From original nighttime hacker to venture capital success:
At home with Thomas Jermoluk
By Christina D. French '98, M.A. '01
It's not easy to get in touch with communications mogul Thomas Jermoluk (computer science '78; M.S. '79), former CEO and chairman of leading Internet services provider Excite@Home. His interview with Virginia Tech
Magazine was delayed, then interrupted,
and Jermoluk, now a partner with the venture capital firm Kleiner
Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPC&B), was apologetic, explaining that at his
office one never knows what's going to happen next.
Yet Jermoluk has always known what was next for his career, which has
run the gamut from self-professed "original nighttime hacker" to corporate CEO
to venture capital success story. His focus
on technology began in Hawaii under the tutelage of
his 11th-grade math teacher, who had him writing
programs and renting time at night from the only computer
available for public use. Jermoluk continued that late-night
tradition at Virginia Tech as a part of what he describes as the
night-owl computer culture in McBryde Hall.
Although a major in computer science was fairly new at Tech--the program was instituted in 1970--the university's substantial technological advantages of having the right equipment and grants made it a natural choice for Jermoluk. In addition, the computer science department was very communicative with electrical engineeringnot many schools in the '70s could boast that kind of progressive technological curriculum, he says.
His experience at Tech prepared him well for
the adventures to follow. After graduation, Jermoluk went on to manage a variety
of hardware and software development projects, first in research at Bell
Labs, then at Hewlett-Packard. He moved forward at his next position with
Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI) when its CEO asked him to head up a project to beat
Hewlett- Packard to an advance in graphics processing. Within four years, he
became the president and chief operating officer, overseeing more than 11,000
employees. At SGI, he was behind the formation of
breakthrough products and successful mergers.
His accomplishments didn't go unnoticed, and he
was named CEO and chairman by @Home, where he was responsible for rapid growth and
pioneering the largest merger in Internet history when
the company banded together with Excite, a leading web portal, in 1999.
Jermoluk is an adaptable guy after all those career moves. And he has to be--he works with technology, sometimes a fortunate friend, but also, all too often, an unforgiving and fickle foe. In the world of e-business, dot-com industries are born and fold every day. To counteract the capriciousness of the business, Jermoluk maintains a firm dedication to his work. He resents those who disparage "workaholics," noting that if you have passion for something, you should devote
your time to it.
And that's exactly what he does at KPC&B. Many wondered about Jermoluk's move from CEO of a leading provider of cable Internet to a venture capital firm. But Jermoluk, who left in May 2000 shortly after AT&T gained control at Excite@Home by purchasing Tele-Communications Inc., explains, "I'm a little-company guy; it's a more comfortable environment for me. Startups are high risk, high return. There's no one else to fight, you can move quickly, and you don't have to convince big company bureaucracy to do what you think best."
He had his share of debates at Excite@Home. The public tension between Jermoluk and AT&T's Leo Hindery centered on the direction each man wanted to see Excite@Home take. Hindery advised the company to concentrate more on building "pipes"--the cable infrastructure--and allying with the other web portals, such as Yahoo and America Online; Jermoluk didn't want to build pipes without providing content.
Today, at KPC&B, he works with eight different startups, and because of his background, his duties with the firm tend to be highly technical, early stage stuff: "two guys and a garage." Some of KPC&B's more high-profile clients include America Online, Netscape Communications, and Amazon.com. "There is no typical day here," he says, laughing when an unexpected interruption emphasizes the statement.
His present lack of free time sweetens his memories of
Tech, and he expressed an earnest desire to go tubing again on
the New River in the sultry Southwest Virginia heat. He
remembers Virginia Tech and the surrounding area fondly, commenting,
"I had a ball there." At Tech, he says, he could always do
something outdoors, while in the Silicon Valley, he's struggling to find
time to get his golf game back. Besides providing a relaxing,
sporting-friendly environment, Tech also offered the strong sense
of community he had grown up with and had come to prefer
Stereotype has it that hackers are loners, yet camaraderie
has always been important to Jermoluk, who notes that many
Hokies reside in the Silicon Valley. His loyalty to Tech manifests
itself in business, too--he jokes that he never fails to "give UVa.
grads a hard time during interviews."
Jermoluk says that forming close relationships with
faculty members while in college added to the sense of community
he has always appreciated and that was an integral part of
his success at Tech. He notes that computer science
professors Rex Hartson and John (J.A.N) Lee took the time to
help him apply for grants and conduct research and
frequently offered him advice.
In turn, Jermoluk offers some advice for fellow Hokies thinking about or already chasing the dot-com dream: "If you're in the business, or thinking of it, choose a proven leader--look for a great management team, no matter
what your business. Capital markets come and go, and change
is rapid," he says, "but a talented manager is able to
shift direction and help navigate companies to success."
Jermoluk also advises fellow Hokies that "We've yet
to tap technology's potential with communication.
The lesson I've learned over and over is that the application
of computers for people to talk to one another has only