IT Leader No "Fainting Flower"
Former Microsoft Evangelist Follows His Own Wild Tangent
Few people in the computing world have conducted their careers with as much aplomb as Alex St. John, cofounder and CEO of WildTangent. Perhaps thats because the largely self-educated "nerd at heart" from rural Alaska had no model to emulate, no guidebook to follow. He became an industry star by being bold, brilliant, and by never taking no as a final answer.
Interviewed on "Information Technology Leaders," St. John describes trying to convince his Microsoft bosses, via a manifesto entitled "Taking Fun Seriously," to overhaul the companys multimedia programming. Undeterred by the lukewarm response, St. John and a few colleagues went ahead--without a budget, resources, or corporate permission--and created Direct X, the definitive Windows platform for computer games.
"Information Technology Leaders," produced by the University of Washingtons 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 man made legendary in Michael Drummonds book, Renegades of the Empire, had humble beginnings on St. George Island, a volcano in the Bering Sea. Before his parents--bush teachers to the Aluit community--moved the family into a home with electricity, St. John amused himself by playing with Japanese fishing nets that washed up on shore. But as soon as he laid hands on a computer keyboard at the University of Alaska, where his father was pursuing a Ph.D., St. John was hooked. By age 13 he had his own Commodore PC on which he started writing programs.
Without a high school diploma, St. John tested and talked his way into that same university later. After only a few semesters, he moved to Massachusetts with his sights set on MIT. But his first career job, at Boston-based Hell Graphics, sidetracked him. Paranoid about his qualifications, he worked 140 hours a week to prove himself. It wasnt until he arrived at Microsoft that he realized "nobody gave a damn" about his lack of traditional education.
By the time Microsoft came calling, 24-year-old St. John was a consultant who had made a name for himself in PostScript technology. It was no small compliment to be recruited by the company. "In my day, IBM was the evil empire and Bill Gates was a hero to nerds everywhere for cracking that monolithic monopoly," says St. John, chuckling at the irony. Still, moving to Seattle was a tough sell. Eventually a lavish Microsoft Christmas party won him over, and he came on board as a publishing evangelist, responsible for persuading companies to use the Windows technology.
Microsoft was locked in a fierce battle to win the market from Apple, and no one knew better than St. John, a former Mac programmer, how the software fared against the competition. Once, his honesty nearly cost him his job--and cemented his reputation. After an interview he gave about Windows 3.1 appeared under the headline, "Microsoft Exec Says Windows Print Architecture Broken," Bill Gates himself responded with outrage. Assuming that his goose was already cooked, St. John fired back a long e-mail detailing what was wrong with Windows 3.1, and soon Gates was questioning his own lieutenants about "what the new guy was saying." St. John says, "I discovered that if you want to be successful at Microsoft, you tell it like it is. You cant be a fainting flower."
St. John had even greater impact as a game evangelist. With Direct X, he convinced clients once derisive of Microsoft technology to build their games exclusively on Windows platforms. His huge, elaborate launch parties were wildly successful. But St. John started to burn out. He would pass out at his keyboard and straggle into morning meetings with key marks on his face. Worked sucked everything out of him; his marriage disintegrated. In 1997, he succeeded in getting himself fired, as he tells it, "and walked out of Microsoft feeling 100 lbs. lighter."
Wealthy off stock options, St. John never needed to work again, but this self-described "compulsive workaholic" couldnt stay away. Microsoft needed him to launch the 3-D multimedia browser he helped create, Chromeffects. Though the company ultimately killed the project, St. John raised venture capital and started WildTangent with the eight-member team hed assembled for the consulting job. Today, WildTangent employs 132 people to build interactive media applications on the Internet.
As a CEO, St. John makes sure his staff is populated by younger versions of himself--smart, energetic, creative problem-solvers with workaholic tendencies--and hires sharp managers to tame them. "One piece of wisdom I picked up was not to believe I had to know everything," he says.
WildTangent hasnt been immune to the tech-sector implosion, and that has required greater discipline in meeting income goals and making tough calls like laying off employees. Despite the economic downturn, St. John believes that were still in the stone age of Internet possibilities. As the Web evolves, likely hell be there to chisel the wheels.
Produced By: Christopher Redner
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