History & Future of Tech in South Florida
11 min read
On February 28, South Florida Tech Hub held an event about the history and future of tech in South Florida featuring nine speakers from the tech industry.
The event was held at the Boca Raton Innovation Campus, also known as BRIC, which is the birthplace of the first personal computer. BRIC was developed by IBM in the late 1960s as its North American Research and Development facility, and it has been upgraded significantly since then. The campus is the largest single-facility office complex in the state, covering 1.7 million square feet.
Origins of the PC
The event started with a keynote by Dr. Dave Bradley, one of the twelve engineers who worked on the original IBM PC. He is famously known for developing the computer's ROM BIOS code and for implementing the "Control-Alt-Delete" key combination used to reboot the computer. In his speech, he shared insights on early IBM marketing, the release of the first personal computer, working with Bill Gates, and other significant inventions.
Dr. Dave started working at IBM in 1978, on the DataMaster, the precursor to the IBM Personal Computer. He shared struggles that the team had when members of the corporate team tried to help, which delayed the release of the DataMaster until July of 1981.
One month later, the IBM PC was released. Dr. Dave showcased the inside of the PC, with 64 kilobytes of memory.
Dr. Dave described the time that he helped with a sales pitch to the Rose Hulman Institute of Technology, aiming to convince them to use personal computers as part of their instruction. They showed a demo program allowing the user to pick a song, which is then played on the two-and-a-quarter-inch speaker. However, there were 30 people in the room. They came up with the idea to plug in a guitar amplifier into the cassette cord. Then, no matter what song the user chooses, The Stars and Stripes Forever is played. They made the sale.
With the original IBM PC, anything additional required plugging in an adapter. One adapter was the color graphics adapter, with a 320 by 200-pixel color display (about the size of an icon today). It came with a demonstration game called Donkey, where a car would move up a road and the user would have to switch lanes to either hit or miss the donkey. Dr. Dave remarked that there is some disagreement about that. Bill Gates wrote the Donkey game program.
During testing of the IBM PC, Dr. Dave frequently had to power the computer off, wait a few seconds, and turn it back on. As a result, he decided to make a shortcut: CTRL + ALT + DELETE. This was never supposed to be used in production, but then the publications team found out about it. They were trying to tell people how to start up a program, and they found the answer with the keyboard shortcut. It took Dr. Dave five minutes to create and has since become an essential element of the user experience and even a "cultural icon". Dr. Dave added that there is a CTRL + ALT + DELETE pillow set, and there was even a snow plow named after the keyboard shortcut (Ctrl Salt Delete) during Minnesota's Name a Snowplow contest. CTRL + ALT + DELETE was also featured on Jeopardy twice.
After the success of the IBM PC, thousands of IBM employees started working on the PS/2 family of products in Boca Raton. They took up so much office space, and even expanded into the Boca Raton mall where a department store went out of business. Dr. Dave remarked that IBM filled all of Boca Raton in order to get the PC developed.
Then, the event held two panel discussions, which focused on the history and future of South Florida's tech ecosystem. These featured some of the trailblazers of modern technology.
History of Technology
The history of technology panel was moderated by Pete Martinez, former IBM executive and founder of Sivotec and RaiseLink, and featured speakers Chris Fleck, a former IBM executive and Vice President and Tech Fellow at Citrix, Maria Hernandez, a former Chief Innovation Officer-LATAM at IBM and CEO of InnoGuia, and Nick Savage, a former Senior NLS Developer at IBM, entrepreneur, and Digital Inclusion Director at CPSF. Each speaker transformed from working at IBM to being executives in new companies.
Hernandez was a developer on IBM's airline reservation system in 1985, which, believe it or not, is still in use as a main system today. She also served as the technical assistant to the senior vice president of research. Her job was to help take research projects to the market faster. Hernandez helped train the voice control in cars' natural language processing algorithm.
Hernandez also created innovation agendas for clients from Latin America and consulted about the value proposition of integrating emerging technology into clients' businesses. She worked with Modernizing Medicine to introduce IBM Watson and AI to the healthcare industry.
Savage worked to sell the DataMaster in 1984 as a summer job while studying AI at the University of Wisconsin. He was then recruited to be Senior Systems Engineer & Product Manager helping to develop the disk operating system (DOS) and modernize the keyboard into a software app. Savage remarked that he knew he was at the forefront of something great. He helped design SQL (Structured Query Language), and all the products building off of the operating system. Savage was in biweekly meetings with Bill Gates, Steven Ballmer, and Paul Allen.
Savage was asked to escort the IBM Personal Computer AT to its announcement in New York. The AT computers took up three first-class seats.
Fleck was a Business Unit Executive at IBM, working on mainframe manufacturing. Fleck turned a lot of IBM technology into commercial offerings, such as IBM branded robots and industrial computers.
Martinez described the innovative department of IBM working long hours on the original PCs. The department was given special permission from IBM to break the rules, to not conform to the old standard of five years of product development and three years of testing. They became a favorite of the company, which came with respect, but also responsibility. Failure was not an option.
Martinez used the RISC chip (reduced instruction set computing), which was very fast, allowing a PC to act like a supercomputer. He and his team worked with the Center for Missing and Exploited Children to do the age progression of children who had been missing for years. This process would take around two weeks for a skilled agent to do manually, but the IBM team reduced this to about an hour. This led to an increase from a 46% to a 78% recovery rate in a year.
