Alumni Change the World

“I had my career defining moment in college, in the early 1970s. I was an electrical engineering major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.”

ray ozzieRay Ozzie, BS ’79 Computer Science, was recently named as Bill Gates' replacement as chief software architect at Microsoft. He is also founder of Groove Networks and Iris Associates. Ozzie’s interest in helping develop programs that let people work together as if they were in the same room started on campus when he worked on Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations (PLATO). The following is an article Ozzie wrote with Glenn Rifkin that was published in the New York Times on December 1, 2002.

"There’s no question that right from birth, I was a nerd. My grandfather was a sheet-metal worker for the Illinois Central Railroad, and he had this great workshop in our house. I was fascinated watching him bend sheet metal into things like a pot for my gearly computer screenrandmother.

I got the entrepreneur’s bug from my father. He founded his own insurance agency, and as a kid I would hang out at the office, stuffing envelopes, doing odd jobs. My father taught me: if you have a passion, go with it. He loved people, talking to clients. But he said to me: “Never become an insurance broker. I know you. You’re not the type.”

Instead, he encouraged my love of technology. He brought home chemistry sets, dry cells, light bulbs, switches and things like that. I built signaling devices around the house. We built a crystal radio set together.

I had my career-defining moment in college, in the early 1970’s. I was an electrical engineering major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and had a job as an electronic technician. On my way to work, I kept passing this building that had a strange orange glow emanating from the windows. I looked in and saw people sitting at rows and rows of terminals.

old computer labThe system was called Plato, a computer system built in the late 1960’s by Don Bitzer, Paul Tenczar and an amazing team of bright, eccentric, creative individuals. It was unique and way ahead of its time.

Of course, I wangled myself a job as a systems programmer on Plato. There were a thousand terminals connected to the mainframe, half on campus and the other half at universities around the world. It was amazing. It had instant messaging, e-mail, online discussions, interactive games. Remember, this was 1974!

I was assigned to work on a project online with a programmer in a different part of Urbana-Champaign. We worked for months without meeting. We’d use instant messaging, which on Plato displayed a message in real time, keystroke by keystroke. My partner was obviously brilliant but an incredibly bad typist. It was excruciating, waiting for each letter. He constantly made mistakes. When I finally met him, I was stunned: he was a quadriplegic and had been typing with a stick held in his lips.

I realized at that moment that the computer was a medium that enabled communication with people mind to mind, regardless of their physical well-being. You can work with someone without prejudice, and their true talents will be shown. And from then on, I started to focus on how computers could help people work together more effectively.

After graduation, I said to myself, “By hook or crook, I am going to build software to recreate the interactive environment I’d used with Plato.” That thought led to the creation of Lotus Notes, which sits on nearly 100 million desktops, as well as everything else I’ve done.