Tech Trailblazers: Pioneers who led the way for Utah’s rising tech industry
The tech industry is literally reshaping Utah—from new construction and snarled traffic in Utah County to new education initiatives and pathways. While the industry now dominates the state’s landscape and politics, its emergence and strength is due to early innovators who laid the foundation for its current success. Here, we highlight just a few of those tech pioneers who helped put Silicon Slopes on the map.
This year’s Tech Trailblazers feature is the second iteration of an annual feature. The first Tech Trailblazers feature was in the October 2016 issue of Utah Business.
Before there was a Silicon Slopes—and even before Silicon Valley was much to write home about—there was Novell, and before Novell was Novell, there was Ray Noorda.
Noorda, who led the early tech giant from 1982 to 1994, died in 2006, but his legacy is still felt daily in Utah’s thriving economy.
“He saw a great opportunity with the great universities we had, cranking out great technical people—and they all had to leave the state because there were no jobs here,” recalls Jan Newman, partner at SageCreek Partners who worked for Noorda for eight years at Novell. “He saw if we didn’t build these infrastructure components, businesses wouldn’t come here, people would leave here. That was why Novell stayed here, even though we bought a lot of companies 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 sought to help build that infrastructure he saw lacking in the state. A Utah native and University of Utah alum who had decades of experience at General Electric and 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 as chief 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 that span extends beyond Noorda’s tenure, his leadership and practices are a huge part of its success.
“He had a unique ability for product distribution. I think that’s one of his key assets,” Bradford says. “The guy was remarkable in business. I would describe 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 to eliminate our competition, we were trying to build an entire industry,” Bradford says. “While we were competitors at one level, we also wanted to come up with a set of industry standards that would make purchasing from software companies easier.”
Although Noorda left Novell in 1994, he didn’t leave the Beehive State’s tech scene. Noorda owned Canopy Group, through which he invested in a number of tech startups—including one of Newman’s.
“He loved to be involved in these early-stage companies. He loved to help you with strategy. He was a sales guy. He loved to drive sales, and he was a very frugal guy. He hated anything flashy around money,” Newman says. “One lesson he taught was you have to be fiscally conservative, and that’s kind of counter to today. You’ve got to use your money to grow your business.”
Despite his well-earned reputation for sometimes extreme frugality, Noorda could also be generous, particularly in acquisitions.
“He was always extra generous at the close of those transactions. He’d have his eye on a company he wanted to buy. At the end, he’d always come up with a surprise kicker—if he was going to pay $22 million, he’d come up with another million [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 him is still alive and well in the state, a lasting legacy that shows no sign of disappearing.
“Now [Silicon Slopes is] building on it and taking their own spin on it and doing a great job. It’s just continuing that way,” says Newman. “We’ve got a lot of momentum here in Utah and I don’t see that ending anytime soon.” – LC
It was a full decade into his company’s existence before Pluralsight CEO Aaron Skonnard finally recognized the gravity of the thing he’d created. The exact day was August 1, 2014 in Farmington’s trendy Station Park, amid 6,000 people including Gov. Gary Herbert. Skonnard was there to open the company’s first purpose-built headquarters.
“That was when the magnitude of it hit me,” Skonnard says. “Seeing all these people and what the company meant to them gave me this sense of confidence that this is bigger than I had ever anticipated and would probably outlive me.”
The path to that moment, so sought after by entrepreneurs, was an unusually direct one for Skonnard, whose twin passions of teaching and technology merged quite fluidly into Pluralsight: one of the world’s top providers of cloud-based technology education courses and one of Utah’s handful of private companies with billion-dollar valuations.
After enrolling at the Coast Guard Academy, Skonnard transferred to Brigham Young University to study computer science, graduating just in time to catch the wave of the consumer internet’s arrival.
“This sense of joy and purpose first showed up in the form of me publishing a bunch 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 me wanting to share my information with the world.”
His next job in software development required as much instructional book writing as code writing, and this caught the attention of another firm, which convinced Skonnard to head out on his own as a contract trainer.
“That was the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey. That was when I decided for myself that I could create a financial model that worked for me and my future. So I pieced it together and took that step off the cliff—at least that’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-based technology training, culminating in the launch of Pluralsight in 2004. And while the new venture got off to a successful start, Skonnard was frustrated by the sense that it didn’t represent the radical improvement over the status quo he sought. In 2007, this led to a pivot.
“I had this epiphany where I realized the key to fundamentally disrupting how we 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 shortly force many businesses to favor high-quality training consumable from a user’s cubicle 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, Skonnard has disagreed.
“We just kept saying we can do it here. We see great talent here and are going to keep doing it.” – JB
Turning Utah into a globally recognized entrepreneurial tech center required enormous amounts of capital, but not necessarily all in the form you might expect.
In addition to the financial capital required to launch promising new enterprises, Utah needed large amounts of human capital—in the form of a ready high-tech workforce—and the political capital required to help legislators shake loose the resources necessary to assist in the process.
Behind most every push to amass them all has been Richard Nelson, president and CEO of the Utah Technology Council (UTC).
Nelson got started in business in a traditional way, earning an MBA at Northwestern University and jumping right into corporate banking where—like so many before him—he discovered making rich people richer was not the source of enduring 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 position with a high-tech firm, where a seed was planted that continued to grow into 1980, when Nelson joined the fundraising team for the Reagan presidential campaign.
