By Alan Earles
Hailing from Harry Truman's hometown of Independence, Mo., Jason Anderson began mastering grown-up technology at an early age. It wasn't long after he learned to read that he taught himself to write programs in BASIC on the Timex/Sinclair 1000, one of the earliest personal computers. He sold his first program, a space strategy game, when he was 12, and later wrote software for his school district to help students learn mathematics. "Some of it is still in use," he says.
Anderson, the valedictorian for his high school class, says the chance to roll up his sleeves and tackle real-world engineering challenges were part of what attracted him to WPI. But it was the opportunity to pursue an Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP) beyond WPI's campus that truly sold him on the WPI Plan. In fact, his IQP would take him a long way from the world he knew -- half a world away, to the slums of Klong Toey, a section of Bangkok. Along with Sandra Davis '95, he spent seven weeks seeking solutions to the trash and pollution problems that degrade the quality of life for Bangkok's most impoverished residents.
Because trash collection in Klong Toey is so infrequent and trash collectors themselves so poorly paid, wastes tend to accumulate quickly and remain for long periods. Indeed, the wheelbarrow-based collection system rarely manages to cover the entire area more than a few times a year. As a consequence, trash and refuse often block canals and drainage systems, contaminating water sources and providing a home for rats, cockroaches and other vermin.
Anderson and Davis put their analytical skills to work seeking ways to improve existing trash collection patterns, and started a community education program to raise awareness of the dangers of improper garbage and trash disposal. Finally, the two offered suggestions for low-cost steps to improve sanitation, such as acquiring more trash barrels and fencing off disposal areas.
"Spending time in the slums was truly an eye-opening experience," he says. "Traveling to Bangkok to complete a project gave me a new perspective on the world. It let me spread my wings and forced me to adapt to and embrace another culture."
Today, Anderson puts the skills he learned in Bangkok to use in the fast-paced world of software development. Employed since graduation at Vivid Technologies Inc. in Woburn, Mass., a pioneer in advanced airport security systems, he has been part of the staff responsible for improvements to existing products and for the high-level design of new products.
Vivid's main product is an X-ray system with a high-performance, parallel-processing computer capable of analyzing 1,500 items of luggage an hour. Anderson says the computer's processing power and the software he helps develop give the system the power to accurately identify a wide range of bombs, explosives and other types of contraband.
Formed in the aftermath of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, Vivid has developed a customer base that spans much of the globe. In his first year with the firm, Anderson's duties have often taken him overseas on short-deadline projects involving image-processing problems. After his experiences in Klong Toey, he says, adjusting to life in Rome or Brussels seems easy.
In just over a year with Vivid Technologies, Anderson has already served as the key designer for a product launched this summer and has signed his first patent application. But this success isn't due simply to technical savvy. He says he also draws on the diverse experiences he had under the Plan.
For his Sufficiency project, for example, he wrote a play -- a romantic comedy about life in the Midwest that made clear that not all Midwesterners live on farms. "I was trying to demonstrate that you shouldn't assume anything about people; that you should try to be tolerant of differing opinions and cultures," he says. The experience helped him see that the humanities is an important pillar of the engineering profession and taught him to communicate his ideas effectively.
In his time away from the office, he has developed his own company, Andersoft Distributed Enterprises, that serves as a consulting group for a variety of software design and development projects, including screen savers, World Wide Web page layouts, network utilities, and product pricing and forecasting applications. The company's flagship product, PriceADE, set for release this fall, provides small businesses with the tools necessary to accurately set prices for their products and services based upon production expenses and desired profit margins.
But Anderson says even the launch of his own software firm is merely a step in a bigger process -- one that began back in Independence with that T/S 1000 computer. "My long-term thinking," he says, "is that I'll probably return to school in another year or so to work on an M.B.A. or perhaps a doctorate in computer science." For now, though, Anderson is keeping busy with a career going very much according to Plan.
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