BSquare CEO Chooses Wisely
Bill Baxter took the less-traveled path to success and career satisfaction
Bill Baxter, founder, Chairman and CEO of Bsquare Corporation

Bill Baxter has faced a few interesting crossroads. One path might have taken him to the blue-collar life of a trailer-dwelling welder. Instead, he went to college and graduate school where his groundbreaking research in computer parallelization enabled him to write his own career ticket to Silicone Valley. On the job, he found that nothing gave him more satisfaction than being an individual contributor on a project, but his communication talents better suited him to management.

The choice between staying close to the action or yielding to the lure of leadership was the dominant struggle of his career, Baxter explains on "Information Technology Leaders." But in record time--five years after his first job--he figured it out.

"The epiphany that I was always going to be in a leadership role hit me," he explains, "and I came to the conclusion that if I'm going to lead, I'm going to lead on my own. I'm going to do my own thing." And that was the birth of BSquare, a smart-device systems integrator.

"Information Technology Leaders," produced by the University of Washington’s School of Business, presents multi-faceted portraits of the people filling the top IT positions at major corporations such as Microsoft, Boeing, and AT&T Wireless Services. The revealing interviews show that personal characteristics often play an important role in the unpredictable career trajectories of this industry.

"The ability to adapt to change is probably one of the best skills you can have in life," says Oklahoma-born Baxter, who in his first 13 years had to deal with being a southerner in New Jersey, a blue-eyed Caucasian minority in New Mexico, and a child of a broken home in windy Wyoming. He had two incongruous passions, debate and welding, that gave him purpose in school. But it was his success in debate that led to a scholarship and a way out of the trailer park.

At the University of Wyoming, Baxter majored in computer science. Attributing his innate talent to his "technocrat" father, Baxter taught himself programming while fiddling around with a Timex Sinclair 5000. He realized that the same skills he used for constructing arguments on the debate team could apply to crafting computer software. He and a few friends ran a side business writing software for the Apple II and Apple Mac.

Baxter stayed on at the university for graduate school, where his master's thesis research project gave him a career boost. Even in the languid employment market of 1989, he enjoyed a range of offers, from private corporations to the NSA. He took a job at the company that had funded his research, and he immediately made himself useful by cracking a chronic computer topology problem.

Soon the Silicon Valley beckoned. Baxter moved to Palo Alto, Calif., where he worked for three years at Intergraph, a graphical workspace company. On his first project, he used his master's thesis technology to help the company secure a $300 million navy contract. But the thrill of being the software superhero ended when he was promoted to management, which Baxter found stressful and much less fulfilling. Intergraph tried to keep him by offering a comfy position at the corporate headquarters in Huntsville, Ala., but by then, Baxter and his wife were ready for a lifestyle change.

They chose Seattle, where Baxter joined Digital Equipment Corporation, known as "Digital U" in the industry for its ability to train people for Microsoft. The first day on the job, he was handed a tough problem to solve. "It felt so good to be back in that role," he recalls. But a scarce 18 months later, frustrated by the failure of an ill-conceived and poorly supported project, he decided to leave and start his own company.

BSquare focused on an idea born of Baxter's experience with Intergraph and DEC: He saw the need for an intermediary between Microsoft and semiconductor manufacturers such as Hitachi, Motorola, and Philips. Microsoft had just launched a new operating system powering non-PC computing devices, so the time was right. Baxter started the company with two cofounders in 1994, divvying up the "crap work"--bookkeeping, HR, and administration--between them. Baxter was a leader, but by necessity he was also a primary contributor. "A significant portion of the value proposition that we pitched as BSquare didn't exist, except in my mind," he explains.

Five years later, BSquare's success brought them to an exciting but tough choice: sell or go public. In choosing the latter, Baxter found that both options led to the same result of losing some degree of ownership. BSquare diversified, becoming a provider of not just low-level Windows CE tools but of applications as well. Today, the company is global, with offices in Japan and Taiwan. Despite the pressures of being a CEO during a turbulent economy, Baxter, who is the father of a 16-month-old daughter, strives for a "family first, company second" balance.

More crossroads are probably inevitable in Baxter's future. But this veteran of the less-traveled path knows the key to making the right choice. He learned it back in his student days in Wyoming: "It's not where you are--it's what you want."

Produced By: Christopher Redner