“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 at turn 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,” Nelson recounts. “I was energized. I was cause-driven. I lost interest in pursuing the traditional MBA route.”
But that enthusiasm failed to find an outlet as Nelson discovered he was uninsurable by private-sector standards. This forced him to look to the public sector for employment, culminating in 1991 with his appointment by then-Governor Mike Leavitt to oversee the state’s efforts at growing fledgling businesses through incentives and government grants.
Many successes in that role led Nelson to take on UTC (then called the Utah Information Technology Association) in 1999, where he began the slow process of transforming that organization from the realm of “nice to have” that its counterparts in most states occupy into the highly influential and effective organization it is today.
Early on, UTC’s membership told Nelson his top priority needed to be a fundamental transformation of Utah’s early-stage capital structure. In other words, solve the chicken-and-egg dilemma that kept Bay Area VCs from investing here.
“The membership made it very clear: We’ve got to have early-stage capital to grow a nationally recognized tech center in the United States.”
Nelson took that mandate and in 2003 helped write legislation that shot for the 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 prime position to advise the legislature on growing Utah’s human capital by boosting the STEM readiness of high school graduates.
All these factors combined to help revolutionize Utah’s economy, and Nelson is quick to shed his typically humble affect to state the obvious: “With its growth and revenues, our industry is the number one reason this state is prospering.” – JB
Despite its well-earned status as the Land of Opportunity, the fact remains that most American success stories are born into circumstances that lend themselves to future success. Not so in the case of Fred Lampropoulos, founder and CEO of medical device giant Merit Medical, beginning with his boyhood arrival to Utah from Rock Springs, Wyoming.
“One morning in 1964, we were getting ready to go to school and mom and dad said, ‘Pack up your clothes, put them in the car, we’re leaving in 20 minutes.’ We had lost our home,” Lampropoulos recalls. “We came to Salt Lake and 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 their feet and found a sense of normalcy, including Fred being the first member of his family to graduate high school. He built upon that success at Westminster College and later the University of Utah, but circumstances, including the Vietnam War, obligated him to abandon his studies in favor of Green Beret training.
Lampropoulos looks back on that change of plans as one of the best things to happen to him.
“The 10 years I spent in the military taught me how to lead and organize. I saw the world,” he says. “They were very valuable years for me.”
After the military, Lampropoulos took his first stab at a profession as a stockbroker, 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 unlikely entrepreneur.
“In 1980 somebody said, ‘There’s a little company in Lehi that could use your help.’ It was Utah Medical and the company was essentially bankrupt,” Lampropoulos says. “I didn’t know anything about the business. I’m self taught. But I took over and spent the next seven years running Utah Medical profitably, saving the business. But it wasn’t my business. So in 1987, I started Merit Medical from scratch, and the rest is history.”
His military training clearly informs what Lampropoulos sees as the principles driving the Utah Medical turnaround and the subsequent success of Merit.
“You must understand the business and understand the opportunity. You look after your troops. Never put your interest in front of theirs and never ask them to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself,” Lampropoulos says. “Provide a vision and be willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish that mission. It may mean 12-hour days, but you do what you need to.”
Lampropoulos adheres to one more defining principle inspired by his days in the special forces. “Every [senior executive] has to have a ‘go bag.’ You must be 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 to build a successful business. It’s the kindness extended to him while living in a car at Pioneer Park.
“Something I’ve tried to do is provide jobs to look after my employees and pay it forward,” he says. “Take care of people. Make sure employees have health insurance. I look at the things my mom struggled with and I try to spend my time and my life to pay it back for the things people did for me.” – JB
Often in business, everything comes down to one well-timed meeting. In the case 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 room full of AT&T vice presidents to offer them a simple solution to a vexing problem.
In those days, data carriers who dominated geographic regions played games meant to preserve their control over the market.
“When you go to New York City where Verizon is the boss, they don’t like anybody else coming in because they want to keep all the customers to themselves,” Ragula explains. “Verizon kept AT&T from setting up another line of service to an existing customer from another area. Verizon would give them the runaround for months and then program it such that it was hard for the customer to use two data lines from two carriers.”
What Ragula offered AT&T was a simple solution, made all the more attractive by virtue of it being software, not hardware-based.
“We invented a technology where you can take a line from AT&T and a line from Verizon, and we can combine it into one single data pipe using routing software, 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 move data internally over large distances.
The SD-WAN also produced 11 patents and solidified Fatpipe Networks’ enduring relevance in a notoriously competitive niche of the global tech ecosystem.
Ragula was raised in Chenai, India, coming to the United States in 1981 to pursue his academic interests, which were extensive, covering everything from mining operations and engineering to high finance. Upon completing his doctorate, Ragula took a teaching position at the University of Utah.
Meanwhile, Ragula’s wife, Sanchaita Datta, was working on her PhD in electrical engineering when she launched what would become Fatpipe, quickly attracting the attention of such noteworthy investors as Tim Draper. While she had the technical side covered, the new enterprise needed help on the business end.
“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 went by, I realized I could probably get into data networking. As someone on the periphery, I could ask challenging questions.”
Eventually, Ragula resigned his tenured professorship in favor of the business world.
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 succeed by following the money and understanding the system and removing impediments,” he says. “Just as in high-speed networking, you must understand how data flows through the system and make it as efficient as possible. Our business is all about moving data and adding value through a complex system.” – JB