When I was in high school back in the early 1970s, I dreamed of becoming a professional basketball player. If I could do it over, I would dream of becoming a top software engineer — like David Rosenthal.
The software wiz is leading a cadre of fellow alums from Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) in a bid to create what he says is the mother of all computer databases.
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.
Despite his poor grades, he sent a copy of the game — along with an application — to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“They have this condescending thing on their application that if you think you’ve written a computer program that is interesting, please don’t send it, because these are usually not impressive by MIT standards,” he said. “So I thought, ‘I have to send the game.’ ”
He received a personal phone call from the MIT admissions office saying that they loved the game and that he was admitted to the school. He attributes his getting into MIT to the success of the game and recommendations from some of his TJ teachers.
Rosenthal was still in college, working summer computer jobs for $40 an hour, when his pre-calculus classmate called to say he had dropped out of Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh to start Visual Sciences. The nascent software firm helped clients, such as Marriott International, analyze people’s behavior on their company Web sites.
Rosenthal earned about $100,000 a year, working on product development and strategy, while others worried about sales. Visual Sciences grew to a 60-person company by the time it was sold.
He stayed on with the company for three more years, but left in late summer of 2009 to build something new.
“If I stayed there, I would be sitting somewhere in middle management at Adobe,” Rosenthal said. “I would be going to meetings and I’d probably make a lot of money doing that. But what Visual Sciences did for me was to have the ability not to rely on that [salary] and go do something . . . that I believe in.”
He called up his TJ buddy from Visual Sciences, and they formed FoundationDB with a third friend. They raised $1 million between the three of them and are trolling for another $4 million from other investors.
Anticipating future growth, FoundationDB has moved out of Rosenthal’s Falls Church home and into 4,000 square feet of office space in Tysons Corner. Rosenthal has tapped his friends from MIT and TJ to help him find funding and potential customers.
Rosenthal sold his Porsche for $30,000 and now drives a diesel-powered Volkswagen Golf that gets more than 50 miles to the gallon.
He also got married — to a TJ graduate.
For previous Value Added columns, go to postbusiness.com.