicants very soon.

“Our successes,” he says, “are predictors of more great things to come.”

The real surprise in all of this is that UCF would be considered an unheralded producer of tech talent. The university was founded in 1963 as Florida Technological University for the purpose of feeding the space program with research and expertise. Tourism in Orlando didn’t become an economic force until the 1970s.

“Innovation, especially in engineering, has always been part of UCF’s fabric,” says Panepinto. “Now it’s a matter of scaling the talent into other fields. Look at the structure of the fintech program. It combines business and engineering, which makes it unlike anywhere else.”

Ajai Singh came to UCF in 2015 with the charge of building UCF’s finance department into a nationally recognized tech-savvy training ground. Crypto and Venmo were not yet on the general public’s radar, so he knew there were opportunities to get out in front of the fintech movement. Other universities were trying to do the same thing — NYU within its business school, Duke within its college of engineering, a few schools with basic fintech courses.

UCF’s version of a fintech program, however, would establish a new template: it would be developed jointly between the finance department and the College of Engineering and Computer Science.

“The culture of creativity and collaboration that made the space program so effective is still here,” Singh says. “No other institutions have this kind of research and relationships between departments.”

To take the fintech program to yet another level, Singh sought to build an all-star team of instructors and researchers, like Christo Pirinsky, who had co-written a paper that everyone in the field held almost as gospel.

“When Christo and several others agreed to join us,” Singh says, “they gave us the backbone in fintech that cannot be matched.”

Pirinsky had been working with the Securities and Exchange Commission. He’d taught at other universities around the country. But he saw an opportunity to be part of something special at UCF.

“If you look at high-tech centers around the world, they emerge close to universities,” Pirinsky says. “So, I believe the fintech program will only make Orlando and UCF more prominent. It’s a vibrant scene and the trajectory is upward.”

Leaders at other universities around the country are already asking Singh and Pirinsky how they might mirror what’s happening at UCF.

“I’ve only been in Central Florida for a few years and can feel the reputation as a hub of technology is at an inflection point,” Singh says. “The corporate world knows it. Other schools know it. I believe everyone is about to know it.”