Monday, August 21, 2006

Jonathan Clark: crazed computer genius

I met this executive while interviewing him for another story about a 17-year-old inventor whom he had helped to invent a GPS device that monitors teenage driving (this will be in the BBJ soon as well). We started talking about skiing and the Utah desert (he once got lost for days there on his bike, but loves it anyway), and soon the interview became a story about his crazy history with inventing and especially with computer programming. His past read like a rundown of computer science history: he was one of the first kids to try a virtual reality machine as developed by NASA, he fell in love with computers after he saw Steve Jobs bring one to MIT, he helped develop technology that led to Adobe's revolutionary Acrobat program, and now he's a millionaire at 31. I think that those days in the desert may have baked his brain a bit, but he's still a genius of the first order. Read on for more about him and his current business:

JONATHAN CLARK: CODE WARRIOR
Software wizard develops yet another breakthrough
By Ryan Weaver
Special to the Journal

Jonathan Clark of Natick was semi-retired at 30 when inspiration struck -- again. A computer programming prodigy, he had created more influential technology as a teenager than most programmers do in their careers.

After leaving Worcester Polytechnic Institute during his first semester, he became co-owner of a company now worth millions of dollars before his 21st birthday and went on to garner two patents before his 30th. When he left a position as chief technology officer at Lionbridge Technologies, he sold enough stock to send him and his family around the world for a year. But when he returned, he found his former business partners, Roger Jeanty and Dick Fischer, mired in a bad investment: a struggling wireless company hamstrung by technical limitations.

The gears in Clark's head started churning again.

As he had many times in his past, Clark saw a field riddled with difficulty that could be simplified by innovative technology.

"Everybody from FedEx to John Deere to the U.S. military were developing solutions from scratch because there wasn't anything out there," he said.

Early wireless software was expensive, so small businesses were simply left out of the wireless revolution.

Tech startups quickly diluted their venture funds by trying to satisfy both large and small businesses, selling hardware as well as software and losing focus. And although wireless technology can utilize many systems, from satellites to GPS, many programs lacked standardization and were specific to only one kind of network, meaning that if that network went down or became obsolete, so did the company -- an irreconcilable vulnerability for most investors, as Clark and his friends knew from experience. Clark said he asked himself, "Why don't we make something generic?"

Clark had pioneered several programs that capitalized on multiple new technologies. As a teenager, he created software that enabled newspapers to standardize their newly digitized fonts and sold part of its code to Adobe, setting the stage for the Acrobat program many consumers use today. At age 15 he was hired by Interlingual Technologies, a linguistics translation company later bought by Lionbridge, where he made cross-platform programs never seen before and led teams of engineers twice his age.

So when he saw a niche for a program that would offer cost-effective, easy-to-implement, multinetwork-compatible software to small-business owners, he created Sine-Wave Technologies Inc. of Hopkinton to meet that need. Clark describes it as handing businesses the wireless "glue" they need to develop products and services.

HIGH WIRELESS ACT

To market his services, Clark hired his former colleague Dick Fischer, a serial entrepreneur who could relate to their customer base and an investor who could help avoid the pitfalls that had sent other wireless companies reeling into the red.

"We have a strong core team -- these people are excellent at what they do. My goal is to guide them and provide a technology base for them to build on," Clark said.

Fischer said the potential for Sine-Wave's software to help small-business owners compete in the wireless world is enormous.

"Jonathan's creating some very serious intellectual property that these companies need. We're developing a Web services portal where any small company can develop a device with a very robust back-office system -- and have a million-dollar architecture they can rent by the month," Fischer said. "They can come to us and we can recommend a solution for the devices they use, and without spending big money they can immediately have a services company running."

Clark and Fischer say Clark's company has little to no competition, has introduced its programming into thousands of products and is nearing the million-dollar mark in profits.

Programming comes naturally to Clark. His father, who was a film stripper for a newspaper, never had any formal schooling, either, but "he always encouraged me to go out and ask questions and go out and tinker with things, tear them apart," Clark said.

He also regularly dragged a 9-year-old Clark to seminars at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1989, Apple Computer Inc. CEO co-founder Steve Jobs came to present his NeXT computer, and Clark was hooked. He saved the money on his paper route, bought his first computer and tinkered with its programming for hours. "There were no classes I could take, no books," he said. "I just figured it out."

Soon after, Clark began to experience episodes where he spent days feeling sluggish and almost ill. "Then in the middle of the night, I would get up, lights would go on, the computer would beep, and I would just code for a day and a half," he said. "My whole career has been like that."

Despite this early talent, Clark had planned to work in construction. "I thought, 'I'll be a framer or a roofer, go work with one of my uncles.' I thought about going to vocational school," he said. "I didn't think that computers were a career -- it was a sideline, a hobby."

Clark's parents, however, urged him out of the working-class life. Without the encouragement of his mother, Clark may have spent his teenage summers building houses instead of creating market-disrupting software. "I didn't have a driver's license or a car. I skateboarded to the interview at Interlingual Technologies," he recalls.


And the rest is history.

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