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Tom Scholl

BA 1970, Philosophy

General Partner, Novak Biddle Venture Partners, Bethesda, MD

Tom Scholl is the sort of person who’s studied so many things that you shake your head in wonder. Currently a partner at Novak Biddle Venture Partners, a venture capital firm in Bethesda, Maryland, this philosophy and English literature alumnus has also worked as a CIA systems programmer, founded and sold a couple of communications software companies, and written a lot of poetry. In nurturing these seemingly disparate interests, however, Scholl applies curiosity, the desire to create things, and the pleasure of solving problems—whether choosing the perfect word for a poem or the right segment of code.

That said, Scholl is also smart enough to know when it’s best to bring someone else on board for the problem solving. “When I was writing software, one of my early projects, around 1975, was the very first hybrid electronic key telephone/PBX product (which we later patented and sold as the Electra 100) for NEC Corporation. I believe there are two types of programmers and the industry needs them both—the kind that pride themselves on writing software with as few bugs as possible and the kind that love to find them and debug. Thanks, perhaps, to my philosophy degree, I’m the first type. I don’t like finding bugs in my own software because it means I didn’t do my job as an architect,” he explains.

“Once we were ready to test out the whole system, we built a prototype consisting of 130 telephones and 30 central office lines coming into the switch. It seemed to be working as designed—and then I got bored. I came up with the idea of getting others to do my debugging for me. I invited engineers in the lab to try their hand at ‘breaking the system’ by dialing phone calls, calling each other on the intercom, simultaneously going off- and on-hook, and so forth. ‘If we help you, what do we get?’ they asked. I said I’d pay 25 cents for any bug they found. All of a sudden, four bugs were exposed for a cost of one dollar. I went back to my office and spent a day rewriting some code and then came back out to the lab. ‘OK, see if you can break it now,’ I said. ‘You’ll have to pay $1.00 per bug,’ they said, and I agreed. I ended up paying another dollar. The next session went up to $5.00 per bug, but no one found any more bugs. This whole process gave me a lot of satisfaction, and to this day, I’m the only software person I know who was willing to pay for his bugs,” recalls Scholl.

Purdue Influences

Besides making lifelong friends at Purdue as students, some of my professors had a profound impact on me and I am grateful. I think about this now that both my sons, William and Tommy, are in college. A couple of us would actually show up at Barriss Mills’s house at 1 or 2 in the morning to talk about courses we were taking, poetry, or throwing pots. (Barriss was a well-known English professor and accomplished poet and critic, as well as a potter.) No matter what time it was, Barriss would offer to make us all a round of fresh, black coffee in his towering, dented, aluminum drip coffee maker. Amazingly, his wife joined into our conversations and never complained—but she was also an artist in her own right.

Purdue Memories

It was a long time before I returned to Purdue after I moved away from Indiana. When I finally did go back, the first place I wanted to go was the library. Of course, due to changes in technology, the library is not the same. I used to love going there at night or on the weekends and walking up to the big wooden card index files—I’d pick a random portion of the alphabet, look at that card drawer and then go off into the innards and find a book on some topic, or by some poet or philosopher I’d never heard of. Ironically, even though it’s easier to perform that simple treat now than it was then by using Google or Project Gutenberg, there was something about the manual discovery process that was dear to me and can’t be duplicated with today’s technology advances.

Purdue Now

Besides Purdue, I’ve been closely associated with four other schools, including as a trustee. I’ve been to graduations, been a frequent speaker, and been to dozens of banquets and receptions. I’m always amazed that Purdue still stands out as something special because of its emphasis on values: hard work, the need to “earn your rights,” so to speak, and the importance of human relationships in academia. (Editor’s note: In the photo above, Scholl and his son William share a meal with his hosts for the commencement speech at the Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi, UAE.)

Greatest Achievement

I’m still working on it. Hopefully, I’ve made some people’s lives discernibly better because of something I did. But that would be for them to say and not me.

Living Person I Admire

The person who first leaps into my mind upon reading this question is Lhamo Thondup, who became His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. Who else can speak on a world stage and introduce himself as plagued by facial pimples, then dive into a treatise on the importance of human values such as “compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, contentment and self-discipline”?

Idea of Perfect Happiness

The reciprocated love of a woman, the success of my sons or observing them having pleasure, in the swimming pool out back on a sunny day with Miles Davis playing on the outdoor speakers loud enough for neighbors to hear, a meal with loved ones that was so good I’ll never forget it, accidently running across a poem I’ll remember for the rest of my life, making love, starting/creating something from nothing, the time where I know for a fact that I actually helped someone, making a sacrifice that was worth it. When it comes to perfect happiness, is it better to set a low bar or a high one?

What I’m Reading

I just finished Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed by Sandra Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille. (I just had dinner with Sandy Grimes downtown at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. She used to carpool with Aldrich Ames!) I’m reading How to Make Money in Stocks by William J. O’Neil, the novel Heaven on a Saturday Night by my cousin Elizabeth Boyd Thompson, a couple of new poetry books, and for the last year I continue to crawl through Modernist Cuisine by Nathan Myhrvold and his partners.

Profession I’d Like to Try

Growing up, I always wanted to be a research scientist, an inventor who worked night and day in a lab. I think it’s a bummer that many liberal arts people I meet don’t feel comfortable in a lab or have no sense of curiosity upon visiting one. After my first company was sold, the very first thing I bought was a 400,000-volt Van de Graaff generator. It sits authoritatively in my home office and, along with my subsequently acquired Jacob’s Laddernegative ion gun, and Tesla coil, makes my office “lab-like.” (Editor’s note: we provided the hyperlinks, as we were curious about all these devices and assumed you might be, too!)