Future of Technology
The future of technology panel was moderated by Martinez and featured speakers Vanessa Michelini, a former Distinguished Engineer and Chief Technologist at IBM, and Senior Director of Engineering at Natera, Mark Smith, a former VP and Senior Partner at IBM and President of OZ Digital Consulting, and Ania Rodriguez, a former UX Consultant at IBM and CEO of JourneyTrack.
During the panels, they discussed the biggest contributions of South Florida's tech industry, the largest enterprises, the coolest startups, and companies that made an impact in the industry.
After working at IBM, Martinez decided to dedicate his next stage in life to improving the human condition, primarily in health and education. He created a number of companies, primarily in the AI space, starting with biotech and genomics.
Martinez was a founder of the original group that switched from the hardware to software business. Therefore, he was able to hire many smart people, mostly with MBAs. Martinez remarked that he would not have gotten a job in the business if he had to apply, because he did not have an MBA.
Martinez remarked that his success was a result of leadership and the ability to assemble a team, create a business, and create and drive a significant product to market. Having a technology background and surrounding himself with subject matter experts in the sciences also led to his success.
Martinez also co-founded a fintech company called RaiseLink, which uses a matching engine to link investors with startup opportunities, supported by AI technology.
Michelini worked on applying speech recognition technology to the industry at IBM before moving on to the genomics space. She worked on a project called Watson Genomics, which focused on using artificial intelligence and data analytics to interpret genomics in clinical oncology. Michelini fell in love with the mission of helping people through the combination of biology and technology. She joined Natera, a company dedicated to using genomics to interpret oncology, prenatal care, and organ transplants, after leaving IBM.
Rodriguez started at IBM in 2000, where she worked on building user experience and front-end interfaces, which she excelled at, particularly in accounts that were struggling with their technology. She also mentioned being part of a program for top ten women at IBM, which allowed her to meet many influential people. Rodriguez started her own consulting firm, which ended up being one of South Florida's top women-led businesses. Rodriguez's firm works with Fortune 500 companies to help optimize their digital transformations by focusing on the strategy behind it, rather than the design.
Rodriguez also shared her recent successful venture into SaaS (Software as a service) product creation. However, she has had some difficulties with fundraising, particularly as a woman in the industry.
During his time at IBM, Smith worked in the management consulting group and focused on digital transformation, using artificial intelligence. He also worked on commercializing Watson's natural language processing capabilities to help clients digitize unstructured data in the insurance industry.
During Smith's first project with Watson, he had to help collect and clean up 110 million pages of information about insurance, such as regulations and products, to feed into an algorithm. It took his team 16 weeks, but the same could be done today in around two weeks. The main struggle was to attain trust in the data and algorithm. They had to allow the insurance underwriters the ability to find the page that each piece of data came from.
Now with OZ Digital Consulting, Smith works with startups to help them leverage emerging technologies and solve business gaps. Smith believes that startups are often at the forefront of innovation and offer valuable insights on how to use emerging technologies. He remarks that there are constant changes in the industry, and companies should no longer wait, they should innovate with emerging technologies.
IBM holds thousands of patents, which generate around $3 billion per year. They do not need to build products anymore, instead, they license them. Therefore, IBM technology is used extensively behind the scenes. Martinez made a patent called siesta mode, which turns off the monitor when it is not used for a period of time. He stresses the importance of documenting and protecting personal ideas. Michelini also worked on IBM patents with Martinez, and she held the title of master inventor.
Some well-known IBM patents include the bar code, technology in ATMs, Lasik surgery, and the ability to change a phone's orientation.
Original IBM PC
The Boca Raton Historical Society exhibited a working original IBM personal computer at the event.
Brian Callanan from Callanan Financial Advocates opened with a sponsor message.
Callanan arrived in South Florida in July of 1995 and was initially drawn to Fort Lauderdale as a college student due to its reputation as the spring break capital of the world. He later returned to the area after a couple of years of freezing in Boston, seeking a warmer climate and better opportunities.
At the time, the internet and technology industry was rapidly evolving, with companies like Microsoft, Craigslist, Match.com, Amazon, and eBay emerging as major players. Only 12 million people, or 3% of Americans, had logged onto the World Wide Web at that time.
Callanan initially sold telephone systems, voicemail, and data networks before getting involved in the technology community. He was introduced to an organization by a direct competitor and began attending meetings with a small group of like-minded individuals to stay on top of the latest developments. As the group grew in size and influence, Callanan became increasingly involved in regional technology initiatives, eventually serving as president of the South Florida Telecom Forum.
Callanan discussed the importance of private businesses working with universities to build a curriculum that would educate individuals for jobs. During COVID, Callanan wrote a book titled "Women, Widows and Wealth" aimed at business owners who want to sell their businesses. His research showed that 80% of business owners who sought to sell their businesses did not find a buyer. Of the 20% that did, 75% of them regretted the experience. Callanan attributes this to a lack of education among financial advisors on how to handle the sale of businesses. To address this issue, Callanan developed a program called Chief Exec Officer to bring information to business owners on how to sell their businesses and avoid regrettable experiences.
Callanan shared some insights on the current market trends for platform acquisitions. Private equity firms are the main financiers in this space and are actively seeking businesses in the tech and skilled labor sectors. Callanan emphasized the importance of having scalable, bankable profits and transferable value for companies to be considered exit-ready. He also mentioned the importance of effective communication among professionals to avoid costly mistakes. In addition, Callanan encouraged a regional approach to promoting South Florida as a tech hub, highlighting the potential benefits for all businesses in the area.
The event was a great success, and attendees had the opportunity to learn about the journey of South Florida's tech industry, its pioneers, and its future.