Ryan Purcell '08 - Director - Defense R&D and Global Health at LLamasoft, Inc.
When Ryan Purcell was studying at Michigan, he never thought he would work for a software company. He had “next to zero interest” in his computer programming class! But given an opportunity to join the Ann Arbor software startup LLamasoft, he took it. Now six years and five continents later, Ryan is glad he did.
Ryan Purcell is an exceptionally well-traveled man. He has walked on six continents, five of them as a representative of LLamasoft. Back in the U.S. after three years in South Africa, Ryan currently calls Austin, TX home. But at this moment, he’s likely on his way to catch a plane, either to help apply LLamasoft’s technology to complex problems facing public health organizations, or to promote his other passion: Ultimate Frisbee.
Q: What inspired you when you were a student at the Tauber Institute? What did you learn that you apply to your work today?
I had a really good summer team project experience. I worked with a great sponsor and the project was pretty cool, but more importantly I had a fantastic experience working with my MBA partner. His name is Corey Bruno and he’s a great guy, super sharp, and he was a mentor to me. He was a few years older and had already worked in the industry, and it was just great to be around really impressive people who could show me what it means to be a business professional. I was still pretty young and that was my first “real job,” so it was a big deal for me.
Also, being exposed to colleagues with diverse professional backgrounds shows you that you need to be able to work with and leverage the talent of a broad cross-section of people. I think that’s proved to be even more true for my work as LLamasoft as grown. I think one of my personal strengths is being able to relate to and interact with groups of people from different departments and help them stay engaged and moving together in the same direction. That’s something I’ve learned from being a part of Tauber.
Q: What advice would you give to current Tauber Institute students?
Performance-wise, the worst class at Michigan for me was a computer programming class. I had next to zero interest in it, and in hindsight, I wish I had dedicated more time and energy to that class, because it would have set me up well for my job, or for a whole bunch of other possibilities depending on how things played out. Just don’t take your educational experiences for granted, even the stuff you’re not interested in, because you never know when it might pay off to have those skills in your back pocket.
Q: How did you get to where you are now?
I think the education I got at Michigan and through being a part of Tauber set me up pretty well to recognize when a great opportunity was staring me in the face, but I really did luck into this situation with LLamasoft. I wouldn't have ever guessed that I would work for a software company, but while at Michigan I worked on a group project with another student who turned out to have connections to our CEO at LLamasoft. When I was finishing up my Master’s coursework I got an email out of the blue saying, “Hey, I think you’re finishing, I enjoyed working with you on the group project last year and wondered if you were looking for a full time job." And the timing didn’t work out exactly right because I was still finishing up my Master’s and went to do some research in Australia for six months, but I ended up doing a month long internship with LLamasoft when they needed a few extra bodies. Then when I came back from Australia and finished up my degree, I joined LLamasoft full time. At that point LLamasoft was a small startup, just a few employees, but now we’re at probably close to 250 globally, so it’s been cool to be a part of that transformation.
Q: What are some of the most challenging, and some of the most rewarding aspects of your work?
It’s been awesome to be part of a growing company, but it has its particular challenges as well. We had a strong internal culture when we were small, and we wanted to maintain the culture of the company and feeling of camaraderie as we grew. And I think, overall, we’ve done a pretty good job of that, but it’s still something that we talk about a lot at the management level.
Early on, everybody was sort of doing a little bit of everything, so I’ve been given a lot of freedom to wear different hats. But also as we’ve grown, I've had the opportunity to manage different parts of the business and most recently a fairly large geographic patch of land. Those kinds of opportunities for someone my age are pretty unique I think. I feel quite fortunate.
It makes me feel good that all the public health projects that I’ve worked on are impactful. We’re directly improving the efficiency of health supply chains that provide medicine to people who desperately need it. I'm doing a project in central Nigeria right now, for example, where they have limited numbers of trucks and a growing demand for medical deliveries, and so we're helping them plan out more efficient routes using LLamasoft's technology and software tools to be able to meet that need.
You know, we don’t make much money on those projects, but from the very beginning it’s something that from the executive level on down we’ve said, “We’re going to do this, because if we’re going to call ourselves the leaders in the field, we’re going to act like it.” This is something that leaders do, and so we’ve done it, and we continue to do it. I’m proud to be a part of that.
Q: Now about your other passion - Ultimate Frisbee. How has your supply chain expertise influenced your work promoting the sport?
I have travelled probably about as much for Ultimate as I have for work. I was fortunate to play at Michigan, which has a very strong program and tradition. I coached and played in Australia, went to two world championships with the South African team, and now I’m on the global board of directors for the World Flying Disc Federation. The big news is that we have been officially welcomed into the Olympic family by the International Olympic Committee. So we’re not in the Olympics yet, but Ultimate is now recognized as an official sport.
I just got back from our semiannual WFDF board meeting in Toronto where we were doing a lot of strategic planning for the direction of this sport that’s basically only 30 years old. We are focused on developing Ultimate at the highest international level, all the way down to the grassroots level with kids in villages in Africa. It’s hard to do those things at the same time. Trying to see our actions from 20,000 feet up, and understand how different choices impact other areas and people is difficult, but I think that it’s something that I bring.
Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
It’s been an awesome ride at LLamasoft, and when I started there I would not have expected that I’d be sitting here with the company today, so you never know. I have two older sisters and they both teach and I’ve always said that someday I could see myself teaching high school and coaching sports because that’s something I really enjoy doing, but at this point I don’t know. I’m going to keep riding the LLamasoft train for a while here, because we still have some important work to do.