Even as a kid, Rick Smith, now 49, always worked. Whether it was a paper route or cooking at Crandall’s, a restaurant in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, Smith preferred a paycheck to the kind of extracurricular activities that normally attract college bound high school students. So it was not surprising that after a year of general studies at Madison Area Technical College, he was ready for something a bit more practical. When Smith realized that acquaintances at Wisconsin School of Electronics were attending for two years and getting great jobs upon completion, he was ready to make the switch.
Smith recalls that his high school work ethic helped frame his higher education goals: “I saw a fast path to pertinent education in electronics…not containing the extra fluff that had no bearing on a focused education. That was really appealing to me,” he says.
Smith graduated from Wisconsin School of Electronics, now Herzing University, in 1983 with an associate’s degree. Sure enough, he got that first good job as an X-ray technician, repairing equipment for the next year. By 1984, Smith found himself at the right place at the right time with the right skills. The Internet was just beginning to break out into popular use and the search for people that could help computers and other devices “talk” over data networks was intense.
Smith moved to the University of Wisconsin for a job in network engineering.
“Computer networking was in its infancy,” Smith recalls. “UW was tying its computers together on the administrative side. [The WSE program] prepared me for that. There are all kinds of courses now but back then the only thing that employers could look for was electronics degrees. An electronics background gave me the skill sets to get into computer networking. The electronics engineers were looking to work at bigger corporations, not be in the trenches at the UW”
Smith worked at the university until the year 2000. During his time at the institution, his experience creating computer networks led to his involvement with the InterOp trade show. InterOp is something of a Mecca for computer network techies. While interoperable computer networks are taken for granted today, in the early 1990s they were the stuff of prototypes and trade show demonstrations. Smith got involved with a University of Wisconsin team demonstrating such a network at InterOp and later, perhaps leveraging some of his original familiarity with X-ray equipment, began working at a vertical industry conference on a network specifically designed to support radiologists. Smith says much of that work took place in the open systems environment, particularly with tools created to monitor network reliability and performance.
One thing led to another and after several years Smith and colleagues from the radiology show network had the basis for forming their own company: INOC.
Smith calls quitting his job at UW and starting his own company a “big gamble.” It appears to be paying off, however. Today, he is Vice President of Operations of the 40-person company, headquartered in Northbrook, IL, with core operations in Madison. Smith is responsible for all NOC operations and service deliver work at the firm. Since starting INOC in 2000, Smith admits that the going has not always been easy. After a fast start, the bursting of the dot.com bubble produced hard times felt far beyond the Silicon Valley.
INOC has endured, however, and Smith continues to give back to career education. INOC made internships available for Herzing students over the years and has hired 12 Herzing graduates as full-time employees.