Lough Codes IT Success

February 25, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Julie Lough turned a childhood interest in codes into a computer company that provides a livelihood for nine people.

Make that almost nine. Lough is still searching for the right combination of high-end technical skills to fill one more position. Seeking growth for her business, Micro Visions Inc., in the face of Michigan’s new reduced-horsepower economy, Lough is plotting a course specializing in serving small and medium-sized companies.

“We look at ourselves as the computer department for a small or medium-sized business,” said Lough, president of the company she founded in 1989. “Some are two persons that may need a company to help with higher-end things. Sometimes we have companies that may have a full-time computer administrator or a team of people, and we’ll come in to help them with projects because they don't have time or certain areas of expertise.”

Lough, a native of Hudsonville, found as she got to high school that computers were the closest professional area to satisfy her love of codes. She followed that interest after graduation, working full-time while attending Aquinas College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in computer information systems.

“I did a little bit of everything when I was employed,” said Lough, who worked for an office furniture manufacturer. “I had the opportunity to do some programming, set-up and operating systems support. I got into accounting systems.

BRIEFLY

Name: Julie Lough

Company: Micro Visions Inc.

Title: Principal

Birthplace:Grand Rapids

Family: Husband, Rob, who is Micro Visions general manager; daughters Jennifer and Erin.

Business/Community Organizations: Association of Women Entrepreneurs; Michigan Women’s Business Council; Grand Rapids Area and Kentwood/Wyoming chambers of commerce; Trinitas Classical Academy; Girls Choral Academy.

Biggest Career Break: Leaving a secure IT job at a big firm to start her own company.

“I was always one who wanted to be able to do whatever was out there,” she added. “I like learning new things. I was never afraid to dig into a different area — the challenge of being able to tackle something new and conquer it.”

Lough said she started out in word processing and ended up helping the people assigned to provide computer support. When one of those technical openings occurred, she was able to move onto the technical area.

“I learned that system, and then I just said, ‘Hey, have you got anything else I can do?’ They just seemed to put me into a lot of different areas.”

Always looking for the next new thing, Lough took classes for Novell certification.

“I always kind of had it in the back of my mind that I'd like to do my own thing,” she said. “A co-worker was selling PCs on the side … and he needed somebody to put in a network for his client. I put in the first network for Micro Vision for my co-worker’s client. Then it sort of snowballed from there.”

Lough worked on Micro Vision projects nights, weekends, holidays — whenever she could squeeze in time around her full-time job.

“About four years later, I got to the point where I couldn't do both any more,” Lough said. “I'd gotten the business to grow to a pretty sizable amount. I loved my job, but I felt this was an opportunity where I could really see a lot of personal growth, not just technically, but in leadership.”

Micro Vision was headquartered in Lough’s spare bedroom.

“I started with $5,000 that I had in savings and bought my first computer, which ate up half of that. It was a 286 with 1 meg of RAM and a 40mb hard drive. Today for $2,500, you can get a pretty screaming machine. But that’s basically how I started.”

When Micro Vision outgrew the bedroom, Lough moved to her basement. When it outgrew the basement and she hired a full-time employee in 1995, she moved the company to the Grand Rapids office building where it remains today, albeit in a larger suite.

Lough said she’s gotten used to being in the minority among the men who dominate the computer science profession.

In 1985, women received 37 percent of computer science undergraduate degrees; by 2006, that had dropped to 21 percent of computing and information science undergraduate degrees, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology. In 2004, 29 percent of computer scientists were women, the center reported.

Lough said she would be pleased to hire a woman to fill that ninth Micro Vision job, but has had a tough time finding one with the high-level technical skills. Other than Lough, the staff now is entirely male.

Lough said she doesn’t dwell on the lack of women in computer science jobs. She recalled an incident when a client repeatedly turned to the man who had sold him a file server that had a problem, one which he had been unable to solve.

“I did a bunch of research and I said, ‘The manufacturer has a problem with this hard drive in this operating system,’” Lough said. “Because it kept happening, they finally decided to listen to me. I was right.

“As long as you are right, I think you gain the respect of just being a technical person who knows what they’re talking about. Overall, I found in business I get the respect because I’m a qualified individual.”

Lough has thrown her experience and effort into helping women get started in business. She spent five years on the board of the Alliance for Women Entrepreneurs, and her company still handles the group’s Web site. Micro Vision also donates technology expertise for Trinitas Classical Academy, the small Christian school founded by the Loughs and nine other families two years ago. The school’s trivium curriculum takes a traditional approach based on grammar, logic and rhetoric, teaching Latin and Greek, along with science and math.

“There's a lot of value I think in seeing things from a different perspective,” she said.

Lough also lends Web support to the Girls Choral Academy in Grand Rapids, which, she said, “is all about helping girls gain confidence, leadership” and is trying to enlist the aid of women business owners. Lough also sits on the board of the Michigan Women’s Business Council, which certifies women-owned businesses.

Lough said she has spent many hours reading and networking to gain knowledge about running Micro Visions. She points to Michael E. Gerber’s book “The E-Myth: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What To Do About It” as a big influence.

“That sets the stage for deciding what you really want out of starting a business,” Lough said. “Do you just want to do something because you love it, or do you really want to run a business and grow a business? I think there’s an important distinction there and I think it's wise to think about that.”

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