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UMD graduate emerges as successful Silicon Valley survivor
Eric Swildens receives honor with place in UMD science academy
Pictured: Silicon Valley entrepreneur and UMD grad Eric Swildens. (Photo courtesy of Speedera Networks Inc.)
When Eric Swildens graduated in 1990 from the University of Minnesota, Duluth, with an undergraduate degree in computer science, Vanilla Ice was still cool; so was playing Tetris on your brand-new Game Boy. That’s ancient history in computer industry terms, and so in some ways it seems like ages ago when Swildens ventured forth from UMD.
After a short stint at Computer Data Corp. in Minneapolis, the Twin Cities native found himself in Silicon Valley at the dawning of the Internet boom. Now age 36, he’s lionized as a successful entrepreneur and survivor of that go-go era.
In October, he returned to his UMD roots to accept an impressive honor: induction into the school’s Academy of Science and Engineering along with four other UMD-connected scientists, all of them at least 20 years his senior.
“I was honored to be on that list,” Swildens said afterwards in a phone interview from the Silicon Valley headquarters of his most successful company, Speedera Networks Inc. “I really liked my experience at UMD. A university education is no guarantee of success, but it can cause a failure in your life if you don’t use it right. What it does do is provide you with the tools the succeed: It’s up to you to use them.”
Back in 1990, success in the computer industry meant a job at IBM or some other mainframe giant. But that quickly changed as the decade evolved. Frustrated by the slow pace of the big companies, software engineers flocked to places like Mountain View, CA, to launch their own firms upon burgeoning Internet-related technology. In the mid-1990s, Swildens co-founded and was CEO of Microline Software Inc., where he pioneered the use of Java technology in software development tools. His specialty became designing graphic user interfaces, or GUIs.
That company was sold to Neuron Data Inc. in 1997 for an undisclosed sum and Swildens moved on to become engineering manager for Resonate Inc. of Sunnyvale, CA., where he learned the ins and outs of Internet traffic management for a privately-held company with many major corporate clients.
Two years later, Swildens embarked on his dream — founding Speedera with colleagues Richard Day and Ajit Gupta.
The company incorporated everything Swildens had learned in Silicon Valley, both about technology and the business scene. Speedera set up a huge distributed computer network for the delivery of “rich content” to the Web sites of corporate customers. For instance, it provides the pipeline to get streaming audio and video of Fox TV network shows to the Fox Web site. Speedera uses sophisticated programs to make sure the content is delivered evenly and reliably by distributing the load to various servers around the world.
Times were flush in Silicon Valley.
“I came here before the time of the boom, before Netscape went public, and I’ve been here afterwards.” he said. “What I can say is that what happened was an anomaly. Cash became worthless and stock was the only thing that was worth anything. At the time I said, ‘We have these companies going public that don’t make any sense, and I don’t know how this will fix itself unless all the stocks go to zero.’ We were trying to determine what was going to happen.”
When the tech bubble burst in 2000, most of the stocks did plummet to zero.
“I remember driving to (my fiancee’s) work one day, and the street lights were out because of the rolling California brownouts, the stock market had tanked, and I thought, ‘This has got to be the bottom.’”
Speedera struggled to stay afloat over the next two years. But it survived thanks to one thing that a lot of casualties didn’t have: a product whose value was easy to see and understand.
“There’s been a painful process of working through the bust,” he said. “We survived because we provide something of value that people will pay for.”
Speedera is doing more than surviving nowadays. The company turned its first profit last year and is counted among the fastest-growing companies in “the Valley.” Recently, Speedera was listed among PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ top 10 in that regard, and was named No. 3 on Deloitte & Touche’s Silicon Valley Technology Fast 50 list.
Swildens said his education at UMD set the groundwork for all that was to come.
“The computer science faculty there was excellent.” he said. “Many of them are still there, and they remember me. They really work with the students, it wasn’t nameless and faceless. We knew the people in the department, you could talk to them.
“Learning computer science is kind of like learning karate, in that when you get to the black belt, that’s really when you start to learn. You learn all these moves, and you get the belt, but it’s really about how you apply them once you’ve got them down. In computer science, you learn all those software tools, the algorithms and such, and you get a degree. But then there’s getting into business, developing relationships, selling them on you and your idea.”
Swildens is indeed well-remembered in the UMD computer science department, according to Carolyn Crouch, an associate professor who leads the department’s graduate program. Her husband, Donald Crouch, chairs the department.
“We certainly remember Eric,” she said. “I remember him as a fine student and someone who was active in class participations. He certainly stood out.”
She added that he was one of the students who thrived in a science environment like UMD’s, where the variety of programs may pale in comparison with the U of M’s Twin Cities campus, but provides greater individual attention.
“There are lots of opportunities for interaction, and it allows you to get to know your students … and that’s a pleasure,” she said.
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