utah nelson one skonnard tech technology lampropoulos

techsuch May 9, 2021 0 Comments

Tech Pioneers: Leading the Way for Utah’s Tech IndustryThe tech industry is literally reshaping Utah—from new construction andsnarled traffic in Utah County to new education initiatives and pathways.While the industry now dominates the state’s landscape and politics, itsemergence and strength is due to early innovators who laid the foundation forits current success. Here, we highlight just a few of those tech pioneers whohelped put Silicon Slopes on the map.This year’s Tech Trailblazers feature is the second iteration of an annualfeature. The first Tech Trailblazers feature was in the October 2016 issue ofUtah Business.Ray NoordaBefore there was a Silicon Slopes—and even before Silicon Valley was much towrite home about—there was Novell, and before Novell was Novell, there was RayNoorda.Noorda, who led the early tech giant from 1982 to 1994, died in 2006, but hislegacy is still felt daily in Utah’s thriving economy.“He saw a great opportunity with the great universities we had, cranking outgreat technical people—and they all had to leave the state because there wereno jobs here,” recalls Jan Newman, partner at SageCreek Partners who workedfor Noorda for eight years at Novell. “He saw if we didn’t build theseinfrastructure components, businesses wouldn’t come here, people would leavehere. That was why Novell stayed here, even though we bought a lot ofcompanies out of the state.”As one of the founding members of the Utah Information Technology Association,which would later become the Utah Technology Council, Noorda actively soughtto help build that infrastructure he saw lacking in the state. A Utah nativeand University of Utah alum who had decades of experience at General Electricand elsewhere, he was brought onto Novell as a sort of “turnaround” man.And boy, did he ever, says David Bradford, CEO of FluentWorlds, who worked aschief legal counsel at Novell for 10 years with Noorda. The company went from$50 million to close to $2 billion from 1985 to 2000, he says, and while thatspan extends beyond Noorda’s tenure, his leadership and practices are a hugepart of its success.“He had a unique ability for product distribution. I think that’s one of hiskey assets,” Bradford says. “The guy was remarkable in business. I woulddescribe him as the ultimate competitor.”Despite this love of competition, Bradford says when it came down to it,Noorda believed in a sort of collaborative competition.“Our philosophy was this: high tides lift all boats. We weren’t trying toeliminate our competition, we were trying to build an entire industry,”Bradford says. “While we were competitors at one level, we also wanted to comeup with a set of industry standards that would make purchasing from softwarecompanies easier.”Although Noorda left Novell in 1994, he didn’t leave the Beehive State’s techscene. Noorda owned Canopy Group, through which he invested in a number oftech startups—including one of Newman’s.“He loved to be involved in these early-stage companies. He loved to help youwith strategy. He was a sales guy. He loved to drive sales, and he was a veryfrugal guy. He hated anything flashy around money,” Newman says. “One lessonhe taught was you have to be fiscally conservative, and that’s kind of counterto today. You’ve got to use your money to grow your business.”Despite his well-earned reputation for sometimes extreme frugality, Noordacould also be generous, particularly in acquisitions.“He was always extra generous at the close of those transactions. He’d havehis eye on a company he wanted to buy. At the end, he’d always come up with asurprise kicker—if he was going to pay $22 million, he’d come up with anothermillion [to say], ‘hey, we want you to know we love you, we appreciate you.’It was just to say thanks, even though it wasn’t contractually required,”Bradford says. “It engendered great loyalty to Ray.”The entrepreneurial spirit Noorda embodied and encouraged in those around himis still alive and well in the state, a lasting legacy that shows no sign ofdisappearing.“Now [Silicon Slopes is] building on it and taking their own spin on it anddoing a great job. It’s just continuing that way,” says Newman. “We’ve got alot of momentum here in Utah and I don’t see that ending anytime soon.” – LCAaron SkonnardIt was a full decade into his company’s existence before Pluralsight CEO AaronSkonnard finally recognized the gravity of the thing he’d created. The exactday was August 1, 2014 in Farmington’s trendy Station Park, amid 6,000 peopleincluding Gov. Gary Herbert. Skonnard was there to open the company’s firstpurpose-built headquarters.“That was when the magnitude of it hit me,” Skonnard says. “Seeing all thesepeople and what the company meant to them gave me this sense of confidencethat this is bigger than I had ever anticipated and would probably outliveme.”The path to that moment, so sought after by entrepreneurs, was an unusuallydirect one for Skonnard, whose twin passions of teaching and technology mergedquite fluidly into Pluralsight: one of the world’s top providers of cloud-based technology education courses and one of Utah’s handful of privatecompanies with billion-dollar valuations.After enrolling at the Coast Guard Academy, Skonnard transferred to BrighamYoung University to study computer science, graduating just in time to catchthe wave of the consumer internet’s arrival.“This sense of joy and purpose first showed up in the form of me publishing abunch of articles in some of the trade magazines of the time,” Skonnard says.