When you were 17, what did you want to be?
I really didn't have any idea of what I wanted to be. At the time, I was at a technical high school. I studied computer-aided drafting, and I went down a career path that started with that. I didn't want to go to college right away. I had the grades, but my parents couldn't afford it. And I didn’t want to get student loans myself. So I applied for an internship at Black & Decker DeWalt, the people that make power tools, doing 3D drafting.
I was always good at computers. I started really young. Because of my technical abilities with computer-aided drafting, I translated into more 3D drafting, 3D design. So I was working for [Black & Decker], working on an automatic nail gun, and I designed the stopper tip on the very front of it. I did all the 3D modeling for it, and then sent it up to the engineers. So that was really my entry into the technical world, I guess.
I was an intern there for a year, and they really pushed me to get into industrial [design], like the packaging for the drill, the look and feel of it. I was really interested in that, and at the time I was doing a lot of 3D stuff, so I said, "Yeah, sure. This sounds really good." So after that I decided to get loans and go to college.
How did you decide to attend Philadelphia University?
Well, I was an idiot and I decided that I wanted to follow a girl there, so that happened. She ended up not going there. So I went there for a year and a half. It used to be a textile school for clothing, fashion design, things like that, but it changed over the years and they had a really good industrial design program. But it was super expensive. I wasn't working. I had no money, no income, so it just wasn't economical.
How did you get from college to where you are now?
I came back home. I had the drafting skill set already, but I didn't know what I wanted to do, because with drafting you can go into a lot of different careers. You can do mechanical design, you can do structural, you can do civil, you can do architectural. When I was younger I always wanted to do architecture, so I decided that that would be the first step.
So I went into that. And then pretty much every year, I jumped around through all the different disciplines, and I eventually ended up liking mechanical the best. I was with a company that made filling machines that would automate that process for your laundry detergent. I started doing drafting for them, and then I moved into 3D design for them because I had learned that skill at Black & Decker.
And then from there, I got more into the design aspect. I was really proficient at doing 3D design, and not just drafting, so I switched companies to something that I thought was more interesting, along the same lines of automated machinery but for mail and item sortation.
The company was called United Sortation Solutions, I think, and they made machines for the Postal Service, and that was what really launched my career. I started with mechanical design, and they offered me the opportunity to do more engineering. And that evolved at some point into, "Hey, we're outsourcing all of our software for these machines."
Ever since I was 12, I had done programming on the side as a hobby. I taught myself through the Internet, just some messing around, hacking a little bit. Around the time I was 17, I was still very much interested in it, but I was doing all the drafting stuff, so programming was just my hobby.
At 17, I was playing an online game that was going to be shut down, called Earth & Beyond. I loved the game so much that I decided I wanted to reverse engineer it to bring the game back online. I had been programming for six or seven years at that point, and I thought, "Okay, how can I go about this?" So I learned everything I could about transmissions with the Internet and how TCP/IP worked, and communications. I captured all of this data before it was going to shut down. And eventually I worked with a guy who was a physicist at CERN to develop an algorithm that would take multiple computers all over the world and run a calculation through it to break the encryption key for that game, so that we could recreate a video game that had been shut down. We broke the key, and at the time, we were only the second or third in the world to break that encryption level.
Because of that, we were able to decrypt that game, which enabled us to reverse engineer a server that would communicate with the client back and forth. So, eventually, over four or five years, we were able to recreate the server. Now it's still up and running, and people can play a game that was shut down a long time ago.
So my company that I was working with doing the sortation gave me some little side projects to do, like timesheet applications. And I actually enjoyed that more than the engineering aspect, so they gave me the opportunity to develop a server for them that would control the entire football stadium-sized machine that we designed. The application, the server, and the front-end, everything.
So I created an entire server for it, and the front-end so that anyone could go in and see where anything was at any time on the machine. I created all that, and I got to travel back and forth to a whole bunch of places in the US to install the software and train people on how to use it. So basically my programming hobby evolved into a full-time position.
I did the software for two years, and after that I think I kind of worked myself out of a job, because I made it too installable. So I put my resume out there, and I immediately took another job doing software in the medical field. But that only lasted like a month because I didn't want to be in the medical field. So I kept my resume out there, and I got a job at a contractor for NASA and the DOD called AI Solutions.
I worked on a system that had real-time access to different NASA satellite systems that have different purposes, and you get different kinds of data from them. The system itself was able to track all of that, and it was a way for engineers to analyze data. I also translated data into a real-time 3D application with a 3D globe wherein you could see the positional data of all the satellites. When you clicked on the satellites, you'd get information from them, and you could run an analysis saying, "Hey, if we do this maneuver, where will it be?"
I worked on that for a couple years, and then I had a falling out with one of my bosses about some of the software I was creating. I decided that I didn't want to work there anymore, so I put my resume out. I looked at a couple of different places, and I was pretty successful doing software at that point, so I had the option to pick and choose what I wanted to do.
I took a position at a company called Connections Academy. It’s now owned by Pearson, and our name is now Pearson Online Blended Learning, but when I originally got hired it was Connections Academy. And they are the biggest K-12 online charter school in the US. I was hired to convert all of their Flash multimedia to a new HTML app, because you can't have Flash on iPads.
I had to translate the entire framework over, make it very interactive, and engage the students. And it evolved into making another thing that would basically allow you to create animations, like a robot on the screen talking to you with captions to engage younger audiences. And then from there we had to have a place to store all of this, so I created a content asset management system that would store all the images and videos, the audio and captions. And I created tools that would allow teachers to build whatever they want for the student very quickly, without having to have any technical knowledge.
What I've been working on for the last two and a half years is something I'm really interested in and passionate about. It's more like taking that to the extreme, where you can have any type of multimedia embedded in what looks like the video but it's not. So you can have something from YouTube. You can have something from Wikipedia. You can have these widgets. You can have these animations. You can have charts. You can have maps. Basically any type of media that exists out there on the web, you can have it in this framework that I built.
What I really want to do is make this into something that everyone can use.
I mean, this could work for not just traditional education. This could work for companies in general that want to teach their employees something. There's lots of usage for it.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
I don't think I would've done anything differently, because I just believe if I would have, I wouldn't be where I am right now. I had a rocky start before I got to where I am now. But, again, I don't think I would've been as passionate about where I am now had I not taken the path that I did. And this, for me, this just happened. It wasn't something I went to school for. It was something I taught myself. So I don't think I would change anything.
Your first thing that you like, don't anticipate that being what you're going to do forever. Try different things. I would argue that you should, after high school, have an internship somewhere before you actually go to college. Take as many jobs as possible in different industries and see what you actually like. I get people in interviews sometimes that you can tell they're not passionate about it. They went to school because they thought they could make a bunch of money out of this. But it doesn't translate if you're not passionate about it. In the long run, you're not going to be happy.
So take a year off before you go to college, take as many jobs as you can, internships, before you go to college. Try it all and do as many things as you can, before you go to college.