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July 30, 2010

Reunion Autobiography

Next June'll be my 50th high school reunion. The class is putting together a book and we were all asked to write an essay of 400-750 words on what we've done since graduation. Here, in 748 words, is mine:

Harvard would have been just an enjoyable waste of time if I hadn't had to learn to program computers to get a job in the computing center to pay my tuition. When I graduated – knowing I would be a novelist and just needing to earn a living, there were more jobs for computer programmers than people with a BA in History and Lit.

I programmed at Equitable Life in NY, then at Union Carbide in NY and Chicago with a brief intermission for active duty training in the National Guard. Even a short time in the army taught me what it was like to be a hopeless underachiever - "your other *** left, Evslin". I did get to serve in both the Chicago Convention and the Bobby Seal riots, however.

Started a computer consulting business, Solutions, in 1969 and moved to Vermont soon after. Married for the first time in 1973; son Jarah was born in 1975. Wrote the first software for bank to automated clearing house (ACH) transactions and Solutions became a software business. Was elected town moderator, probably to shut me up during town meeting.

Married Mary in 1979 and have lived happily ever after. She came with Kelly. Kate was born soon after.

Ran for the US Senate in 1980; lost. Was Vermont Secretary of Transportation for two years. Went back to Solutions, which Mary had been running, and switched from mainframe to micro software. I wrote and she sold the first Macintosh communication programs.

Sold most of Solutions, including me, to Microsoft in 1991. We moved to Vancouver, BC, where I ran another Microsoft acquisition (their first email product) and the remnants of Solutions. Later moved to Redmond and led the email group and development of what became Outlook and Exchange.

Left Microsoft for AT&T in 1994 after a disagreement with Bill Gates over the future of the Internet. AT&T put me in charge of their Internet strategy; and I led the development and launch of their first ISP, AT&T WorldNet. We popularized flat-rate, all you can eat dialup Internet access at $19.95/month.

But I couldn't convince AT&T to invest in VoIP – basically it meant cannibalizing the (then) lucrative voice business. Knowing that the majors weren't going to invest in what we thought was a great new technology, Mary and I started ITXC (Internet Telephony Exchange Carrier) in 1997 in our poolroom (Princeton equivalent of a startup garage). It was a good time for raising money; VCs camped on our doorstep.

We developed technology to use the Internet to carry the middle of calls placed from one phone to another – mainly international. Our customers were phone companies. Actual callers didn't know or care that they were using VoIP. This allowed us to use the cheap pipes of the Internet and to undercut the monopoly rates on international calls that phone companies liked to charge. We became the seventh largest wholesale carrier of international calling minutes in the world.

ITXC went public in 1999. Roller-coaster. First day opened at $12; closed at $27. Went as high as $127 on one heady day when we were also at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Then the Internet bubble burst; went as low as $1 before recovering a little. We weren't invited back to Davos.

Fought off a hostile takeover attempt in 2003 but were then in play and were acquired in 2004. ITXC is now part of giant Tata Communications; Mary and I retired.

I finally wrote my novel: hackoff.com: an historic murder mystery set in the Internet bubble and rubble. Self-published, over-estimated demand, and still have boxes of them left. Will give out free at reunion.

We moved back to Vermont and got involved in trying to get better rural broadband. Mary was founding Chair of the Vermont Telecommunications Authority.

In early 2009 Governor Jim Douglas asked me to be Vermont's Chief Recovery officer (Stimulus Czar). He said he needed someone who both had startup experience (the state was about to get $1 billion) and knew where the men's room is at the legislature (I had been Transportation Secretary 30 years before, remember). Some of the money was well spent; some not; a lot still hasn't been. But we will have a smart electrical grid and much better broadband.

Am now Chief Technology Officer for the State working on energy and telecommunications policy and using IT much more in state government. That'll end sometime before reunion and I'll re-retire and see what comes next.


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