Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Michigan Engineer Article - Tim Howes

By Barbara Wylan Sefton

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Tim and Nancy Howes take a rest during a one-day 25-mile hike along the rim of the Grand Canyon.

How did the son of an English professor and a lexicographer come to be one of the major innovators in Internet technology? Tim Howes (BSE AERO ’85; MSE PhD CSE ’87 ‘96), Chief Technology Officer (CTO), co-founder of Opsware Inc. and its Executive Vice President (EVP) of Development, has a simple explanation: "With both parents on the humanities side of things, someone had to know how to make the VCR clock stop flashing."  

But it wasn't nearly as simple as this soft-spoken, modest native of Ann Arbor would have people think. Howes has weathered many storms since beginning his undergraduate studies in aerospace engineering in the early 1980s - a period he looks back on as "the time that I learned how to ask the right questions."

As a graduate student, Howes was working with a small group of "upstartish UNIX programmers" when his boss, Paul Killey, currently executive director, Information Technology, assigned him to investigate creating a directory service to support the University's email infrastructure. "We all soon became renegades in charge of our own destinies," Howes said. They quickly learned that their destiny lay in the creation of the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) - the Internet standard for directories.

Years of hard work led to the next fortuitous turn of events in 1996, when Howes received an email from Eric Hahn, EVP at Netscape, which was looking for a directory solution to make into a product. LDAP turned out to be just what they were looking for.

Within months, Howes joined Netscape as directory server architect, along with two of his colleagues. A year and a half later, Howes became CTO of the Server Products Division. It was during this time that he learned about the business side of technology. This led to some important realizations - one of which was there was more code that needed to be written than he could write by himself. This started him down the management path. In 1998, the company recognized Howes' accomplishments by naming him a Netscape Fellow, the highest engineering honor in the Netscape organization.

When America Online acquired Netscape in 1999, Howes followed, working under Marc Andreessen (then CTO at AOL) as vice president of technology. "AOL was a very different environment from Netscape - much bigger and much slower," Howes said. Meanwhile, the Internet was exploding, and he wanted to be part of it. Realizing that companies needed someone to run the backend of what they were creating, Howes and his colleagues started talking about what they might do if they formed a company.

In September 1999, talk turned into action when Howes, Andreessen, Ben Horowitz and In Sik Rhee formed Loudcloud, Inc., a managed-service company responsible for running mission-critical Internet sites for large enterprises. To help them run the sites better and more cost effectively, the Loudcloud upstarts created a software package known as "Opsware," and soon the Loudcloud list of clients included the likes of Ford, Nike, Fannie Mae and other worldwide organizations.

"With Opsware, we're doing for Internet data-center operations what Henry Ford did for the automobile industry when he created the assembly line," Howes said. "Opsware automates what used to be done by hand, making the service much better and less expensive to provide."

With the demand for the Opsware package growing by leaps and bounds, Howes and his partners turned their focus to the larger opportunity in the software business. They sold off the hosting business to EDS in the summer of 2002 and transformed themselves into a pure software company called Opsware Inc., which has become the leading provider of data-center automation software.

Headquartered in Sunnyvale, California, Opsware has been a trailblazer. "We're really making this up as we go along, changing the way people run their data centers," Howes said. "Five years from now it will all be automated. The Internet is going to become increasingly ubiquitous - a hidden part of our lives like the wall outlet we use every day when we plug in our toasters. We're just starting to scratch the surface."

It's a busy time in Howes' professional life, but he's able to grab moments of serenity with his wife, Nancy, who shares his affection for jazz. In fact, it was a love of music that brought each of them to the 1996 San Francisco Blues Festival, where Howes met Nancy, an artist who happens to be a refugee from the high-tech world. The sounds of Chucho Valdes, a Cuban jazz pianist, get a lot of air time in the Howes' Los Altos, California, home. And an Australian Silky Terrier named Chewbacca has attracted a good share of the couple's attention ever since they adopted him from the Silicon Valley Humane Society.

In the little spare time Howes has, he hikes with his wife and friends in the Grand Canyon and the Tenaya Canyon in Yosemite. Rollerblading is more than a mere blip on his radar - he's an avid participant in San Francisco's "City Skate," a 13-mile test that takes "bladers" around the city. And Howes is a voracious reader, currently devouring all of Elmore Leonards' thrillers. But next on his list is a book that might be a surprising selection for most engineers: J.K. Rowling's latest, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

A man of many interests, Howes was recognized by InfoWorld (2000) as one of the top 10 e-business innovators. He has co-authored several books on directories, including Understanding and Deploying LDAP Directory Services (2nd Edition), 2003. In 2001, CTO magazine named Howes one of the top 25 most influential CTOs. And he's a member of the College's National Advisory Committee.

The little boy who could make his parents' VCR clock stop flashing has come a long way. And it's that same knack for technology that has given Tim Howes such a good head start on the road ahead.-E

Barbara Wylan Sefton is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Gourmet, Art & Antiques, American Style, Mary Engelbreit's Home Companion, HOUR Detroit, and Style.

- Michigan Engineer Fall/Winter 2003 (College of Engineering)