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Turning Around LeapFrog: CEO Jeff Katz (Part 1)

Posted on Thursday, Nov 22nd 2007

SM: Jeff, let’s start with your background. Where do you come from, where did you go to school, and how did you get into technology? I know that you went to MIT, and I have to say that it is a pretty good school!

JK: Of course! We always referred to Harvard as the best school at Harvard Square when I was there. I grew up in Napa. My parents still live there, and my wife’s parents still live there. It was a small town upbringing. I studied engineering for my undergrad at the University of California.

I got involved in technology because I was interested in computer aided design. In the early 70’s you had to write most of your own software. You could not buy a CAD package, and everything you did was from scratch. I got very involved with graphics.

After I graduated, I started working as an engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. I got involved in controls and optimization. Then I did a graduate degree at Stanford; there I was mostly interested in optimization theory and controls. It was very similar to Course 6 at MIT, and it was very mathematics oriented with a basis in computer simulation. For most of the problem solving I had to write software related to my solutions.

As an engineer I worked on a lot of esoteric projects and essentially our team had to build our own computer. I was involved with a laser fusion machine at Lawrence Livermore and we built our own machine to measure controls. The laser fusion machine shot 20 arms simultaneously out of a laser beam towards a tiny little pellet filled with adiabatic gas. All of the controls regarding the shooting of the laser and the measuring of the radiation, as well as the vibration controls were computer controlled so we had a very elaborate lab of computers, and we built them all. That got me pretty deep into technology.

At a certain stage I decided I did not want to be a slave to physicists. I was really interested in optimization and I was really interested in transportation systems. I had an opportunity to go to business school out west or to go to graduate school at MIT. I decided to go to MIT because I could write my own program and I could study in the Course 15 management program for one year and then I could study in Course 16, mostly specializing in transportation, in the second year. I mixed and matched my program to consist of management and controls and optimization theory. My studies were funded by a grant from the Federal Aviation Administration.

You can begin to see how I got towards travel ultimately because I was interested in transportation, and at the time when I graduated from MIT a lot of quantitative people were going into the airline industry. I had a teacher, Fisher Black, who went to Goldman Sachs as a high end super quant. Similarly, a bunch of us from MIT went into the Airline industry which had just deregulated. The senior management there was very interested in trying to quantify all of the decisions which had to be made.

This segment is part 1 in the series : Turning Around LeapFrog: CEO Jeff Katz
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