“You’re going to do what?”
Scott Kliger’s mother couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
“Get a computer.” Ten-year-old Scott Kliger was determined – nothing could stand in his way once he’d made up his mind. It would turn out to be a lifelong trait. “You said whatever money I earned on my paper route I could spend like I wanted.”
She kept her word, and Kliger got his computer, a TRS-80, known affectionately as the Trash80 to Kliger and other early nerds. He devoured magazines and books, taught himself the BASIC programming language and wrote his first program before he turned 11. His obsession with that Trash80 shaped the rest of his life.
“I was somewhere in my early teens when I realized that I wanted to learn about technology and turn it into something useful. That meant engineering. And it didn’t take a lot to decide on Michigan Engineering – it’s the best and it was right in my backyard, so to speak.” – Scott Kliger
The adult Kliger recalled those boyhood days in Southfield, Michigan. “No one knew much about computers back then – certainly not home computers. They were big and ugly and didn’t do much. But I loved writing programs. I didn’t have a choice; it was something I had to do.”
Kliger’s instincts were good – he loved math and science, and had a natural talent with computers. “I was somewhere in my early teens when I realized that I wanted to learn about technology and turn it into something useful. That meant engineering. And it didn’t take a lot to decide on Michigan Engineering – it’s the best and it was right in my backyard, so to speak.”
Slipping into life as a Wolverine was a snap. The College put computers galore at his fingertips. There were plenty of challenges in the classroom to keep him occupied. And Michigan football turned into a weekend passion that still pulls him to the television on game days. “My dream,” he said recently, “is to someday call the play-by-play of a Michigan football game in the style of Bob Ufer.”
He was also a staunch Ann Arborite with a preference for Middle Kingdom restaurant on Main Street. “The menu was spectacular. Johnny Tam was the owner – he still is – and we got to be great friends. My wife, Elayne, was my girlfriend then, and we went to dinner there a lot. So we both have a special feeling about that place. Nate, one of my three sons, is studying engineering at the College right now, and he goes there with his friends. Now he and Johnny are buddies. It’s kind of nice.”
Good football and good food have a special place in Kliger’s memory, but it was the classroom that set the stage for his later success. In his junior and senior years, he and classmate Tony Fadell, who eventually became the key developer of the Apple iPod, took an idea to Elliot Soloway, a professor in Computer Science and Engineering. “With his help, Tony and I and a handful of others raised research money to work on video recognition and gesture controls. It introduced us to entrepreneurship. In a way, Michigan Engineering’s current entrepreneurial program is an outgrowth of what we did back then. Now, my son Nate is into the entrepreneurship programs that the College has developed. It was a game-changer for me. I think it’s going to do the same for him.”
After graduation, Kliger made several stops before turning into one of engineering’s foremost entrepreneurs. First, IBM, where he took the lead in developing the user interface of the OS/2 operating system. Second, WordPerfect Corporation, where he led the team that developed the company’s Windows 95 and OS/2 software products. Next stop, Lotus Development, where he served as chief architect of Next Generation Products Group. He eventually followed his entrepreneurial instincts, cofounding Narrative Communications in 1995. There he created Enliven, which pioneered the rich media advertising industry on the Internet. In 1998 Narrative was acquired by Excite@Home. In 2005 he created Jingle Networks and its feature product, 1-800-FREE411, a free alternative to the high cost 411 services, the first and largest free nationwide consumer telephone directory-assistance service. Now he’s pursuing a social media project, but he’s not giving away any details. “It’s early in the process,” he said. “I’m not ready to talk about it.”
But he was very willing to talk about his family. “My wife, Elayne (BSE CE ’90) is an engineer and a lawyer – she’s a real go-getter. The kids are a real kick. As I said, Nate’s studying engineering, but his dream is to be the general manager of the Boston Red Sox. I told him to get his engineering degree and then buy the Sox. Zack is 16 and wants to be an author – he’s very creative. Shana’s 10 and wants to be a vet – at least that’s her ambition this week. And Camden’s 8; he wants to be a Jedi Knight. They’re all determined; they all have goals; they’re all very special.”
In other words, they’re all just like dad.