The tale behind Rosenthal’s career arc — he is just 31 — is a fascinating look at a different category of one-percenters: gifted software engineers who write their own ticket.
It’s also about initiative, networking and another key ingredient of most success stories: practice, practice, practice.
Several TJ grads have teamed together the past few years to launch start-ups on the East Coast: Yext, five TJ classmates from Class of 1998; kSplice, bought by Oracle last year; Visual Sciences, now part of Adobe; and Rosenthal’s current effort, FoundationDB — DB standing for database.
Some of the start-ups nested in Washington, where computer engineers are a bit easier to find than in hyper-competitive Silicon Valley, home to Google and Facebook.
“There are a lot of great, talented, highly educated engineers here who are working at not very dynamic jobs like government or government-connected institutions,” Rosenthal said. Unlike Silicon Valley, “there’s not the fierce competition with start-ups here.”
Rosenthal hit his first home run at 25, when Visual Sciences, founded by a buddy from his pre-calculus class at TJ, was acquired in 2006 by Web analytics provider WebSideStory for $57 million.
Rosenthal was one of Visual Sciences first employees. He sold his stock in the company and promptly went out and bought a Porsche Cayman. Smartly — thanks to his father, an economist — he ploughed the rest of his windfall into conservative investments, such as a house and index funds.
He’s not set for life, but the money provided him with enough breathing room to be highly selective about his next project. That turned out to be FoundationDB, where four of the seven employees are — you guessed it — TJ alums.
“All these guys grew up here and went to high school here,” he said. “We all came back here to work because there was a company here, and because it was a TJ person who was starting it.”
Rosenthal has been getting job offers since he was in high school, but he has been knocking around computers since before he was an early teen, playing games on his Atari 520ST. He was recruited to work at the U.S. Geological Survey to help them map groundwater after he won his 8th-grade science fair by writing a software program that “validated Keppler’s laws of planetary motion.”
“Ever since then, I’ve been doing jobs with computers,” he said.
Rosenthal estimates he has spent well over 10,000 hours working with computers, which is the time it takes for someone to master a skill, according to Malcolm Gladwell, author of “Outliers.”
He was accepted at TJ, but his aversion to homework resulted in graduating in the bottom third of his class. Instead of studying, he spent three of his four high school years with six classmates creating a computer game, “Fire and Darkness.” The game ended up winning the grand prize at the 1999 Independent Game Festival in California, bringing a wave of job offers from game companies.