This week we cornered Mike Lin, aka "SQL-Boy" and CEO of Switchouse™, a leading online swapping service for music, movies, video games and books (check them out at www.switchouse.com). A brainiac from the West Coast, Mike is in the leading pack of young entrepreneurs who are cashing in on their technical expertise. Here's what he had to tell us about swapping, SQL, and strategies for capitalizing on his nerdly tendencies.
A graduate of Stanford University, Mike spent his last semester attempting to gain a position in management consulting (as was the thing to do in the late 80's). Unfortunately, potential employers did not find him "polished" enough, and subsequently threw his resume in the reject pile. "I think that they liked my quantitative skills and general smarts, but they just wanted someone less nerdy. It wasn't quite as fashionable then as now." Undeterred, Mike rallied forth and finally landed a job with the hotshot start-up Oracle. During his tour of duty at Oracle, Mike basically did a "lap around the company", beginning in tradeshow marketing, moving on to sales organization, returning to product marketing, and finally landing a spot in the engineering department. There, he helped build prototype demo applications for Oracle New Media. Mike left Oracle in May 1996, after nine years of dedicated service.
Eventually, Mike's entrepreneurial spirit prevailed, supported by solid technical training and experience. He became co-founder of a start-up called Niku Corporation, a high-growth B2B. It was at that time that Mike began to eye the success of sites like eBay and Priceline. He marveled at the way these sites had re-invented the manner in which buyers and sellers transacted over the Internet. Expecting there was untapped opportunity in such a market, Mike began to work on the concept of Switchouse. He soon convinced six friends to leave their jobs and join him in co-founding his new gold mine. The career move successfully ended long commuting and landed him a job in San Francisco. Switchouse was launched in July of 1999, just "three years and two startups" after Mike left Oracle. He has not looked back since.
Mike's first tool of the trade was a 1984 Apple Mac, purchased through the Stanford University student program. The system had about 128KB of RAM, and was used by practically everybody in Mike's dorm for spring term papers. It is likely that more than one professor received work typed in that wacky San Francisco font made famous by Macintosh back in those days. Today, Mike has upgraded considerably. He wields a trusty Sony VAIO Z505S with a 300 MHz Celeron Processor, which he recently fired up to 192Mb of RAM. Known as "SQL Boy" to colleagues and friends, Mike has been known to sometimes threaten to write SQL code so his engineering team can focus on more pressing development projects: "sometimes I actually do, when they aren't looking." Mike also writes SQL queries to look for interesting statistics regarding activity at Switchouse. One typical example: "Who is trying to swap all those copies of Alanis Morissette and Jewel (simple answer: teenage girls!)" Mike also adds that he wishes programming libraries were available to him when he was writing assembler code for the Motorola 68000 (when he was slogging his way through the electronic engineering curriculum during junior year at Stanford).
Mike claims that his best "real life" hack revolved around an entire bank of laser disc players. The equipment was used as back up when he was helping to debut Oracle's streaming video technology and strategic vision for interactive T.V. In fact, a professional crew arriving straight from a recent Rolling Stones tour manned the disc players. "We were streaming multiple video streams on demand from the Oracle Video Server to an Apple Settop Box. It was early 1994 and everything was pre-production, from the n-Cube parallel processing video server to the DSL network to the settop box to the MPEG decoders. But the event was to occur in front of a live studio audience with Walter Cronkite as host, Larry Ellison as the presenter, and VIP's from Hollywood and Silicon Valley in the audience. There was no room for failure." Fortunately, says Mike, the disc players never saw any action: the Northridge Quake struck the night before the big debut, and gave his team a much-welcomed extension.
As for other snafus along his path to greater Nerdiosity, Mike claims that his worst [recurring] technical disaster can be summed up with just a few characters: Del *.* "There is no resolution to this disaster except to begin anew." Following such an experience, Mike committed himself to typing full path names when deleting entire directories. The most expensive equipment he's ever destroyed was a "laptop [that went up] in a puff of smoke as I was demo-ing in front of a client. But it wasn't my fault - bad quality control!" Mike is also famous for falling asleep next to Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle, as he was guiding the exec through the final walk-through of an interactive T.V. launch demo being given the next day. "This was after many long and sleepless nights working alongside the rest of the development team trying to get things to work."
Like most other nerds we know, Mike enjoys spending free time writing code. Occasionally his physical side prevails, and he goes out to dance the Lindy-Hop. Five years from now, he'd like to be the mastermind behind other internet startups and would like to go down in history as the Alpha Geek of many successful internet business. Claiming to be a good "self-learner" Mike has no other Nerd role models or mentors. He currently finds the resources available at NerdWorld "fertile ground for recruiting." So, unemployed nerds take heart… you could be the next entertainment-swapping employee of Switchouse. In the meantime, you've at least found a place to unload that NSYNC CD you've been using as a coaster all these months!