I have been hooked on computing since the spring of 1979. It started the day our high school got an Apple II computer. I taught myself to program by modifying the Lemonade Stand game that came with the computer. The object of the game was to learn about running a small business by deciding how much lemonade to make on any given day. Your sales were influenced by the weather and various other factors. If you made too little lemonade and had good weather you missed sales. If you made too much lemonade and had bad weather the lemonade went to waste. The modification I made almost guaranteed that player one would win because I increased the probability that it would rain on player two. It was a pretty transparent hack that my friends saw through immediately. Thankfully both my programming skills and ethical judgement have improved since I was a freshman in high school.
I’m a very lucky person to be able earn a living doing what I love. During my career I have worked for both large and small companies. I have also been blessed with the experience of starting my own software company. In the summer of 1996, my Ph.D. thesis turned into the first software product of a company called Net Perceptions. As the Internet blossomed and grew, Net Perceptions grew as well. The first years of the Net Perceptions experience were some of the most amazing years of my life. I learned about growing a business, and I met many interesting people. But the thing that was the most amazing was the passion of everyone I worked with. Everyone I worked with believed that we were going to change the world for the better. The success we had at the company grew directly out of that passion.
One of the difficult lessons I learned is that it is difficult to sustain a high level of passion as your company transitions from a five-person startup to a 400-person corporation known as NETP on NASDAQ. It was the pain of this transition that brought me back to Luther. As the company grew, I realized my job was moving farther and farther away from what I really loved. So I do not think it was an accident that I came back to campus to participate on the strategic planning committee in April of 2000. All day long I kept hearing a little voice inside my head telling me, “This is where you belong.” On that day I realized that it was time to leave my old career and move on.
A little more than six months later I resigned from Net Perceptions with the stated goal of finishing my Ph.D. and becoming a college professor. When I resigned a lot of people thought I was crazy, and some were angry with me for leaving the company I helped start, but what surprised me was the number of people who said they really respected me for following my dream. It took me two more years, instead of the six months, to finish up my graduate studies. It was a little strange at times to go from corporate VP with an assistant and a big staff to graduate student, but it was worth it.
I have no regrets about that path that has brought me to Luther. Like player two, I’ve had some days where a thunderstorm has caused my lemonade to go to waste, but I have also experienced many sunny days. These experiences give me a unique perspective that I can share with my students. When I tell them something is important, I can back up my statement with a story from my past. I think it is a great blend to combine my experience with the talents of my colleagues in the computer science department.
If I could only give one piece of vocational advice to Luther students it is this: Find something you are passionate about and run with it. So many hours of each day of the rest of your life will be spent working. Why not do something you are really excited about? In the summer of 1996, I made a decision to put my graduate studies and my dream of becoming a college professor on hold and start a company. What a crazy idea for someone who was only six months away from finishing a Ph.D.! But what an experience that was. When Net Perceptions was starting and growing, I would wake up in the morning and I would be thinking about the exciting challenges that lay ahead of me that day. Am I still out to change the world? Do I wake up excited about the challenges of the day ahead? You better believe I am. It beats selling lemonade anyway.