WALL STREET JOURNAL – It had been pouring rain when Eric Voskuil rode his motorcycle to the Navy recruiting office in Albany, N.Y., intending to enlist. He had just quit an internship at International Business Machines Corp. where he was learning programming; he thought he’d like to work with nuclear power and submarines instead. When the recruiters saw his wet helmet, they thought he was a better fit as a pilot.
“He definitely was not your typical college kid. It was obvious from his grades that he was a super smart guy, but he didn’t fit the mold of a surface warfare officer,” says John Ortolf, a former Navy recruiter who is now a financial planner at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney. “It takes that to get through aviation training. He clearly had a lot of determination.”
After completing his bachelor’s degree in computer science at Rensselaer Polytechnic in New York, Mr. Voskuil went on to Officer Candidate School. Later when he learned how to fly the F/A-18 Hornet fighter aircraft, he was unexpectedly pulled back into programming. Another officer was trying to cobble together a flight-scheduling program to track work hours. Mr. Voskuil offered to help and ended up taking over the project. The software was later adopted throughout the fighter community.
Although he enjoyed programming again, Mr. Voskuil stayed focused on his aviation career. His skills there were put to the test during the Bosnian War in 1994 when he was deployed to the Mediterranean Sea to serve aboard the U.S.S. Saratoga. His squadron was responsible for keeping the skies clear and for providing air support for NATO ground operations. Mr. Voskuil says he never fired a shot, but he did chase aircraft out of the no-fly zone.
After returning from his second deployment to Bosnia in 1996, Mr. Voskuil was accepted into the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School—also known as Top Gun. He went through 10 weeks of intense training to become a strike fighter tactics instructor and then spent the next two years in Florida training other aviators throughout the fleet in the same advanced tactics that he had been taught. He considered it to be the pinnacle of his career.
Again, Mr. Voskuil’s technical skills were tapped while he was stationed in Florida. His commanding officer asked him to manage the squadron computer network. To save time, Mr. Voskuil created a program called ProfileMaker that allowed him to automate the Windows software setup process for users. He started selling the program online for 10 cents per user, keeping the price low because he wasn’t sure it would sell. When Neenah, Wis.-based Kimberly-Clark Corp. purchased an enterprise license for 10,000 users, he made just $1,000.
That’s when a college friend suggested Mr. Voskuil start a new software company with ProfileMaker. Mr. Voskuil hated to give up flying, but it was time to decide whether to re-enlist after nearly 10 years in the Navy. “I knew I could [make] CO [commanding officer]. But the options narrow as you get higher and you don’t get to fly much,” he says. “I knew it was time to move on.”
He resigned his commission in 1998, moved to Portsmouth, N.H., and started Automated Profile Management LLC with his friend and another partner, each forking over $5,000. The company sold management tools that allowed administrators to control user access. Mr. Voskuil was chief technology officer.
The trio did well in its first year and received $2.5 million in additional venture funding and was rebranded Desktop Standard Corp. The company had grown to nearly $10 million in sales and 55 employees when it was acquired by Microsoft Corp. in 2006. Mr. Voskuil was hired on as a software architect to work full time at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Wash. He led a work group of 12 of his employees who were absorbed into Microsoft. They integrated their former software into Windows Server 2008.
Two years later Mr. Voskuil, restless to do more, left the company. In March 2009, he became CTO for BeyondTrust, a company spun off from Desktop Standard after the acquisition. The company had been based on the software that Microsoft didn’t buy, including software that allows system administrators to restrict access and still grant users the ability to run specific software. “We’re larger than we were but not as big as Microsoft.”
He says his time in the Navy only enhanced his ability perform in his second act career. “My experiences as a pilot, teacher and organizational leader as an officer have helped me accomplish everything I’ve aimed for,” he says.
This story was written for the WSJ Second Acts column.