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Bushwhacking a living with the new technology

A trio of alumni and their entrepreneurial tales

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Within the last five years, the business of home computers and Internet access has steadily grown in the first world, and still the market hasn't reached saturation. Worldwide personal computer shipments shot up 15 percent in the fourth quarter of 1998, bypassing even analyst projections, according to a report released by International Data Corporation (IDC). It seems that families are buying second and even third computers for their homes or upgrading existing equipment to handle "tasks" like music composing, video teleconferencing and small business accounting.

Software sales for Internet usage rocketed this past year, IDC says. About 87 million households in the United States and Canada are on the Internet, with a global total of 151 million.

As the Internet and computer businesses keep growing, the on-line culture is also metamorphosing. Originally made up of educational institutions and small start-up companies offering various data almost through the goodness of their hearts, the Internet's primary players are now increasing in scope and financial power. Netscape and America Online, for example, two of the most influential Internet organizations, have merged, while Microsoft, which has worn the Internet crown, is battling the judicial system to retain its hold on the industry.

What effect all this might have on the virtual industry remains to be seen. One thing is certain, however: a Rochester Institute of Technology diploma offers versatile and valuable technical expertise, and RIT alumni are among the pioneers who are making themselves felt in the computer and Internet industry.

Andrew Welch
Andrew Welch '92, owner of Ambrosia Software, uses some of his down time to volunteer at local Lollipop Farm.
Consider Andrew Welch '92. While studying to be a photojournalist at RIT, he happened to write a computer game, a remake of a 1980's asteroids-style game. "It ended up doing quite well," he says. Welch is now owner/president of Ambrosia Software, a Rochester company that designs computer games and sells them via the Internet.

Or take a peek at Erin Malone '94. After studying information technology at RIT, she went to Eastman Kodak Company. Of her stint at the Yellow Giant, she says: "We had computer and Internet access and, all of a sudden we're hearing about this thing called the Web. I'm thinking, 'Yes!'" After teaching herself the technical aspects of Web design, she moved to California, began her own Web-design business, with contracts with some top Internet guns, such as Adobe and America Online. "What I do now didn't even exist at RIT as a major when I was there in the early 1990s," she says. "But everything I learned there helped me to make it work."

Derek Torrey
Derek Torrey '94, opposite, former ESPRIT editor, develops Web sites and CD-ROM publications for Applied Graphics Technology.
Then there's Derek Torrey '94. As editor of ESPRIT, the RIT photography magazine, he headed a team that designed a 32-page, full-color issue of the publication for CD-ROM. During the project, Torrey developed some new and valuable skills in digital technology. Now he is leader and creative director for the New Media Services Division of Applied Graphics Technology (AGT), the nation's largest provider of prepress services. His team has developed CD-ROM publications and created Web sites for such heavy-hitter clients as U.S. News & World Report, and is now developing new products that combine Web design with database management. "We did one million in sales last year," he says quietly.

This trio of 1990's graduates is simply a random sampling of alumni who, in true entrepreneurial spirit, see a good thing, run with it and keep going till the next opportunity arises.

"When we talk about the Internet, we're talking about a new industry in which younger people know more than experienced workers," says Robert Barbato, RIT professor of management and acknowledged expert on entrepreneurship. "The industry needs these new workers to continue to grow.

"And if someone takes the leap toward self employment when they are just out of school, the risks are minimal, since they don't yet have anything valuable to lose."

"I did the first computer game for fun. When it did well, I had to make a decision on whether to continue or finish school," Andrew Welch recalls. "I decided to concentrate on school." Shortly out of school, though, he and several colleagues formed Ambrosia. The company has offices in Rochester's Cascade District, an up-and-coming former industrial neighborhood just west of downtown. Now Ambrosia has six full-time employees and a bevy of contractors. The products, once only available for download from the Web, are now available by mail on CD-ROM.

Computer games are wildly popular, despite their hefty $50 and up price tag, Welch says. "People spend a lot of money to get a good computer that can run a game," he says. "You need a high-end PC, maybe some special add-ons. After all that, you don't begrudge the cost of a game."

Gamers prefer three-dimensional games with special effects, "lots of polygons, textures and things to blow up," he says. "But most people who actually play computer games play the games that come with their software and that they already know, like Hearts and Solitaire. We're looking at products now for that market, non-gamers who play games."

As Ambrosia has grown since his inauguration into game design, Welch doesn't build games alone much anymore, he says. "I am the idea person. I am doing more producing and coordinating."

"Owning my own business has allowed me to live the way I want to," explains Welch. "I work when I need to, take days off when I want." He spends one day a week as a volunteer at Lollipop Farm in Rochester, likes to travel, and enjoys scuba diving. (Last year, he went diving in Papua, New Guinea.) "Instead of living to work, I'm working to live," Welch says.

Erin Malone
Erin Malone '94, top left, works for Web TV, developing new ways for the Web and television to interact.
Chances are, if you've used the Web, you've seen something that Erin Malone has designed. When Malone moved to California, Adobe Systems, Inc., one of the nation's premiere popular software developers, hired her to develop their Web site. The Web was so new at the time, Malone recalls, that, despite all the techies in the firm, no one knew how to put together a Web site. "They were beginning to see that the Web would be a great marketing resource," she says. "They needed someone new to figure out how to do it for them."

Using the skills she taught herself while at Eastman Kodak, Malone, through her business, EM Design, created Web pages and completed other design projects for Adobe. America Online Greenhouse also contracted with Malone: for example, she designed the first-generation Web site for HouseNet and designed the graphics and structure for SweatNet, a fitness site, and NutriBytes, a nutrition information and food log site.

Two years is about the maximum amount of time a Silicon Valley employee will stay in a job, Malone says. "It's a small world. We all have specialties, so we move around laterally." After her two years at Adobe, she went to work for Zip2 Corporation, where she designed Web-based products. Zip2 creates community-based Web sites that offer information tailored to local needs -- yellow pages, and information on local shopping, arts, entertainment, travel, weather and the like. (Zip2 was bought recently by Compaq.) "We did New York Today, for The New York Times, and sites for other community newspapers," she says. This year signaled the end of her predicted two-year stint there, and Malone is now working for Web TV, an organization recently bought by the infamous Microsoft. "It's the convergence of the Internet and television," she says excitedly of the new project. She will be part of a creative team that is looking for ways to develop interactions between the two media.

"It's more about doing cool work than anything else," Malone says of her career. "What I've enjoyed about every one of my jobs is that they all say, 'Here's the subject matter, do whatever you need to get it done.'"

Derek Torrey got started with AGT following a call to RIT from that company. At that time, the organization was looking to incorporate Eastman Kodak's photo CD technology into their prepress processes. "They were looking for someone with digital publication experience," he says. "After ESPRIT, that was me." He began testing camera equipment, looking for the best images for digital reproduction, meantime lobbying to push AGT into the business of CD-ROM publications. He pulled together a small media team to begin the transition to that technology, and AGT created CD-ROM and Web publications for Hasbro, Citibank, and U.S. News & World Report, among others.

The next step for Torrey was a new project that combines design and graphics with database management. This gave him a new, larger team to manage and the title of vice president of product planning for AGT. The team works directly with customers to design a Web site that acts as the "user-friendly" front door to access unwieldy collections of information. "We look at what each customer needs, then create it," he says.

"I'm definitely a workaholic," Torrey says, laughing. (Although he does get away from work to snowboard and take flying lessons. He soloed in December 1998.) "I like to keep pushing to do something better than the last thing. All of us on the ESPRIT team were like that. We loved our work and we wanted it to be the best.

"What we did at RIT really set us up to kick butt."