By Ray Bert '93
If you asked him, Eric Hahn would probably tell you he's a "propeller-head," that he's been one ever since he was a kid goofing around with his first computer, and that in one way or another, he'll always be one.
He'd say it for two reasons. First, he is fully aware of his status in today's society as a 'computer geek', one of those people who make their living roving the world of code and networks as if they own the place (which they pretty much do). Second, he'd say it because he is the most self-effacing former CEO you're likely to meet. The guy who once described himself as "on the nerdy end of nerd," is now, at age 36, senior vice president of enterprise technologies at Netscape Communications Corp., one of the hottest, brightest stars in the computer industry.
The WPI Plan was designed for people like Hahn -- people who grab the system and wring out every last drop of potential, experience and insight it offers. "The Plan and I were very compatible," Hahn says. "The fact that it was less structured, with a project focus, worked well for me."
Much of what he learned through the Plan has been borne out by his experience or has influenced his own approach to the workplace. "I've never gone to the office Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoon with 200 people and been lectured to," he says. "The Plan's student/advisor model is a much closer representation of the workplace, and the project focus is much more like the reality of business."
When Hahn graduated from WPI in 1980, he took a job with Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN), a computer services company based in Cambridge, Mass. There he helped develop ARPANET, the nationwide computer network that evolved into the Internet. After two years he was recruited to help get the start-up Convergent Technologies off the ground. He became vice president and general manager of the server products division before departing in 1990 for cc:Mail, where he was vice president of engineering and, later, general manager.
Hahn's crowning achievement was the founding of Collabra Software Inc. in 1993. With Hahn as president and CEO, Collabra quickly became a major player in the burgeoning "groupware" market. Collabra ShareTM, introduced in March 1994, captured numerous awards, ranging from Groupware '94 Best of Show to PC Magazine's Editor's Choice to PC Week's Analyst's Choice. The product led to Collabra's selection that year as one of "25 Cool Companies" by Fortune magazine. Hahn, himself, was honored last fall by WPI, which presented him with its Ichabod Washburn Young Alumni Award for Professional Achievement. Collabra Software Inc. was acquired by Netscape in 1995.
Hahn made the most of his time at WPI. Finding the WPI computer system difficult to use, he wrote How to Survive the PDP-10, which "was required reading for freshmen until a new computer system was installed," he says. He co-authored one Major Qualifying Project in his first year and did a second, solo MQP for his degree requirement later on. He accomplished all of that in just two and a half years on campus.
"At WPI, you're much more successful if you can manage yourself -- if you have a certain amount of self-directedness," he says. "That translates particularly well to the software industry, where you have to be able to lay out and organize your thinking without a lot of guidance and direct supervision."
Hahn has made leaps and bounds in his career, grabbing for new challenges whenever he felt a need to grow or change. And yet with all of his success, he remains a propeller-head whose eyes light up with the seemingly limitless possibilities of the technology. "I just love computers," he says. "They're the world's best blank sheet of paper."
Through hard work and his love of the field, Hahn has attained good measures of wealth and fame, yet he doesn't have to feign the ambivalence he projects about that aspect of his life. "I feel like I've done all the 'formal' career things that I want to do," he says. "Now I'm at a place in my life and my career where I want to optimize for the things that bring me real joy: working with technology and really bright people and spending more time with my family." (Hahn and his wife, Elaine, have two sons: Evan, four, and Jeremy, born this summer.)
What does Hahn think about the environment that today's graduates entering the computer industry face? "I really feel for the kids in school now," he says, "because the market is changing so quickly that no school can really keep up. So the important thing for students is to become well-rounded thinkers, which is obviously one of the core tenets of the Plan.
"What I appreciate most about my experience at WPI was that I got the chance to be an individual. My education was, to a large degree, designed by me, and I was responsible for it. I never felt like just some student ID number marching through a process to get to a finish line. There were bumps along the way and things that I did that were weird compared to most people's experience, but that's part of what made my education my own, and I value that a lot. The Plan took a chance to let people be different and that's special -- you don't get that everywhere."
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