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From Laid-off Engineer To Successful Startup CEO: Michelle Munson of Aspera (Part 2)

Posted on Friday, Jan 2nd 2009

SM: How large did the ISP become?

MM: It was not very impressive. It had 700–800 subscribers and was entirely local. It was nothing like a serious business. We sold it because there was clearly no future with it.

SM: But you learned?

MM: Absolutely! It was an intersection between business and a community service project for a rural community that would not otherwise have access [to the Internet]. There were 10 people who helped fund it and get it put together. I volunteered my time to work on it. The second part was it introduced me to an entirely new world. I ended up coming out to ISP CON here in San Jose. I took that time to visit Stanford and Berkeley. It just whetted my appetite for my future.

I then went to Cambridge for a year and did a really neat program there in computer science. It was what you would expect it to be. A year abroad at Cambridge and computer science, which I had not done much of; as an undergrad I had take a couple of programming classes but nothing serious. It was intellectually challenging, and I also had the opportunity to live in England.

SM: Up to that point you had been in Kansas City the whole time?

MM: Yes. I had traveled quite a bit growing up and had been to lots of different summer programs. My parents traveled internationally, but we had never lived anywhere else. My master’s thesis advisor was a young guy who had started a company. I considered joining his company before I came back to California. It was really by circumstance that I got a job with IBM at a research center and had to decide between that and staying in England to work with that company.

I wanted to come to Silicon Valley, so I moved out here in 1998. That is essentially what led to where I worked. That led to the areas I now have expertise in, and ultimately it led to Aspera getting launched.

SM: What happened in 1998? IBM was not where the action was.

MM: What an apt question. I stayed a year and a few months. On my last day we had a town hall meeting. The theme was about retaining people. I was shrinking in my chair as the speaker was giving this lecture. My cohorts were looking at me because they knew it was my last day. My time there was a great transition to Silicon Valley. It is how I got my next two jobs. It is also how I got introduced to the technology/intellectual community that I would consider my peer group. I ended up doing conferences and retreats with the Berkeley Systems Group. I met folks from the Stanford Systems Group. I was young enough that they treated me like a grad student of their own, and I got to know a lot of key people.

The first job I had was at a startup founded by one of the professors at Berkeley who I met through that group. I got recruited into it as an engineer.

SM: What did they do?

MM: An application layer multicast product that was ultimately implemented into appliances. It was positioned at that point, 1999-2000, as providing high scalability streaming support. The twist on that technology is that it is interesting straight out of application level multicast, but it was before its time. The audience was not there. It was designed to support hundreds of thousands of concurrent streams.

This was one of my first realizations of the gap between concept and reality. I often got sent to customers, and one of the election events I covered had fewer than 300 viewers. It was way before its time.

This segment is part 2 in the series : From Laid-off Engineer To Successful Startup CEO: Michelle Munson of Aspera
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