The Daily Transcript | December 22, 2004
Z Microsystems CEO motivated by lifelong drive to build unmatched products
Jack Wade's business began like so many in technology: on the kitchen table tinkering with parts and ideas to solve problems.
The chief executive of San Diego-based data storage and computer display company Z Microsystems worked in this manner for years, tending to the needs of his customers one by one as a self-described "Lone Wolf" systems engineer. Eventually he developed the removable hard drive, a central feature of which was encryption.
That was about 18 years ago. And the government wasn't all that interested -- at least not in encryption. Wade's federal customers were quite taken with his removable hard drive, however, which enables ultra secretive departments in the military and intelligence communities to gather the essential computer hardware at the end of the day and lock it up for safekeeping. No more secrets laying about in cubicles waiting to be downloaded by traitors and spies disguised as cleaning crews.
Wade, surprised by the response, learned an important lesson about product development.
"It doesn't matter what you want to do," he said. "It's what they want to do. What are they trying to do and how can you help them do it?"
The lesson led to a motto of sorts that drives Z Microsystems' product development today. "No Me Too Stuff."
Translation? You don't want to be the guy on the street corner peddling useless things. That pitiful situation can be avoided by designing systems that solve real problems for individual customers. Wade's Sorrento Mesa office is really more of a workshop tangled in wires, circuitry and dry erase boards scribbled with a cryptic engineering language. He described the satisfaction of standing at the entrance of a tradeshow and asking himself, "What would blow them away?"
It's an entrepreneurship that has driven him since boyhood, when as a fourth and fifth grader he built flower boxes so he could sell them to neighbors. In high school, he tried to solve a rampant neighborhood problem: stray dogs that knocked over trashcans, spilling spoiled food and household remnants onto the street. Wade lured the dogs to his house by spreading ground beef around his own trash and then photographed the entire spectacle. Call it raw marketing. He used the photos to pitch his garbage stand invention. It didn’t sell, but neighbors did buy his other product, which he happened to carry along. It was a wooden yard sign that clearly displayed their address and, sometimes, their name.
In those days, door-to-door encyclopedia and pots and pan salesmen were like rock stars, at least to a young man eager to hone his salesmanship. "I thought they were the real hotshots," Wade said.
That admiration wasn't transferred to the dot-com sales executives of the 1990s. Wade shows an evident disdain for some of that crowd whose motivations he found questionable. Personal enrichment and Wall Street, Wade suspected. By comparison, Z Microsystems, like its products, is built for the customer.
That focus earned the company an industrial design excellence award in 2002 when its 1U Command Console S Model -- built for the military as a sort of war zone laptop -- caught the eye of BusinessWeek and the Industrial Designers Society of America. Z Microsystems was the only defense supplier among 174 winners selected from 1,265 entries.
Those handy removable hard drives are still a central factor in Z Microsystems core business.
Among the offshoots is the recently released 7X Z MPU, a ruggedized multiple processor unit designed to provide field-ready computing to an on-the-go military. The Z MPU enables military units to carry up to seven separate operating systems, hard drives and related software within a single tidy case that allows for easy swapping and upgrades. The removable hard drives pop out and can be easily stored in one’s pants pocket. Assuming your pants were government issued.
The tinkering of Wade and his staff of about 65 led to forays in medical imaging and digital video. The former resulted in the spin off of Zmed Inc., which was sold to Varian Medical Systems (NYSE: VAR) last year for $35.5 million in cash. Z Microsystems received a share. ZViDEO will likely become its own company in time. The technology enables customers to continuously collect digitized video in real-time, a task that becomes more daunting as the volume of available data grows. Video is everywhere, Wade notes, it is in conferencing, telephones and in continuous streams from satellites. Managing that data efficiently is a big job.
It's a long way from the punch cards Wade honed his programming skills on as an accounting student at Indiana State University. Computers were rare in the mid-1960s when Wade, still a student, got his first real programming job at Columbia Records and later joined the university staff after it bought its first computer. He was enamored and set out to become the "world's greatest programmer."
Building a company
Years later, Wade developed a close bond with Sun Microsystems (NYSE: SUNW) when he began using their Unix operating system to develop integrated systems that he resold to federal customers, particularly in aerospace. Wade attributes his success as a lifelong freelancer in an arena dominated by corporate giants to persistence. It's how he sold his yard signs and how he built up Z Microsystems.
"How do you start a business?" Wade asks. "Bottom line to it is you find a customer, and then you go take care of that customer."
Even with the company's successful product line, Wade is still tinkering away. Voter fraud is a problem he'd like to solve. The vision so far includes biometrics to ward of cheats -- the identifier can be disassociated with a name to protect privacy -- as well as real-time online voting at home or at bank kiosks. The idea would eliminate the need to vote on a single day and give voters a chance to change their minds, Wade suggests.
"Why should you have to vote on one day?" he asks. He's equally frustrated by the inefficiency of the mammoth election-day system that produces long lines and uncertainty over whether a vote was actually counted.
"That's solvable," Wade said. "Why don't we fix that?"
About Z Microsystems, Inc.
Z Microsystems is the leading supplier of "field-ready" deployable computing solutions designed to meet the rigorous requirements of military and government users. Z Microsystems' field-ready commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products include flat panel displays, computers, and storage systems are considered to be a superset to traditional MIL-STD equipment. Z Microsystems also develops ZViDEO, a sophisticated multimedia news system with the ability to capture, monitor, index, search, and retrieve video assets in real-time.