For The Defense: Steve Wellslager ’88 and His Team at Publix Help FSC Create Cyber-Security Courses

Nov 8, 2018

by Staff

Steve Wellslager ’88 has a disarmingly simple explanation for what he and his team at Publix do.

“We’re the technical ‘goo’ that makes everything work,” he quips with a smile.

Simple to say, challenging to do. As vice president of information systems architecture and security for Publix Super Markets, Inc., Wellslager oversees a department that coordinates hardware and software for everything from point-of-sale data at the company’s more than 1,100 stores to generating executive-level reports for the fifth-largest retail supermarket corporation in America.

It has been quite a jump for someone who began working for Publix as a programmer fresh from FSC.

“I had never touched a computer before I went to college,” he says. “I started out as an education major. Then I took a course on introduction to computers. The class was easy for me, and I decided to change majors.”

There was no computer science major at FSC in the 1980s, but there was a concentration in computer systems for business administration students. Wellslager learned about databases and programming in COBOL, the computer language for business popular then, and landed a job with Publix as an entry-level programmer. After several years, he was promoted to a management position, and in 2014, he was named a vice president. Now he is in charge of a department that handles cyber-security, database administration, programming, and support for the various computer systems Publix uses.

The pace of innovation and technological change has accelerated over the decades, presenting a challenge for corporations like Publix. Also, in an era when thieves anywhere from Tampa to North Korea are working around the clock to steal data, Wellslager and his team must constantly safeguard against threats to their systems’ integrity.

“Security is only a part of our organization, but it’s a 100 percent concern. We are relentless in putting up the right defenses,” he says. “The people who work for me are phenomenal. The directors, managers, engineers, and technical people—they’re brilliant.”

Fortunately for the students in FSC’s computer science program, Wellslager and several members of his team are sharing their expertise in cyber-security. They have been working with Dr. H. David Mathias, assistant professor of computer science and chairman of the department, to develop a cyber-security concentration for students majoring in computer science.

The arrangement began in 2016 when Wellslager received an email from Vice President for Advancement Dr. Robert H. Tate asking if he could lend a hand in developing courses in cyber-security. Wellslager invited Mathias to meet some of his team at Publix and showed him their operations center. He then asked his team if any of them would be willing to work with Mathias to develop and perhaps teach courses in cyber-security.

“The response was overwhelming. Five of my best people said yes. We’ve been meeting with David regularly ever since,” he says. “I think we can provide some very tangible technical skills for students about cyber attacks and defenses against them.”

The cyber-security concentration will consist of three courses developed jointly by FSC faculty and the Publix team. The first course will be offered in the fall of 2018 with the others following in consecutive semesters. Mathias says he’s grateful for the assistance and the real-world experience they are offering.

“Publix has hundreds of thousands of devices they have to keep secure, and that’s something they take very seriously. I’ve been awed by their generosity. It’s just been incredible,” he says.

Wellslager has been heavily involved in developing the new relationship between his department and FSC, hoping that it will be mutually beneficial.

“Anything we can do to build the computer science program at Florida Southern is something Publix wants,” he says. “We want to find good people, and I’d love for them to be good Florida Southern people.”