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Staff Profile: Chris Berry

By Cameron M. Burns

Most days, Chris Berry, RMI’s IT director, can be found with his face in front of a monitor, feverishly digging through some software glitch and following lines of reasoning that will bring resolution to some vexing problem.

But Berry doesn’t just work in the world of machines and logical processes. He is fascinated by the unpredictability—the so-called “organized chaos”—that humans bring to all their endeavors.

A considerable part of his day is spent trying to understand why and how people think, how they make decisions, and ultimately what they really want or need. To do that, he has to be willing to accept every piece of information and opinion, whether the input will contribute to a solution or not.

“One of the things I’ve always valued is an openness to other points of view,” Berry said. “Two people look at the same thing, and their associations or conclusions are going to be wildly different. I’ve always tried to see the other points of view whenever I can.” 

Berry’s career was influenced by several convergent factors. When he was young, his family moved to Manzanola (“little apple”), in southeastern Colorado, where his parents ran a nursery and greenhouse. He was attracted to the area’s river-bottoms, and spent as much time as he could tromping the banks of the Arkansas River.

While the outdoors held sway, computers and computing also grabbed his attention. At the time, the home computer age was dawning, and although he had little access to computers, he read everything he could about them.

In ninth grade, he was shipped off to prep school and to his delight, the school had a functioning computer. He started programming the refrigerator- sized machine and soon found that he had a knack. After a brief stint at George Washington University, he moved into IT work full time.

Although IT was a fit, Berry knew something was missing, so when he moved back to Colorado in 1987, he started studying, of all things, anthropology.

“I just thought it would give me an insight into people,” he said. “One of the things about tromping around in river-bottoms and working on computers is that you don’t learn much about people. And, I felt I always was and still am a bit deficient in that. So I thought anthropology would be a road to a little bit better understanding. As well as it’s just fascinating—seeing how people live.”

One of the great surprises for Berry was anthropology’s lack of precision. “It calls itself a science,” he said. “But it’s pretty tough to do science on people and get any kind of meaning. You have to couch it in some sort of discipline, and that’s certainly there. But it’s not really science as it’s normally defined. There’s no real experimentation. You can do some hypothesis testing, but there’s no way to do real controls. I pretty much fell into the ‘functional school,’ where things have a purpose and you can deconstruct things down to if-then statements, at least to a certain point. I found myself gravitating to that kind of tool-kit. It didn’t offer all the answers, but it helped.”

In the early 2000s, Berry and his then-girlfriend (and now wife), Cherry “Buffy” Andrews, moved to Colorado’s Western Slope, where, after a stint setting up the Roaring Fork Internet Users Group, the first publicly available ISP in the Roaring Fork Valley, he joined RMI in 2002 as an IT technician.

In 2004, an opportunity came up for both Berry and his wife, an architect. Longtime RMI staffers Bill Browning and Jeff Bannon were leaving the Institute to head up the design and development of Haymount, a sustainable community in Virginia. Andrews was hired as town architect, while Berry was brought in to “wire the town—with Internet access everywhere.” Although that was just six years ago, it was one of the first communities in the nation to be designed to run on a fully integrated digital wireless system. Berry quickly learned what he’d gotten himself into: trying to smooth out a collision between the technological and human sides of community development.

"The project was about getting the vendors and players together and building this idea that hadn’t been done before,” he recalled. “Nobody had tried to do this to this level, or with this model. We were trying to build everything from telephone, cable TV, and Internet services in an integrated way, and coalesce all these data services into the town rather than spreading them among multiple vendors.”

But the new model faced big roadblocks.

“It was hard to get vendors who would accept something completely new and different,” he said. “It required people to give a little and to rethink what they did. The financial part was challenging, too. They expected a certain profit margin based on the cheapest possible materials and labor and the highest possible price rather than good project management, craftsmanship, and the efficiencies found in good procurement practices. This is stuff that RMI has proven for years—that it’s actually cheaper to do it right. But it’s the same old story. The attitude is, ‘It works, so why change it?’”

When Haymount fizzled in late 2005 (it hit financial difficulties and was then sold), the Berrys started planning a return to the West. Serendipitously, RMI’s HR Director David Rothstein contacted Berry and asked him to help set up RMI’s second office in Boulder. At the time, RMI was absorbing Greg Franta’s ENSAR Group, and the Boulder office was abuzz with activity.

Berry joined RMI a second time, and today works in the Institute’s Boulder office. With his knack for machinery and software, as well as a passion for understanding how humans operate, he fits well with a stable of consultants trying to piece together the puzzle of humanity and high-tech solutions. Berry “absolutely” believes in the work RMI is doing, and that efficiency, renewables, and their esoteric manifestations in thing like smart grids and plug-in vehicles are appropriate solutions.

“It’s a human enterprise,” he said. “And as such it’s a little imperfect and it’s going to go in fits and starts and people are going to try and carve out their parts of it. If you could conceive of things like this and implement them without that friction and the overhead that comes with human interaction, it would be great, but it’s just not going to happen. I think we are muddling through. We see more and more people starting to understand that this is where a lot of our energy goes and a lot of it is being wasted. Soon we’re going to wake up and find we’ve gotten through, and the world has changed.”

Cameron M. Burns is RMI’s senior editor.

--Published August 2010

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