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It’s 1985. There is no Internet and no websites. There’s no social media outlet on which to post pictures of your lunch. PCs are on the brink of popularity. University of Missouri computer science grads Tom Smith and Bruce Barkelew have just quit their jobs at an engineering firm on the West Coast. They are returning to Columbia to turn their side project, a software program called ProComm, into a full-time endeavor.

“We were two guys holed up in our apartment cranking out code — then product — like crazy,” Smith says. The pair was building what could be considered an early equivalent to today’s Web browsers. “It’s what you used to connect to other computers around the world.”

Columbia provided them a cheaper place to live than the Bay Area while they turned ProComm, a product of Datastorm, into a success. Datastorm hit number 376 on the Inc. 500 list in 1992, and in 1993, the program hit the No. 1 spot on PC Magazine’s list of top retail software.

In 1996, Smith and Barkelew sold Datastorm to Quarterdeck (later purchased by Symantec). Although Smith is “just a humble publican now” (his words), as part of one of the first tech companies in town, he and Barkelew helped pave the way for a new generation of techies, along with others such as Bill Fairman of Faircom, Ewin Barnett of Carfax, Brant and Brock Bukowsky of Veterans United and more (our words).

“We showed it didn’t matter where you were located as long as you could attract talented people and connect to your customers,” Smith says.

The biggest thing Datastorm did, Smith says, was build a large talented staff. “I still, after all these years, have employers come up to me and tell me what great employees the old Datastormers are. They’re in high demand, and it appears to be a very valuable line on their resumes, at least in Columbia.”

Datastormer or not, here are seven of the CBT’s Top in Tech.

 

David Nivens, CEO, Midwest Computech

David Nivens

Brief description of what your company does (for dummies, please): We manage networks (servers, switches, desktops, wireless, etc.) for school districts and small businesses as well as operate a data center and do the whole cloud thing.

The moment you knew you were a “techie”: When I got my first Tandy TRS 80 Color Computer back in 1982 from the local Radio Shack.

The biggest tech/IT-related challenge facing Columbia’s business community: Increase Internet speeds and reliability. I wish I had the answer. I don’t know how many people realize how close Columbia was to getting Google Fiber here. That would have been a significant game-changer for our business community and Columbia as a whole. all you have to do is look at Kansas City to see how adding affordable (and that is the key word for most every small business and startup) super high-speed Internet has changed the land- scape of that business community. Kansas City is now viewed as a destination for startups that are reliant on cheap fiber Internet connections, and with the startup and entrepreneurial climate that already exists in Columbia, it would be a boon to our community to have similar options here. If we could get those kinds of speeds and pricing here, that would have a significant impact on our ability to attract, create, retain and grow business.

One thing people would be shocked to know about your profession: That could involve me pulling the curtain back just a little too far.

The most exciting recent tech trend or product, in your opinion: End-user encryption for mobile devices and shared files/documents. Today’s users demand a wider and less hindered access to company data: from mobile devices and home computers to USB sticks and the cloud. Data encryption greatly enhances an organization’s ability to protect themselves from their data being held hostage or being held liable for data that was compromised by an employee with either malicious intentions or unintelligent decisions.

Your claim to the tech hall of fame: There’s a tech hall of fame? How come Steve Powell never told me about this?

Your tech idol (local and worldwide): Whoever made Super Tecmo Bowl for the Nintendo: That guy and the USB guy.

Apple or PC? I used to be PC, but honestly, I don’t care anymore. When you run everything out of the cloud, the OS becomes irrelevant. I would still buy a PC because they’re less expensive than the Apple products, and they can run any software you would need locally without having to run multiple operating systems.

IPhone or Android? I have an iPhone, and it’s been great. My wife has an Android and complains all the time. But she just has to look at a piece of technology for it to stop working correctly, so that’s probably not a good example of good scientific method for anyone to draw a conclusion from or base a decision on.

Team Wozniak or Team Jobs? Both were innovators and pioneers. I don’t see a reason to take sides here.

Your favorite app right now: Whatever keeps my kids occupied for 10 minutes while we’re in the grocery store or at a Mizzou basketball game (love my Tigers, and I’m confident Coach Anderson is going to turn this around; however, my kids’ attention has been a little lacking at games this year — but they’re 7, 3 and 1).

Predictions for 2020: If all things go right, I should be 45, unless that whole time machine thing gets figured out.

