SALT LAKE CITY — John Warnock's visit to the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit Friday was a reminder that Utah's tech history precedes the birthdates of many of the tens of thousands who gathered this week to celebrate the state's current wave of innovation successes.
In fact, Utah's tech history extends back to, and played a pivotal moment in, the very conception of the modern-day internet.
The tale, according to Warnock, goes something like this.
Back in the early '60s, the U.S. federal government was in a mild freakout following Russia's successful launch of the first satellite into space just a few years earlier. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara declared the country would launch an unprecedented effort to advance research into computers. The brainchild of the effort was the Advanced Research Project Agency that would fund, at unprecedented levels, 12 research centers at U.S. universities, each focusing on different aspects of computer science research.
Among those research centers was one at the University of Utah, which, under the direction of another technology pioneer, David Evans, was focusing on man/machine interactions for the agency project. Each of the research nodes had recruited the top computer scientists of the time and, later in the decade, a need arose to connect each effort through a then untried concept of real-time, electronic communications on a shared network.
Warnock said a meeting of the leaders of each research facility was arranged, with plans to congregate in Utah.
"In 1968 all of the lead investigators came together at Alta, Utah, in Rustlers Lodge," Warnock said. "I was a (University of Utah) grad student at the time and they invited me to come to this meeting of all the best computer scientists in the world. At that meeting, they approved the communication network that was going to connect all of these centers together and that was the ARPA-Net … which is now the internet."
A decade later, Warnock would join researchers at the famous Xerox PARC (for Palo Alto Research Center) in California, which would innovate many of the computing tools that are now items collectively taken for granted in computing.
"When I walked in the doors of PARC in 1978, every secretary, every researcher, every manager had a personal computer," Warnock said. "Every computer was interconnected with Ethernet, every computer had access to file servers, every computer was connected to a laser printer … and each had a mouse and a (graphical user interface) with windows.
"And this was three years before the first IBM personal computer was announced."
For those who may not have heard of Warnock, or noted that his legacy at the U. is enshrined by a modern new College of Engineering facility named in his honor, the man is a pioneer in the advancement of digital technology. His expertise in computer graphics helped drive innovation during his time at PARC but, according to Warnock, "it became very evident that Xerox was never going to be able to enter the computer business because they just didn’t understand it, even though they had the best research lab in the country."
So Warnock and his colleague, Chuck Geschke, joined forces to start their own little business, Adobe. Three months into the work of the new company, Apple's Steve Jobs came by after hearing that Warnock and his team were "doing some interesting things." Jobs offered to buy the company on the spot, he said, but Warnock and Geschke demurred and instead Jobs bought a share of Adobe and joined forces with the fledgling entrepreneurs.
Adobe's first product, PostScript — designed to translate a page of script on your computer screen to a printed version that exactly matches what the user sees — helped spark the desktop publishing phenomena that would not only lead to massive profits for Adobe, but helped boost the new Apple Macintosh personal computer which would become the darling of graphics specialists for decades to come.
Adobe's hits, according to Warnock, would just keep on coming.
In 1986, PostScript became an industry standard. In 1987, Adobe introduced Illustrator. In 1989, it was Photoshop. In 1992, the company acquired Acrobat and developed the now ubiquitous Personal Data File, or PDF. And, of course, in 2009 the company came full circle by purchasing Lehi-based web analytics company Omniture and, instead of shuttering the operation and moving to the Bay Area, established a new office in Utah.
And the company recently doubled down on the effort, breaking ground on a new, $90 million facility with plans in place to double their current Utah workforce of 1,000-plus.
Warnock has a home in Deer Valley and said he spends every winter in Utah. He's also still very engaged with tech happenings in the state and recently penned an opinion piece supporting a legislative effort this session by Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem, to continue funding an engineering effort that was first begun in the early 2000s by then-Gov. Mike Leavitt.
Warnock cautioned that failing to train the talent demanded by the state's burgeoning tech sector could work to derail the effort.5 comments on this story
"Innovation is the heart of these companies' successes," Warnock said. "And, to keep driving the research and work to power innovation, you need exceptional engineers and computer scientists."
When asked, while on stage at the tech summit, what guidance he'd offer to Utah's new crop of technology pioneers, Warnock offered this advice:
"Build a business that you would work for," he said. "The way you treat employees is incredibly important.
"And always hire people that are smarter than you are."