For the record I’ve “picked” tobacco by hand, too.
SEATTLE – Things to know about Al Vermeulen, chief technology officer of Amazon.com:
He works in Seattle and lives in Corvallis – Oregon. To bridge the distance, he learned to fly.
He co-wrote a book about Java (the computer language, not the drink). At one point, it afforded him some “serious geek cachet.”
He knows how to harvest tobacco by hand.
To his first job interview he wore a wedding suit. He was 34.
“I just came in and talked to folks,” Vermeulen says of the interview, which led to a job at Corvallis-based Rogue Wave. “They gave me an offer that night at dinner. I think I pushed back a little bit because I heard you’re supposed to negotiate these things.”
Vermeulen, who oversees Amazon’s huge technology operations, is something of a linguist. In the mid-1980s, as a doctoral candidate at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, he helped pioneer C++, a widely used computer language.
That expertise fit in nicely with Rogue Wave, which sold some of the first reusable building blocks for C++. (Think of Rogue Wave as a seller of ready-made foundations to software builders.)
He co-wrote “The Elements of Java Style,” a book that mimics the presentation of the Strunk and White classic for writers, “The Elements of Style.” He and his cohorts were tired of thumbing through an obtuse, 1,200-page manual for answers about the Java programming language.
“That sensibility is just definitely part of what he’s about,” says Jim Shur, who worked with Vermeulen at Rogue Wave. “Right to the point, less is more.”
Today, Vermeulen guides Amazon’s $100 million-a-year effort to use computer power to refine its e-commerce prowess. Indeed, the company is defined as much for its technology as its ability to sell caviar, lawnmowers and books.
Amazon powers the Web sites of other large retailers, including Borders Books & Music, Target and Toys R Us. Its search technology is such that users can search not just titles but also the text of the books it sells.
All this for a man who was in school until he was 34 and who once wrote that his career goal was to go as long as possible without getting a job.
“It’s something he and I always had in common,” said Tom Keffer, a former oceanography professor who founded Rogue Wave. “I could’ve easily been a bum and roamed the world, or I could’ve been a rocket scientist, and Al’s that way, too.”
Vermeulen was raised in the southern Ontario town of Burford, where school started after the tobacco harvest, “usually not until the first hard frost,” he said.
His grandfather had a tobacco farm, where he learned to pick ripened leaves by hand.
Shur says his friend has the ability to quickly understand fundamental issues at hand and “get rid of the extraneous stuff.”
An example: When Vermeulen first joined Amazon, he, his wife and their two kids moved to Issaquah, Wash. But they decided they liked Corvallis better and returned to their previous home.
So he took the train to get to work. Then he drove. Then he hired a sky taxi.
“As I was flying in the plane, I thought `I could do this myself,'” he said.
He took lessons and received a pilot’s license in December.
“It’s way better than driving,” Vermeulen says. “It’s much more intellectually interesting, actually.”
Occupation: Chief technology officer, Amazon.com
Education: University of Waterloo, Ph.D. in systems design engineering
Distinguishing characteristic: Finds elegant solutions to complex problems.
Accomplishment: Helped to pioneer the computer language C++.