Local IT Fraternity Has Key Source

June 25, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Just as the 1980s downsizing of National Cash Register spun off thousands of information technologists who — among other things — founded Silicon Valley, the demise of marchFIRST late in the last century had a similar local effect.

Todd Hill, president of the Gecko Group, says he was one of the many local area techies who found himself out of a job when marchFIRST had to close its doors.

And he likened the dotcom’s closure to throwing a pail of water on the pavement: It was a splash that flung techies in all directions into West Michigan’s economy.

“MarchFIRST hired all the good IT talent in West Michigan,” he said.

“We were all there for a very brief period of time — all of the IT talent in West Michigan concentrated in one spot. So we all had to go out and get jobs when the place folded up,” Hill said.

“And we learned quickly that everybody had a talent that business would pay top dollar for. So you find that business, apply that talent and you’re The Man.”

Hill told the Business Journal that almost all the IT specialists in the big firms in West Michigan came from or have direct relationships with someone who came from the marchFirst break-up.

“And we networked with each other to do that,” he added. “We were all really good at helping each other get on our feet.”

He said that the marchFIRST alumni now have become the “old guard” in West Michigan IT — middle-aged men and women “who no longer will work 18 hours for a box of Krispy Kremes.”

“Now we have families, and a lot of us are senior level IT managers or CIOs throughout the West Michigan business community. And we may not work as many hours now, but we work a lot smarter.

“And the funny thing,” Hill added, “is that those of us who didn’t go to work for the companies broke into our own businesses — and most of us wound up in businesses that don’t compete with each other. We’re very niche-oriented.”

For Hill and one buddy, the niche initially was a partnership that crafted Web sites.

But Hill also happened to have acquaintances within several area law firms who happened to be having difficulty with computers.

“They’d be constantly calling for advice,” he said, “and it seemed like I was the only person they could rely on.

“You remember what it was like with all the dotcoms going under, and all the consolidations.

“Some lawyer would call up and say, ‘Hey, we hired so-and-so to be our network administrators and now they’re gone’ or ‘It’s the same firm but they’ve got new guys who don’t know us … they don’t care’ or ‘They don’t respond to calls.’

“Well,” Hill said, “law firms are big on stability. So after I’d help out, they’d call back and I’d go over and get their network straightened up — or their telecom set-up back on its feet.”

And he said becoming indispensable as a technician helped his firm — which now consists of him and Valerie Kautzmann, also a marchFIRST alumna — segue into Web site development and maintenance for some of the big law firms in town.

“And that, in turn,” he said, “led to visual evidence presentation in court.”

Such work means that he and a lawyer in a case work together to exhibit documents on screen for the judge and jury in connection with testimony.

It’s an exacting business, he said, which requires a good deal of pre-trial preparation.

“You have to be able to flash, say, a contract’s relevant clauses on screen when the attorney asks a witness about those clauses’ provisions. And then when he asks, ‘Is that your signature?’ you’ve got to have that on screen.”

Hill explained that the lawyer’s visual evidence presenter also must know the case’s other documents well enough so that if surprises occur in testimony, that information also can be marshaled on screen expeditiously.

Gecko Group’s ties to the legal community keep the firm in its first-floor suite at the Waters Building.

“I’d like to work out of my home in Sparta,” he said, “but I need to be here where the lawyers are.” He and Kautzmann, however, maintain one office at the suite full of toys and books for the children when the occasion demands.

Though Hill has more than his share of technical background, he says he’s primarily a salesman with that calling’s gift of gab.

“Valerie is the organizer,” he said. “She’s German — note the double N on her last name. I’m chaotic, but she keeps this place on track.”

Hill started his advanced schooling at Grand Rapids Community College and transferred to Michigan State, but laughs that he was invited to leave.

“Later I enrolled at the University of Phoenix,” he added, “but by then I was just too busy making money to keep it up.”

He said he’s learned enough about business that the lack of a BBA no longer concerns him.

“Look, the key to success — it’s not who you know, it’s not what you know, it’s not what you have, it’s not who gave birth to you, it’s not what luck you have.

“There’s only one key to success: determination,” he said. “It’s what separates the winners from the losers.

“Ambition,” he added, “is the desire to achieve your goal. But determination is the will to succeed at all costs.”

He said that determination is implied in Gecko Group’s first company name, Lucky Gecko.

That name derives from a little plastic lizard that was his daughter’s plaything and now has an honored place in his desk.

“I kept throwing it away because I kept stepping on it,” he said.

“And somehow it kept coming back. One day I found it and held it up and said, ‘You’re a lucky gecko,’ and that turned out to be a domain name that was free. So, there it was.”

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