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Tom Rolander

Alumnus Tom Rolander – Avid Innovator and Athlete

More than 30 years after earning his master’s degree in EE and the successful launch of five software start-up companies, Tom Rolander’s passion for innovation remains as fresh today as when he was a student at UW. Rolander’s most recent entrepreneurial venture, CrossLoop, Inc., closed a second round of venture capital financing in mid-August, and has already logged more than 2.5 million downloads.

Rolander’s inspiration for CrossLoop stemmed from his father’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2005. After receiving the devastating news, Rolander struggled to find a way to use his engineering background to help shoulder some of his mother’s new caretaking responsibilities. Over several months, Rolander made many trips from his home in Pacific Grove, Calif., to his parent’s Seattle apartment, working on their computer and writing code that solved his dilemma. His efforts created a foundation for the secure desktop sharing software that is now available in 21 languages and used by individuals and businesses in more than 190 countries for technical support, training, and collaboration.

By developing software that allowed access to his parents’ computer, Rolander was able to engage his father via webcams, slideshows, and voiceovers from nearly 1,000 miles away. With the webcam routed through the television, he could “watch” his father for 45-minute stretches, allowing his mother to run errands or take a break from caregiving. His mother was grateful for some time to herself, and Rolander cherished the opportunity to connect with his dad and revisit special memories they’d shared.

A photo from Sir Harold Evans’ book They Made America of Kildall and Rolander in a Monterey photo booth.

The EE department not only provides a foundation for lifelong innovation, but for lifelong friendships. Rolander remembers fondly the time he spent in the EE department, particularly the late evening he met fellow student Gary Kildall in a computer science lab. Kildall was the famed micro-computer entrepreneur who created the CP/M operating system and founded Digital Research, Inc. Rolander and Kildall became close friends, later started three software companies together, and served as best man in each other’s wedding.

Rolander was born in Kiomboi, Tanzania, where his parents were Lutheran Missionaries. They returned to the US when he was a young child, and he grew up in Auburn, WA, East Orange, NJ and Seattle. After graduating from Ballard High School, he headed for the UW.

Paying his own way and working full-time for ten years, Rolander earned a BS in civil engineering and an MSE in electrical engineering. During graduate school, Rolander held a paid internship at Fluke, and carpooled there with fellow student and current EE faculty member Jim Peckol. At Fluke they gained practical experience, access to labs and equipment, and tuition support. Upon graduation in 1976, Rolander spent two years with Intel in Santa Clara, Calif., and then moved to Pacific Grove to join forces with another UW Engineering alumnus, Gary Kildall, at Digital Research. There, Rolander wrote two operating systems, MP/M and CP/NET, rose to become vice president of engineering and later of research and development. Entrepreneurship beckoned, and Rolander left Digital Research with Kildall and eventually started three successful software companies. Although he stepped out of the software arena for a couple years to volunteer full-time and became CTO for Benetech Technology Serving Humanity, he couldn’t stay away for long. “Starting software companies is in my blood,” he says.

One of the secrets of Rolander’s serial successes lies in linking up with a partner whose skills complement his. “If you are technical, find someone who knows the business side. Outstanding technology is not sufficient; you win because of your position in the world market,” says Rolander. In his experience, once a company grows beyond five or six people, it is no longer possible for one person to manage both the technical and business aspects. Rolander credits Kildall with providing the business acumen at Digital Research and KnowledgeSet, and after two years at the helm of CrossLoop, he has hired a CEO with a Harvard MBA.

Rolander tempers the intensity of his work life with equally ambitious athletic pursuits. He is an avid sailor, pilot, cyclist, and runner, and recently competed in the Pikes Peak Marathon (elevation 14,110 feet), his fourth marathon since turning 60 earlier this year, and his 98th marathon to date.

We look forward to welcoming Tom Rolander back to campus this winter, as one of our speakers for the 2009 EE Leadership Seminar Series.

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