Jobtalk’s latest Q and A is with the retired computer programmer and business owner Roy Kaplan. After realizing that accounting was not the right profession for him, Kaplan decided to follow his passion and became a computer programmer. Kaplan’s decision to follow his passion was crucial to his success in the business world. Read more about how Kaplan went from working for the IRS to owning a business with a yearly revenue of 15 million.
Job Title: Retired
B.B.A. City College, 1967
M.S. Rutgers, 1973
Tell me about how you got started in computer programming.
I got into programming because in my senior year of college I needed one more class to be a full time student, and I ended up taking 3 credits in computer programming. Taking that class, I realized that computer programming was enjoyable and was much more interesting than accounting. So, I ended up taking graduate courses in computer science after I finished my undergraduate degree in 1967.
What did you think was enjoyable about programming?
Programming was like doing a crossword puzzle. It wasn’t work. It was more like playing a game.
What exactly do programmers do?
Strictly speaking, a programmer just converts what a systems analyst has designed using programming language to instruct the computer how to perform the business rules developed by the systems analyst.
What was your first job after college?
My first job was as an IRS agent responsible for auditing corporate tax returns, which reinforced the fact that I preferred programming over accounting and working with accountants.
What happened after that?
After a year in graduate school, I was fortunate enough to land a job with Boeing in Seattle, Washington as a novice programmer.
What was programming like back then?
Back then people programmed on mainframes using COBOL, FORTRAN, and assembler language.
How did you go from working as a programmer at Boeing to starting your own business?
Well, this is a long story. When I left Boeing in 1970, I went to work for Bell Labs and was fortunate enough to become involved with database management systems when they were in their infancy. In 1973, I moved to a small company in Princeton, NJ that was developing database management software and became an expert in that technology. When it became clear that the company I was with wasn’t going to make the database system we were developing a successful product, a coworker and I formed our own software consulting company.
And that’s what is called JK Group, right?
Right. At JK group, we ended up engaged by a corporation to develop a grant administration software package to run on personal computers. Part of that package was a component that was specific to administering matching gift programs. As a result of that, corporations solicited us to administer their matching gift programs for them instead of buying our software. These corporations previously managed their matching gift programs in house. In effect, we transitioned from be a software consulting company to a service provider.
What were some challenges that you experienced during this transition?
The challenges were to be able to hire staff and to manage the profitability of our company.
During this phase of your career, what percentage of your time was spent doing work related to computer technology?
Software development and the design of the data warehouse took up the majority of my time.
How much time did that leave you to work on growing your business?
In a forty hour week, very little. If you are going to start your own business you have to be prepared to put in longer days and longer weeks and understand that a 9 – 5 schedule is not going to give you a successful business. It also means that you better enjoy what you are doing.
So, you started JK Group in 1989 with two people right?
Can you tell me a little more about what JK Group was like when you retired in 2010?
In 1995, we hired our first employee. When I left in 2010, we had 200 hundred employees and a yearly revenue of $15 million dollars.
What would you hire programmers to do at JK Group?
At JK Group, we hired programmers to write software to help automate processes required to administer the philanthropic programs. By the time I left the company, we had 10 programmers.
How has your how job description changed during the past 15 years?
It evolved from doing all of the design and development on my own to managing others who now do that work. Assisting the sales force in new business development was also an important part of my job.
Did your work hours ever normalize to a nine-five job?
You’ve been in the field a long time. How has programming changed from when you entered it?
Conceptually it hasn’t changed very much. There have been some enhancements to the programming languages to make it easier to write software. But the actual work involved has remained the same, other than the technological enhancements. For example, the speed of the computer and the cost of computer memory have made it easier for a programmer to concentrate on the specific problem that the programmer is trying to solve, rather than shoehorn the solution into the cost and speed constraints of the older technology.
What skills do you need to have to be a successful programmer?
Good analytic thinking and patience. Programs you write will not work the first time, and you must be patient enough to work through the inconsistencies in the written code – AKA bugs.
It wasn’t long ago that you were working full-time. Describe what your typical day was like.
The last couple of years, 50 percent of my workday was spent either responding to or sending emails. When technology issues escalated, they would end up on my plate also. The other 50 percent of my time I assisted with design of new functions and assisted with software problem resolutions.
What were the most stressful aspects of working when you were at Boeing and Bell Labs?
There weren’t any. I had a specific thing that I did, and I did it. There were some tight deadlines at Bell Labs that required putting in extra hours to meet them, which is typical of the software industry. I recommend that people read The Soul of a New Machine, by Tracy Kidder, to understand the process of designing a new technology produce and meeting a deadline.
How about the stressful aspects of starting and growing your own business?
What was stressful always had to do with money — making sure you had enough money coming in and control of the money going out.
Is there anything that you find monotonous about creating software or a new technology?
No. There are always new challenges.
What do you like least about running a business?
It’s difficult having to deal idiosyncrasies of employees and the clients. However, you have to remember that the customer is always right.
What advice would you give to anyone who is studying computer science?
Learn all about computers. Learn the internals of how a computer works. Fully understand the hardware architecture and basic machine language of a computer.
What advice would you give to a programmer who wants to own his/her own business?
Be prepared to work long hours and have passion for what you do.