On high-tech's frontier: Engineering grad Lent shares story

Computer Science and Engineering grad at the forefront of high-tech industry history

10/5/2012 - By: John Trent
Brian Lent with arms folded Brian Lent, the University's 1993 Herz Gold Medalist, returned to campus on Friday to talk about his pioneering career in the high-tech industry.

College of Engineering graduate Brian Lent has had a front-row seat throughout some of the most memorable moments in high-tech history, from the founding of a strangely named business that sounds more like a yodel, "Yahoo," and another that misspelled its name "Google" when it should have been "Googol."

Today, the University of Nevada, Reno's 1993 Herz Gold Medal recipient knows that all of it, from being on the high-tech industry frontier to becoming one of the industry's key figures, can be traced back to decisions he made when Lent graduated from Reed High School in Sparks in 1989. Lent graduated from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering.

"Do you want to be a small fish in a big sea?" Lent asked a group of students, staff and faculty who gathered on the third floor of the Scrugham Engineering Building during the noon hour on Friday to listen to his talk, "Thoughts and Lessons Learned: From UNR to Stanford to High-Tech Startups and Cloud Computing."

"UNR, for me, was a place where I felt I could do my best to be a big fish in a smaller sea," Lent said.

Lent, who on Thursday evening was presented with this year's Professional Achievement Alumni Award, said the University met all the criteria he had set for his undergraduate experience, paving the way for what has happened over the past 19 years.

He said he found favorable and friendly faculty/student classroom ratios, as well as something more regarding the faculty.

"They were interested and they cared, and that made a big difference," Lent said of the College of Engineering's faculty.

He said he found a key mentor in Walt Johnson, who was associate dean of the College of Engineering. As Lent related a story of a meeting he had with Johnson early on during his academic career at Nevada, Lent's voice broke and he apologized as he grew emotional.

"Walt told me, 'You'll get out of your education what you put into it,'" Lent said. He smiled and composed himself. He added, "UNR really gave me the opportunity to think about (education) in that context."

Lent was also a member of the University's Honors Program. When he was awarded the Herz Gold Medal, presented each year to the institution's finest graduate, Lent said, "It was really cool to stand up on the stage with President Joe Crowley. I had a 4.0, and it came through a lot of hard work, but I couldn't have achieved it at another school ... this was a school where I felt this closeness."

While in graduate school at Stanford University - Lent was recipient of a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship and a Department of Defense Naval Research Graduate Fellowship - Lent said he first felt "railroaded" by the demands and the caliber of the students he shared classes with.

"It was just crazy," he said. "You had the top graduate students from places like China and India ... it was just very challenging."

Lent, who described himself as "tenacious" quickly rose to the challenge. He began to realize that his fellow graduate students weren't just talented, they were also ambitious.

Through classwork and his own skills, Lent soon was finding that he was in the middle of what was one of the most fertile, imaginative and productive periods in the history of the high-tech world. He was offered work from a couple of graduate students who were founding a company called "Yahoo." Although it was tempting, Lent said he was, at the time, seeking something "more industrial and robust."

Plus, he added with a smile, drawing laughs from his audience, at the time "you could not pay me enough money in the world to go work for a company named 'Yahoo.'"

Lent was attracted to database systems, believing that "there was more red meat behind it." It was early 1994, the concept of data mining was still in its infancy, and along with a fellow graduate student, Sergey Brin, the two formed the "MIDAS" (Mining Data at Stanford) team in Stanford's database graduate studies group.

The two used Stanford's Intranet to find associations between web pages, and soon they added another computer science graduate student, Larry Page, along with a professor, Rajeev Motwani. The lab eventually incubated the Google crawler and search engine.

In 1995 the team created the budding business, "Google," which was meant to be spelled "Googol" in recognition of the mathematics term for one times 10 to the 100th power.

It wasn't until "Google" was being shopped to growing young companies like Yahoo and Alta Vista that they discovered they'd been misspelling their own company's name.

"We didn't know this, literally, for years," Lent said with a sheepish grin. "It wasn't until one of those guys (from Yahoo and Alta Vista) said, 'Hey, by the way, the name of your company is misspelled.'

"But by then, it was too late."

It was ironic, too, given how history has played out. Brin and Page's original asking price for the Google -- $1 million - seems like mere pennies today.

Of course, Lent added, it was a company that although it was on the cusp of changing the high-tech industry forever, was nevertheless a company founded by graduate students, young people still in many ways maturing, one of whom (Brin) who would "roll into class with roller blades."

As Google worked to monetize, Lent struck out on his own. He was the first employee of Junglee, based in Seattle, which was the first company to launch an Internet shopping search and recommendation engine. Junglee and Lent eventually found the orbit of Amazon's Jeff Bezos, who purchased Junglee for $230 million in 1998.

"Jeff Bezos wanted to transform Amazon to be the one place where anywhere in the world, people could buy anything," Lent said. "Jeff's vision was to be a data-driven organization and be the one place to find, discover and buy anything online." Lent said even though he had doubts about Seattle's weather - "As you all know, we have 300 days a year of sunlight in Reno, and I thought it probably rained too much in Seattle" - the opportunity to "work in the world's largest data mining sandbox" was too great to pass up.

"It was really cool," Lent said, "a great experience."

He said he learned an important lesson from his time with Junglee, and with working with Bezos.

"Think about where you want to be employed and think about the culture that really must exude what you want," he said. He also said another lesson he's learned is to learn from failure: "If you're not having enough failures, you're not pushing yourself hard enough."

Since 2004, Lent has been chairman and CTO of his own company, Medio, which is based in Seattle. He said Medio's mission is based on what he has seen in his near-20-year career in the high-tech industry, that "mobile will be and is the next great computer paradigm."

Lent said this is proven each day. He said data that is collected through mobile sources is unique, that mobile is a much more personal device than a PC and that, "with screens that are 95 percent smaller, the need for personalization is high." Finally, all of this is grounded in one of the first things Lent found attractive about his computer science studies, namely, that data was everything - a precious commodity with an almost limitless value.

"Data is the new gold, the new oil," he said.

Today Medio has more than 100 employees, with 80 percent of its work focused on R&D, with 150 million users in the company's networks, which process 1.2 billion analytic events each day.

Although it has been nearly 20 years since he graduated from the University, it was obvious from Friday's talk that Lent clearly has a warm spot in his heart for his alma mater.

"'Let the love of learning rule mankind' was the oath I took when I graduated from UNR,'" Lent said of the words he spoke when he became part of Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society. "It's something I've never forgotten."

Then he turned to the packed classroom, the majority of which were computer science students.

 "All of you have a tremendous opportunity no matter what you do," he said. He counseled the students to "proceed with honor" and "give it your all." And then, perhaps remembering a long-ago conversation with a University faculty member who cared, Lent added that "you will get out of your endeavors what you choose to put into it."

It was evident, based on the things Brian Lent has done and will do in the future, that he had heeded those words as well as anyone ever could.


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