Ted Johnson’s (CSci ’82) computer career came about as a mixture of curiosity and luck—good and bad. “I often tell folks that if there’s one single event that changed my life, it was jumping out of a window and breaking my ankle. That event ended one career and started another,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s career with computers started back in junior high. It was about 1970 when his math teacher got hold of the first computer Johnson had ever seen. He and a friend started learning programming.
“I was just curious about that,” he said. “We just loved this. We’d go in at 7 a.m. before school and we’d program on that thing. By the time we were in ninth grade, we were going to the high school to use the better equipment they had.”
“Who doesn’t ask, ‘Why’s the sky blue? Where do babies come from? Maybe the question should be, What shuts curiosity down? Maybe it’s how young kids get answers to those early questions, whether they stay curious or not.”
– Ted Johnson
“The funny thing is I did not think I’d do that as a career,” Johnson said. Yet, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota to study architecture, going to school during the day and loading UPS trucks in the evening.
That’s when he broke his ankle. “In the process of playing a joke on my then-girlfriend (now wife) and her roommate, I jumped out of the second-story window of their dorm room,” he said. His ankle needed surgery and Johnson wore a foot-to-groin cast for two months. That ended the UPS job.
But he found a job at the Minneapolis StarTribune working only on weekends so he could continue going to school. He worked with Paul Brainerd, a former editor of the Minnesota Daily who was employed with the StarTribune, and Atex, a company that installed and developed software to edit, design, compose, and paginate newspapers.
“It was cool to me,” said Johnson. “Here you have a system used by journalists to put out a newspaper—computers used as tools by professionals. It was when the newsroom started liking computers because they resulted in better journalism. The stuff was easier to write, easier to revise. You could change things more easily. The product out the other end is better just because of the tool you can use to write it.”
He liked the job so much he quit school to work for the StarTribune full-time before returning to the University, switching his major to computer science, and finishing his degree. He went on to work for Atex, Brainerd’s wildly successful start-up company Aldus (later purchased by Adobe).
In 1990, he co-founded Visio and its diagramming and vector graphics application for business. The company was sold to Microsoft in 2000 for $1.3 billion. Since then, Johnson has served in top-level management positions at Microsoft. In 2002, he and his wife Linda gave the University $1.5 million to develop new digital design tools for architects, engineers, and designers. Today, Johnson is a managing member at Programmers in Jeans Building Apps in Bellevue, Wash.
Johnson attributes his successful career to his broken ankle, but it was his natural curiosity that hooked him on computers. Nearly all kids start out being curious. “Who doesn’t ask, ‘Why’s the sky blue? Where do babies come from?’” he said. “Maybe the question should be, ‘What shuts curiosity down?’ Maybe it’s how young kids get answers to those early questions, whether they stay curious or not.”
Johnson says that kind of questioning is essential to science and engineering. “Sometimes curiosity just helps you get aimed at the problem you’re going to solve,” he said. “Engineering in particular is about problem solving.”
But the curiosity and the creativity it provokes isn’t an abstract or self-centered exercise. In the real world, problem-solving is usually “customer driven,” he said. “A colleague of mine said whether you’re starting a company or adding a product to a company you have, find a problem that customers have—one that you can solve, and a problem that customers are willing to pay to have solved. Progress comes when something is made available to people who need it.”