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America’s best kept software secret

Zafar Anjum | Aug. 15, 2014
Interview with Jack Dangermond, global technology innovator, billion dollar entrepreneur and head of the world's 6th largest privately owned software company, ESRI.

Jack Dangermond

Jack Dangermond, founder and president, Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI)

Jack Dangermond calls his company Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) America's best kept software secret. He says this because even though his company is the world's largest mapping software maker, it is not a household name like Microsoft or Google. The company was founded in California in 1969, way before any of the Microsofts or Googles of the world came into existence. Without borrowing a single penny from any bank or venture capitalist, Dangermond turned a US$1,100 investment into the world's largest mapping software company worth US$1.4 billion. Today, ESRI has hundreds of thousands of customers all over the world, including federal agencies, health departments, schools, and land management agencies.

When I met Dangermond in Singapore for an interview sometime ago, he came across as someone who could engage you in a very short time. I was primarily fascinated by his background and his entrepreneurial abilities. The son of a gardener, his parents owned a plants nursery.  At the age of sixteen, he started running a crew in the nursery, and from there he went on to found the world's largest mapping software company, ESRI, after studying environmental science at Cal State Polytechnic, urban planning at U. of Minnesota, and landscape architecture at Harvard. How did that happen?

"I grew up in a family that had a nursery," Dangermond narrated his family history matter-of-factly. "We grew plants. My parents were immigrants to the U.S. and we all grew up planting things and selling things in this nursery. They worked hard to put both myself and my brothers through college.  And all of us went into the field of landscape architecture, of which I was the third in a row. During the 60s, computers were just starting to emerge and a field that I became interested in was not landscaping, but landscape - meaning, landscape as a noun, like in geography. To be able to do landscape analysis and landscape planning, we use maps extensively. At that time, I went to a laboratory because I was interested in it, at Harvard. It was an experimental lab for automating geography and automating cartography and doing spatial analysis. And I became interested in that."

While he was educated as a designer, he said he got attracted to quantitative methods and science-geography as a foundation for doing design. "After I graduated, I decided to go back to California (Redlands) and start this organization," he said, referring to founding of ESRI, "first by applying some of those computer mapping tools to problem solving in the environmental and land use planning, and later on in business decision making. And for ten years, did a kind of consulting. Practice using these software tools that I had worked on at Harvard but then during those periods, we evolved the tools to get better and better. After about ten years, a lot of my customers who are planning organizations, businesses, or agencies, were interested in getting their hands on the software I was using. And that time the software was not productized. It was basically a homemade software that we had used for professional practice. We made a strategic decision to invest in taking all of our resources and building it."


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