John Whiteside ’80

Late in the 1970s, when the Boston Globe would be tossed onto John Whitesides (80) porch, he couldn’t help but notice the excess of employment ads in the computer industry. Feeling the pinch of his psychology teaching salary falling behind with inflation, he decided his long fascination with computers might be his ticket to a healthier bottom line. That’s when he hit the switch on a career turn to computer science at WPI.

Immediately upon earning his MS, Whiteside found a position within the industry that tripled his academic salary—but he didn’t leave his psychology mindset behind. “My specialty was designing computers so they’d be easier to use,” he explains. “This was a new field; I got to help create it.”

Fast forward to the early 2000s and Whiteside again tuned his career toward a refreshingly different direction.

“I’m good for about 10–15 years in a particular job or field,” he admits. “Then I get itchy and in need of learning and doing something new.”

Beginning with the art of custom furniture making, he then transitioned into another of his passions, the art of lutherie—otherwise known, less glamorously, as guitar making.

At his North Road Guitars shop, nestled in a barn at the back of his vintage schoolhouse residence in New Hampshire, Whiteside builds handmade guitars and teaches the craft in a fully equipped shop.

“Guitar designing, building, playing, and teaching others how to make guitars is the most fun I’ve ever had. I get to work with the finest woods in the world, create objects that both sound and look beautiful, and meet wonderful people I’d never otherwise have met.” His students run the charts from professional musicians, engineers, surgeons, and radiologists to a US Marine fighter pilot, a state trooper, and a dog trainer from the Seabrook Park racetrack.

WPI provided the artisan the capacity to apply complicated, multi-step processes through flow charts, solving theorems, and writing code—now lessons he uses in guitar building. By utilizing hundreds of steps that demand completion in an interdependent order, Whiteside says his WPI education helps him analyze problems from an engineering perspective, which he then applies to guitar making through both structural and acoustic engineering.

In all of his career turns, Whiteside has taken his love of learning and reinvented himself in harmony with his own interests, advice he gives to young students considering their own future careers.

“Learn how to learn,” he says. “The world is changing at such a fast pace that any set of skills you acquire will become out of date sooner or later. You will have to keep getting re-educated for the rest of your life. Start with something you find intriguing for its own sake, not just because it happens to be a field with a lot of jobs at the moment. Do what you love, and the money will follow. Never sell your soul for a paycheck.”

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