 

Steve Powell, President, Delta Systems Group

Steve Powell

Brief description of what your company does (for dummies, please): We help companies solve problems, manage their data, process their invoicing, interact with customers, sell products and bring efficiencies to their daily jobs. We do this by building websites and information-tracking systems. These systems answer questions such as how many napkins a worker can clean in an hour, how far hundreds of thousands of paddlefish traveled along the Missouri River, how many title insurance policies were generated this morning in 12 states, how many people test drove used cars in Des Moines last month, how many of the 800 volunteers who signed up are able to work an event on Saturday night, where to buy dog food in 40 different countries, which insurance agents need more custom business cards printed and mailed to them, who is a fan of Star Trek, how the staff rates which movies to include in a film festival, where to get a coupon for Sesame Street-themed diapers, who needs more job training, how many pounds of food were distributed by the food pantry last month and thousands more.

The moment you knew you were a “techie”: I wrote my first computer program in second grade and used to get pulled out of class to show teachers how to use the new Apple IIe. My mom told me that, and I don’t even remember what it did. I also made a stop-motion animation movie of a rocket launch in first grade.

The biggest tech/IT-related challenge facing Columbia’s business community: The inability to hire enough quality workers is a growth-limiting problem. Computer science departments need to pivot into more applicable coursework and require internships before students can graduate. Interests in St. Louis and Kansas City are luring away companies with free office space and cash just for settling into their incubators for a year. Our incubators need to be more than just four walls and Wi-Fi; engaged mentoring and money are needed.

One thing people would be shocked to know about your profession: We spend 31.2 percent of our time making animated GIF memes. Good programmers can go seven-plus hours without having to get up to pee. Just because someone “builds websites” doesn’t mean he or she knows why your printer is broken. We do know why Facebook is different on a computer versus a phone, but explaining it still won’t let you reply to a comment with an attached image from your phone. But the biggest shocker of all is that all usernames and passwords for everything on the Internet are in one big database; we just make you have different logins to different systems to be mean feel safe.

The most exciting recent tech trend or product, in your opinion: The “mobile first” concept is turning the Web design/development world on its ear. Adequate bandwidth removes many limitations.

Your claim to the tech hall of fame: Is that a thing? My dad was the godfather of modern flight simulation and pretty much revolutionized how we train pilots. If I end up being 10 percent as influential in anything else, I will give you a call.

Your tech idol (local and worldwide): Elon Musk and Tom Smith (but Bill Turpin is moving up fast)

Apple or PC? Both

IPhone or Android? Android

Team Wozniak or Team Jobs? Jobs

Your favorite app right now: I’m not a big app guy; I’m too busy building systems for others. But anything that keeps the kids quietly engaged while teaching them something gets downloaded in our house.

Predictions for 2020: Still no flying cars. Hopefully by 2020 Paul Allen’s brain research will lead to a way to download our memories and store them nightly. Being able to reference and interact with someone’s digital brain after they pass away will radically change not only our collective knowledge but will also drastically advance our ability to solve problems as a species. That is if Skynet hasn’t killed us all by then.

 

Jonathan Sessions, chief problem solver, Tech 2

Jonathan Sessions

Brief description of what your company does (for dummies, please): Tech 2 is an IT department for hire, specializing in Apple technology. We take care of your present and future tech needs without talking over your head. We make operating systems play nice, plan for inevitable technology upgrades, automate common business tasks and provide basic maintenance and repair.

The moment you knew you were a “techie”: I knew when I was a kid. I would take everything apart; I was pretty good about putting it back together.

The biggest tech/IT-related challenge facing Columbia’s business community: Many people think technology is a one-time thing. Set it up, ignore it, and it will last forever. Technology is a moving target. It needs to be continuously managed and maintained. Otherwise it starts working against you.

One thing people would be shocked to know about your profession: Technology can be intimidating, but it isn’t magical. My bachelor’s is not in computer science; it’s in music education. In many ways it’s more useful to me than a CS degree. Most days a tech’s job is more about communication and education than computer science.

The most exciting recent tech trend or product, in your opinion: Wearables. Right now they’re bulky, conspicuous and have major limitations in battery life, but I believe we’re on the cusp of a major transition. I believe we’ll start to shift away from wearables as accessories to ones that are completely integrated to clothing: Google Glass built into normal-looking glasses or contact lenses, pants that track movement, shirts that can monitor health, shoes that subtly give you directions to your destination.

