Cleveland is a technology hub, and from my perspective, we have been one for many years.
I’m going to begin by admitting to all and sundry that I am not a native Clevelander. I grew up in a small town in the southwestern part of Connecticut. I learned to be an engineer on the heels of my father. My love for technology began on the East Coast, but it is only in Cleveland that it has really flourished and taken root.
My father always held a variety of interesting engineering jobs. He’s had top-secret military contracts, worked for the NYSE, patented early imaging technology, developed food/automation systems, and even worked for a game development company for a time. His career peaked during the 1970s and 1980s, and he was the type who would always bring his work home with him. His work fascinated me and opened up a whole world of possibilities and ideas.
In Connecticut, I was encouraged by my father and family to pursue this interest from a very young age. My father allowed me to ‘play’ with his homemade computer from about the time I was 6 years old. It ran an operating system called CP/M (Control Program for Microcomputers), and had a directory structure of USER1-USER10. I was given USER6, and in the USER6 directroy was my very first computer game — The Colossal Cave Adventure. Our first home personal computer looked very much like the one Matthew Broderick used in War Games.
By 12, I had my own homemade DOS computer which ran all of the old Infocom games, and BASIC. It also had a modem, which, well, that was the beginning of the end for me. I was going to be an engineer, and I was going to make technology sing.
In Connecticut, I found local FidoNet bulletin boards. From there, I branched out to usenet, and the early internet, such as it was. But it wasn’t until my father took a job with Picker International and my family moved to Cleveland, Ohio when I was 16 that the world of technology really opened up to me.
Cleveland is unique in that we have a special place in the history of social media, the internet, and online communities as a whole. Cleveland was the birthplace of The Cleveland Freenet, envisioned and championed by a personal hero of mine, Dr. Tom Grundner. The Cleveland Freenet was a project that had its roots in medicine and community health care. In 1984, Dr. Tom Grundner and others from the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine launched St. Silicon’s Hospital; a free medical bulletin board system designed to connect people with healthcare professionals. It was a truly free and publicly accessible medical information system, as anybody with a computer and a modem could post questions that were answered by the medical staff at Case Western Reserve University.
It was an idea that was easily two decades ahead of its time, and it would draw all sorts of interest from early internet pioneers. Technological innovation in Cleveland has often had its roots in medicine; our first foray into the online world was no different.
Eventually, the Cleveland Freenet would grow out of St. Silicon’s Hospital, as what started as a medical advice bulletin board grew to contain forums on all sorts of topics, and eventually, an early Internet Relay Chat (IRC) client and pathway out to the greater internet as a whole. Once logged into the Cleveland Freenet, you could connect to any number of early internet connected systems, running all kinds of early community based software. Universities often had publicly accessible servers running MUDs and MUSHes — community programmed and maintained text based predecessors of the large, modern MMORPGS that have become a highly lucrative industry today. Because of Cleveland’s public access to the internet through the Cleveland Freenet — access which, at the time, was restricted to universities, businesses and government — a number of early developers and engineers were connected and sharing ideas globally, way before Stack Exchange, YouTube and Wikipedia.
It was through a connection I made on the Cleveland Freenet that I found my first job in Cleveland as a web developer. I had the great pleasure to work for Ron Copfer at Copfer and Associates. Ron is an industry pioneer who has had an exceptional career in technology in the city of Cleveland. In the late 1990s, if you searched for ‘web development’ on Yahoo or Google in Netscape Navigator, The Cleveland-based Copfer and Associates would float to the very top of the list.
It was very easy to fool those search engines back in the early days of the world wide web. By repeating the key words you wanted the spiders to index in a really, really small and invisible font on the very bottom of the page, you could fool the search engines into indexing your website at the very top of the search results. It was a hack that brought our little Cleveland based web development firm to the attention of Microsoft, where we had the opportunity to present a project involving early active server pages and Microsoft NetShow – a predecessor to Microsoft Media Player.
Because of the attention that Copfer and Associates and other similar Cleveland based web development firms received at that time, little internet based start up companies began to spring up all over the city of Cleveland. Most of them failed, but for a period of time Cleveland had more internet based businesses than any other city west of New York and east of Chicago.
Cleveland also has a rich technology history in its media and news organizations. Cleveland.com was one of the first community based websites to incorporate articles from the Associated Press and the local newspaper/news outlets. Cleveland.com also had a rich online community forum, local movie listings, and a community maintained recipe database. All of which were new and innovative ideas that sprouted roots in Cleveland.
The people that worked for Cleveland.com in the late 90s/early 2000s are still connected today. All of them are holding influential positions in the industry. One of those former Cleveland.com employees has gone on to be a global leader in IT.
What makes Cleveland special in IT is that we are truly a community of like minded individuals with great resources, great history, and a shared passion for what we do. We remember everyone we’ve worked with and everything we have learned along the way.
Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to become one of the Women Who Code Cleveland Directors, and I’ve been able to meet and learn from other female engineers through our Cleveland branch of Women Who Code. We have a great IT community here in Cleveland; it is an honor to be part of it.
When I read articles like this one claiming that Cleveland could be the next technology hub, I would like to remind everyone that Cleveland has always been a technology hub — we’ve just kept it on the down low.