In military and community, MSIM student driven to serve

By Shanzay Shabi Thursday, February 17, 2022

Around the world and back to the iSchool.

Alan Butler’s academic journey has been anything but ordinary. Between two college degree programs, he served several years of active duty in the U.S. Army, including time abroad in Europe and Afghanistan. 

Butler, an online graduate student in the Information School pursuing a master's in information management on the Early-Career Accelerated track, lives in Auburn and works as a management analyst for Pierce County alongside serving as a reserve officer at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. 

Butler is driven by the desire to create safe spaces for traditionally underserved populations — places where people from various backgrounds and cultural identities can feel represented. During his time in the Army, Butler has used his skills to do just that by supporting Afghan refugees as they relocate to Washington state.

His family’s military background is what inspired Butler to commission in the Army. He went on to serve four years of active duty as a logistics officer shortly after completing his undergraduate degree. When Butler finally returned to Washington, he decided to pursue his first master’s degree in strategic communications from Washington State University. 

However, Butler’s time away from military duty did not last long. Upon completing his master’s, Butler was deployed again to Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he served for nine months. As a logistics advisor, Butler primarily worked with data analytics, including helping to plan and lay network fiber for the internet. After returning to Washington from duty yet again, Butler found himself wondering what to do next. 

“I was and still am a reserve officer at Lewis-McChord and I love my job there, but on the civilian side I was thinking, ‘What do I want to be when I grow up?’” he said. 

Given his analytical data background in the Army, Butler knew he wanted to pursue a similar career as a civilian. He decided to further explore his interest in data and technology by delving into side projects with the Washington State Department of Transportation. During this time, a good friend of Butler’s graduated with a Master of Science in Information Management from the iSchool and recommended the program to him. 

His friend’s recommendation brought Butler to the University of Washington to pursue his second master’s degree in information management. At the iSchool, Butler has found support from faculty and developed knowledge about relational databases and other topics that proved applicable to not only his career aspirations but also his current positions as a reserve officer and management analyst. 

“Rather than throwing data into an Excel spreadsheet, the iSchool enabled me to think through how to craft systems in order to support these people.”

“All the classes I've taken throughout the MSIM program have been so pertinent to what I do every day, both in my county position and my role in the Army,” he said. “Being able to think through information systems and pairing people, process and technology really comes to fruition the older I get and the more responsibilities I get.” 

Butler’s business intelligence instructor, Assistant Teaching Professor Sean Pettersen, who has a military background himself, took note of the leadership and discipline Butler brings to class each day. 

“I can’t say enough good things about him. Alan is a natural leader and just shows an earnestness and a willingness to work as hard as possible for every single assignment,” he said. “He always applies what he learns in class to his work outside and shows a commitment to keep learning.”

Butler was called for military duty again in 2021 to serve as a logistics officer in Operation Airlift, a large-scale evacuation of Afghan citizens as the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan. While Butler was familiar with the duties of a logistics officer given his prior experience, he felt more confident approaching the responsibilities of his role this time with the information management knowledge he had developed in recent months.

“The iSchool prepared me with how to think at a strategic level and how to better frame questions for my supervisors,” he said. “The MSIM program allowed me to contextualize a lot of disparate data, and in that space be able to support both my team members and my superiors by giving them actionable objectives.” 

As a logistics officer in Operation Airlift, Butler was responsible for developing a plan to relocate Afghan refugees in Washington while making the most efficient use of government resources and money. The iSchool prepared him to take on this challenge with a whole new perspective. 

“The MSIM program definitely gave me the ability to take a step back and understand the data is not just about getting from point A to point B in the most efficient way possible. Each data point represents a person with individual stories, backgrounds, experiences and cultures,” he said. 

“Rather than throwing data into an Excel spreadsheet, the iSchool enabled me to think through how to craft systems in order to support these people.”

While Butler’s military role in the operation has concluded, he continues to work with and help Afghan refugees as a volunteer. 

“I still feel a need to help,” he said. “Back as a civilian, I get to hang up the uniform as a reservist, but Afghan refugees have to continue to rebuild their lives in the U.S. Assisting where I can now is like an extension of my mission.”