Your claim to the tech hall of fame: I built and maintain the technology infrastructure for Newsy.com, the Columbia-based news organization recently purchase by E.W. Scripps for $35 million.

Your tech idol (local and worldwide): Ted Stevens

Apple or PC? Apple, Linux, Chrome OS, Commodore, Typewriter, Curta, slide rule, pencil and paper, fingers and toes, Windows — in that order.

IPhone or Android? IPhone

Team Wozniak or Team Jobs? Jobs

Your favorite app right now: IF (formerly IFTTT). It automates my life and notifies me when the seasons change on Mars. (After reading that response, Steve Powell just said, “Get your ass to Mars” out loud).

Predictions for 2020: Voight-Kampff test

 

Natalie Hardin, director of business intelligence (aka data, analytics, reporting), Veterans United Home Loans

Natalie Hardin

Brief description of what your company does (for dummies, please): Veterans United Home Loans is dedicated to making the American dream of homeownership a reality for those who so bravely served. The technology team at VU provides the infrastructure, software, security and business intelligence services to support the awesome people within VU who make the dream of homeownership a reality.

The moment you knew you were a “techie”: It was love at first sight with my Commodore SX-64 given to me by my grandpa. The screen was so small. For those who don’t know what a Commodore SX-64 is, it’s a portable, briefcase/suitcase-size “luggable” version of the popular Commodore 64 home computer and holds the distinction of being the first full-color portable computer. Being only 8 years old at the time, playing games with my little brother was my favorite thing to do on my Commodore.

The biggest tech/IT-related challenge facing Columbia’s business community:

We need more techies! On any given day, many of the companies throughout Columbia are recruiting for developers, engineers, system administrators, etc. The City of Columbia could offer enticing housing allotments, benefits for technology individuals who move here from other cities and/or offer tax breaks for companies supporting technology in Columbia.

One thing people would be shocked to know about your profession: Women know how to use technology — and are pretty good at it, too! The earlier we can introduce girls to technology (and all STEM fields), the more awareness and exposure we can create. Programming should be a required language in schools similar to that of a foreign language. Our middle and high school students need to know that being a girl in tech is cool.

The most exciting recent tech trend or product, in your opinion: Mobile payments and Apple’s watch — once the battery life is improved.

Your claim to the tech hall of fame: Transforming Veterans United’s developers into a high-performing team of talented individuals producing amazing products for VU, winning the Social Impact Award for Popcycle at CoMo Startup in October 2014 and founding Mid-MO’s first Agile user group in the summer of 2014.

Your tech idol (local and worldwide): Gary Lee (Veterans United tech guru) and Marissa Mayer (no explanation needed)

Apple or PC? My first choice is Apple, but my day job requires PC.

IPhone or Android? IPhone since the start

Team Wozniak or Team Jobs? Team Jobs

Your favorite app right now: Because I have two littles at home, Amazon is active every day either through shopping on Amazon, watching Amazon Video or listening to Amazon Music. To relax, I play TwoDots. For work, I love Post it Plus.

Predictions for 2020: We’ll return to hiding money under our beds. Kidding! Actually, I think it will be just the opposite in that we will be a cashless society. Our poor kids’ kids won’t even know what a piggybank is! We will be a more connected than we ever could imagine. Google Loon will connect us to one another through mobile payments, driver-less cars, to all sorts of wearables. BYOD everywhere.

 

Jessie Yankee, owner, Company EasyPC IT & Computer Repair

Jessie Yankee

Brief description of what your company does (for dummies, please): We provide IT services to the small businesses of Columbia as well as provide computer repair services at our office to anyone.

The moment you knew you were a “techie”: Sometime in high school, I became the person who everyone came to when they needed help with anything tech related. It just got worse through college, and even when I worked at MU, my colleagues would ask me to help them instead of calling tech support.

The biggest tech/IT-related challenge facing Columbia’s business community: Internet speeds. Although some of the local ISPs are starting to roll out faster speeds, many of my clients are in areas where they can’t get the new service. I literally have clients setting up remote offices in Kansas City and St. Louis just to get better Internet at an affordable price.

One thing people would be shocked to know about your profession: There are actually fun, outgoing people in IT. We’re not all scary nerds living in our moms’ basements.

The most exciting recent tech trend or product, in your opinion: 3-D printing. It’s going to be huge! It already is huge in the medical and manufacturing sectors, and it will be really neat to see when it becomes mainstream and the average person has a 3-D printer.