“Microsoft had a big programmer’s journal I started writing for. It was mewanting to share my information with the world.”His next job in software development required as much instructional bookwriting as code writing, and this caught the attention of another firm, whichconvinced Skonnard to head out on his own as a contract trainer.“That was the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey. That was when I decidedfor myself that I could create a financial model that worked for me and myfuture. So I pieced it together and took that step off the cliff—at leastthat’s what it felt like for me and my wife at the time,” Skonnard says.What followed was a deep dive into the art and science of classroom-basedtechnology training, culminating in the launch of Pluralsight in 2004. Andwhile the new venture got off to a successful start, Skonnard was frustratedby the sense that it didn’t represent the radical improvement over the statusquo he sought. In 2007, this led to a pivot.“I had this epiphany where I realized the key to fundamentally disrupting howwe teach technology is to use technology ourselves,” Skonnard explains.The outcome was the cloud-delivered, subscription-based Pluralsight On-Demand,and the timing proved fortuitous as the impending recession would shortlyforce many businesses to favor high-quality training consumable from a user’scubicle over a distant classroom.This was the decision that launched Pluralsight into what Skonnard calls“hyper-growth mode.”Along the way, would-be investors have insisted that in order to be a billion-dollar company, Pluralsight would need to leave Utah, and all along, Skonnardhas disagreed.“We just kept saying we can do it here. We see great talent here and are goingto keep doing it.” – JBRichard NelsonTurning Utah into a globally recognized entrepreneurial tech center requiredenormous amounts of capital, but not necessarily all in the form you mightexpect.In addition to the financial capital required to launch promising newenterprises, Utah needed large amounts of human capital—in the form of a readyhigh-tech workforce—and the political capital required to help legislatorsshake loose the resources necessary to assist in the process.Behind most every push to amass them all has been Richard Nelson, presidentand CEO of the Utah Technology Council (UTC).Nelson got started in business in a traditional way, earning an MBA atNorthwestern University and jumping right into corporate banking where—like somany before him—he discovered making rich people richer was not the source ofenduring satisfaction he’d hoped for in a career.“I was much more interested in driving results,” Nelson says of that period.The desire for something meaningful moved Nelson into a marketing positionwith a high-tech firm, where a seed was planted that continued to grow into1980, when Nelson joined the fundraising team for the Reagan presidentialcampaign.“That’s when I learned to be a workaholic and I learned to care about causes,”he says.Following Reagan’s election, Nelson returned to Utah, where his health took atturn that knocked him out of the game for four years. Upon his recovery,Nelson found himself changed.“Being healthy again after four years of struggling, I woke up,” Nelsonrecounts. “I was energized. I was cause-driven. I lost interest in pursuingthe traditional MBA route.”But that enthusiasm failed to find an outlet as Nelson discovered he wasuninsurable by private-sector standards. This forced him to look to the publicsector for employment, culminating in 1991 with his appointment by then-Governor Mike Leavitt to oversee the state’s efforts at growing fledglingbusinesses through incentives and government grants.Many successes in that role led Nelson to take on UTC (then called the UtahInformation Technology Association) in 1999, where he began the slow processof transforming that organization from the realm of “nice to have” that itscounterparts in most states occupy into the highly influential and effectiveorganization it is today.Early on, UTC’s membership told Nelson his top priority needed to be afundamental transformation of Utah’s early-stage capital structure. In otherwords, solve the chicken-and-egg dilemma that kept Bay Area VCs from investinghere.“The membership made it very clear: We’ve got to have early-stage capital togrow a nationally recognized tech center in the United States.”Nelson took that mandate and in 2003 helped write legislation that shot forthe stars.“We took an impossible bill to the legislature and passed a $100-million-dollar fund of funds,” Nelson says. “That was a big deal.”On the heels of that victory, UTC’s political capital put Nelson in a primeposition to advise the legislature on growing Utah’s human capital by boostingthe STEM readiness of high school graduates.All these factors combined to help revolutionize Utah’s economy, and Nelson isquick to shed his typically humble affect to state the obvious: “With itsgrowth and revenues, our industry is the number one reason this state isprospering.” – JBFred LampropoulosDespite its well-earned status as the Land of Opportunity, the fact remainsthat most American success stories are born into circumstances that lendthemselves to future success. Not so in the case of Fred Lampropoulos, founderand CEO of medical device giant Merit Medical, beginning with his boyhoodarrival to Utah from Rock Springs, Wyoming.“One morning in 1964, we were getting ready to go to school and mom and dadsaid, ‘Pack up your clothes, put them in the car, we’re leaving in 20minutes.’ We had lost our home,” Lampropoulos recalls. “We came to Salt Lakeand my first home here was Pioneer Park. That’s where we lived, out of a car,for a week.”With the help of Utah’s Greek community, the Lampropoulos family got on theirfeet and found a sense of normalcy, including Fred being the first member ofhis family to graduate high school. He built upon that success at WestminsterCollege and later the University of Utah, but circumstances, including theVietnam War, obligated him to abandon his studies in favor of Green Berettraining.Lampropoulos looks back on that change of plans as one of the best things tohappen to him.“The 10 years I spent in the military taught me how to lead and organize. Isaw the world,” he says. “They were very valuable years for me.”After the military, Lampropoulos took his first stab at a profession as astockbroker, but found his lack of a country club pedigree got in the way.That led to a successful stint in commercial real estate development.But there was yet another change of plans in store for this unlikelyentrepreneur.“In 1980 somebody said, ‘There’s a little company in Lehi that could use yourhelp.’ It was Utah Medical and the company was essentially bankrupt,”Lampropoulos says. “I didn’t know anything about the business. I’m selftaught. But I took over and spent the next seven years running Utah Medicalprofitably, saving the business. But it wasn’t my business. So in 1987, Istarted Merit Medical from scratch, and the rest is history.”His military training clearly informs what Lampropoulos sees as the principlesdriving the Utah Medical turnaround and the subsequent success of Merit.“You must understand the business and understand the opportunity. You lookafter your troops. Never put your interest in front of theirs and never askthem to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself,” Lampropoulos says. “Provide avision and be willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish that mission. Itmay mean 12-hour days, but you do what you need to.”Lampropoulos adheres to one more defining principle inspired by his days inthe special forces. “Every [senior executive] has to have a ‘go bag.’ You mustbe able to move out anywhere in the world within six hours.”But in the end, it’s not memories of the military that drive Lampropoulos tobuild a successful business. It’s the kindness extended to him while living ina car at Pioneer Park.“Something I’ve tried to do is provide jobs to look after my employees and payit forward,” he says. “Take care of people. Make sure employees have healthinsurance. I look at the things my mom struggled with and I try to spend mytime and my life to pay it back for the things people did for me.” – JBBhaskar Ragula and Sanchaita DattaOften in business, everything comes down to one well-timed meeting. In thecase of Fatpipe Networks, that meeting happened in 2003, when Bhaskar Ragula,half of the husband-and-wife team that founded his company, walked into a roomfull of AT&T vice presidents to offer them a simple solution to a vexingproblem.In those days, data carriers who dominated geographic regions played gamesmeant to preserve their control over the market.“When you go to New York City where Verizon is the boss, they don’t likeanybody else coming in because they want to keep all the customers tothemselves,” Ragula explains. “Verizon kept AT&T from setting up another lineof service to an existing customer from another area. Verizon would give themthe runaround for months and then program it such that it was hard for thecustomer to use two data lines from two carriers.”What Ragula offered AT&T was a simple solution, made all the more attractiveby virtue of it being software, not hardware-based.“We invented a technology where you can take a line from AT&T and a line fromVerizon, and we can combine it into one single data pipe using routingsoftware, and that made a huge difference,” he says.The product of that meeting was the Software-Defined Wide Area Network (SD-WAN), which has gone on to fundamentally change the way large enterprises movedata internally over large distances.The SD-WAN also produced 11 patents and solidified Fatpipe Networks’ enduringrelevance in a notoriously competitive niche of the global tech ecosystem.Ragula was raised in Chenai, India, coming to the United States in 1981 topursue his academic interests, which were extensive, covering everything frommining operations and engineering to high finance. Upon completing hisdoctorate, Ragula took a teaching position at the University of Utah.Meanwhile, Ragula’s wife, Sanchaita Datta, was working on her PhD inelectrical engineering when she launched what would become Fatpipe, quicklyattracting the attention of such noteworthy investors as Tim Draper. While shehad the technical side covered, the new enterprise needed help on the businessend.“That’s when my wife said why don’t you look at the finance side of things?”Ragula says. “So I was just the floozy who was helping her out. As time wentby, I realized I could probably get into data networking. As someone on theperiphery, I could ask challenging questions.”Eventually, Ragula resigned his tenured professorship in favor of the businessworld.Are there lessons from finance and mining engineering to be applied to high-speed networking?Ragula thinks for a moment before responding confidently.“It’s all about flow. In mining, you make money by following the ore,understanding the system and removing inefficiencies. In finance, you succeedby following the money and understanding the system and removing impediments,”he says. “Just as in high-speed networking, you must understand how data flowsthrough the system and make it as efficient as possible. Our business is allabout moving data and adding value through a complex system.” – JB

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