Your claim to the tech hall of fame: Hm. I think I’m the only IT business owner in town who is a female under 30. If there are more, I want to meet them!

Your tech idol (local and worldwide): Locally, I would say David Nivens, owner of Midwest Computech. He’s just a great guy and a great business to look up to. Worldwide, it’s probably Bill Gates, solely based on his charitable contributions and his work with water and sanitation in third world countries. He is really doing great things.

Apple or PC? PC for affordability

IPhone or Android? Android

Team Wozniak or Team Jobs? Team Gates

Your favorite app right now: Heads up! Play it at the bar with friends; you’ll have a good time. The Amazon app takes a close second.

Predictions for 2020: Google Fiber in Columbia — at least I can hope anyway.

 

Bill Turpin,CEO, Missouri Innovation Center

Bill Turpin

Brief description: MIC helps entrepreneurs start new technology companies and operates the University of Missouri Life Science Business Incubator at Monsanto Place.

The moment you knew you were a “techie”: I enjoyed taking things apart to see how they work when I was young, usually not complicated stuff: fans, toys, that sort of thing.

The biggest tech/IT-related challenge facing Columbia’s business community: I think we need more people who have experience starting tech companies and are available to help new companies. We are starting a new venture mentoring service with MU to identify and recruit more tech mentors in Columbia.

One thing people would be shocked to know about your profession: We like food and drink as much as cool tech gadgets (maybe more?).

The most exciting recent tech trend or product, in your opinion: Wearable devices that monitor health metrics

Your claim to the tech hall of fame: Our team at Netscape created JavaScript and RSS.

Your tech idol (local and worldwide): John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins (also from Missouri)

Apple or PC? Apple

IPhone or Android? IPhone (see above)

Team Wozniak or Team Jobs? The Woz. I’m more on the tech side. I like to build stuff, and at all the companies I’ve been involved with, I’ve had some hand in building it, which is what Woz did, and Jobs was the marketing/biz guy. I appreciate those skills, but it’s not me.

Your favorite app right now: I couldn’t live without Google.

Predictions for 2020: Google and Apple have replaced the phone companies.

 

George Pfenenger, CEO, Socket Telecom LLC

George Pfenenger

Brief description of what your company does (for dummies, please): Socket provides high-speed Internet, fiber to the home and business, local and long-distance phone service, hosted business phone systems as well as wide area networking services and hosting.

The moment you knew you were a “techie”: I am?

The biggest tech/IT-related challenge facing Columbia’s business community: Access to competitive high-bandwidth services currently hampered by the perpetuation of one even larger monopoly for last-mile access to the Internet, funded by millions of tax dollars in Missouri alone, with no requirement for open access. The solution? The recognition by government of how we got to where we are today (no, it is not a free market and never has been) and policies that would actually create a free market and benefit the consumers.

One thing people would be shocked to know about your profession: Telecommunications is one of the most incestuous businesses in existence. No one carrier can provide everything, and all carriers must work together to keep the system functioning.

The most exciting recent tech trend or product, in your opinion: Cloud-based phone services, which give the end user the control over how their phone calls and phone systems behave, take calls, make calls, etc. It tears down all of the old “phone company” walls. Also, the amount of bandwidth that can now be pushed over a single strand of fiber optic cable.

Your claim to the tech hall of fame: As a founder of a now 20-year-old Internet service provider that has evolved through the dial-up days to now offering fiber to the home and cloud-based services, as a full-service telecommunications provider, we have had to continually evolve our business to stay relevant. I am humbled that I would even be considered for this and know it is only because of our great employees and customers who have stood by us for the past two decades.

Your tech idol (local and worldwide): I don’t really have a tech idol per se. I respect the way Larry Page, Eric Schmidt and the folks at Google are perpetually entrepreneurial — well beyond the bounds of their core business. I think they have a vision for how the world will be in the future that is way ahead of the curve.

Apple or PC? PC

IPhone or Android? Windows phone (I also have iPad and Android tablets.)

Team Wozniak or Team Jobs? Team Gates, though I have a lot of respect for Jobs as a marketer, negotiator and businessperson more so than a tech innovator.

Your favorite app right now: Eon Sports SIDEKIQ Virtual Reality training software

Predictions for 2020: Fiber everywhere! Well, maybe not everywhere, but we should be well on the way.

 

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