One of Hayden Hamilton's cherished childhood possessions was a soldering iron. He used it to tinker with stereo equipment and other electronics, creating one-of-a- kind gadgets in between launching a string of start-up businesses that included a gutter-cleaning operation and a snack shop -- both before the age of 12.
In college came a Web site design enterprise and a co-op bookstore that successfully challenged the campus monopoly and won a loyal customer following among budget-conscious university students.
"It just seemed particularly egregious to me that they bought books back from students at 15 percent of the cover price and then would sell them for 85 percent of the cover price," Hamilton says of the book venture.
Two years ago, Hamilton, now 30, founded ProgressiveRx, which offers deeply discounted medicine over the Web through an office in Bangalore, India. A year later, he launched the non-profit Progressive Health Worldwide, which funnels medical supplies and technology to African aid agencies. His most recent start-up is Greenprint, which creates and sells low-cost software that minimizes printer paper waste.
An intrepid entrepreneur and serial innovator with a passion for technology and zero interest in following a traditional corporate career path, Hamilton in many ways typifies the men and women on Computerworld's list of 40 Innovative IT People to Watch, Under the Age of 40. Many are the sons and daughters of technologists or engineers and count their parents among their earliest and most influential mentors. Steve Jobs' name also pops up frequently as the person who most influenced their careers.
Consider Bogdan Butoi. "For me, technology is like a family thing," says the Romanian native, who came to the U.S. to pursue a Ph.D. in mathematics after earning a computer science degree in his homeland. "My mother was a database administrator. My dad was a hardware engineer who developed computers and terminals. In communist countries, there were no baby sitters. When my parents did research for eight hours, I ended up in their workplaces. I started writing small [computer] programs and punching cards in the second grade. Then I got a PC, and everything else is history."
Butoi, 35, is now chief technology officer at Animas Corp., a Johnson & Johnson company that makes insulin pumps and other medical products and supplies. He's currently working on developing a new diabetes management system that will allow patients to download information to configure their insulin pumps from their home computers. Physicians can use the same system to monitor insulin delivery and more tightly control patients' blood glucose values.
"I'm not good at painting, and I'm not good at singing. Technology is my way of being creative," Butoi says.
Making a difference
Creating and applying technology for the greater good is a recurring theme among Computerworld's 40 Under 40 innovators. These are people who frequently place passion before profits.
"We see an overarching trend [among under-40 technologists] in that they have the desire and the capability to make a difference," says Diane Morello, an analyst at Gartner Inc. "We see not only a societal shift, but [younger technologists] now have the wherewithal to make a difference, because technology is priced so that not only corporations can afford it."
Naren Ramakrishnan, 35, a native of India and an associate professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., is working on a "storytelling algorithm" that could significantly speed the discovery of what causes certain diseases and the development of new drugs needed to control or cure them.
"The idea with storytelling is to make connections between a lot of the information that is already published out there," Ramakrishnan explains. Several years ago, a scientific study identified a link between magnesium and migraines. Researchers discovered the connection purely by studying the literature, not by doing experiments in a lab. Now, the Internet has made an almost limitless volume of information available, Ramakrishnan points out. "We view it as one massive lot of data just waiting for things to be discovered," he says.
Ramakrishnan is also conducting research in the area of online social networking. "One of the things we have noticed is that there is a lot of power loss," he says. "Just as 80 percent of the world's wealth is concentrated on 20 percent of the Earth, 80 percent of Internet traffic goes to 20 percent of online sites.
"I don't know how this will equalize, but I think it is the right time to investigate whether we can use the Internet to engineer better communities. We've grown to the realization that the Internet can be used for other purposes" besides building profits, he says.
A wider career path
Not surprisingly, the under-40 innovators thrive on change. Their career paths are typically atypical.
"The focus of those under 40 is so much wider. It's not constrained by historical hierarchical patterns," says Gartner's Morello. "These are people who are rapidly participating in and adapting to social networking environments," where hierarchy might play only a bit role.
Michael Fowler started working at Constellation Energy Group Inc., which was then Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., five days after graduating from high school. He had moved to Baltimore to follow a love interest.
"Back in the mid-1980s, there was a shared PC for the department. I was the young office guy who gravitated to that box and figured out how to make it work," he recalls. At night, he worked toward his degree at Johns Hopkins University. Since then, Fowler has rotated through the company's power generation unit, its trading affiliate and its utility business. He says if there hadn't been an opportunity to learn and work in all areas of the business, he probably would have left the company a long time ago.
Now 39, Fowler is responsible for risk systems. "We're attempting to do a lot of intelligence-gathering with respect to physical threats, computer threats and market risk," he says.
Although he's a seasoned technologist with several awards and honours for technology innovations, Fowler says he's a business person first. "If you're going to be successful, you absolutely have to be knowledgeable about what your business wants to do," he says. "You also have to know technology so you can show them what is possible. Many times, technology is a black box to the business. If you can understand what the business is about, you can show them prototypes and iterate from there."
Craig Young, who wrote his first commercial software application at the age of 10, doesn't consider himself a technologist first either. Now 36, and vice president of IT at Verizon Wireless, he launched his career in wireless communications as a technician installing in-car cell phone systems.
"I consider myself more of a translator," says Young. "There is not a huge array of people who can talk technology in terms that business can understand. One of the challenges I see in new recruits is that they're purely technology-focused. The best advice I can give is to know your business, because IT is ancillary. A lot of times you see projects fail because we in IT don't translate projects to a business need."
All work, little play
One area where most of the under-40 set have yet to make significant progress is work/life balance. For example, Animas' Butoi admits to working 80 hours a week on average. It's a familiar theme among this group.
"I think work/life balance is incredibly important," says Hamilton. "But I'm not leading by example on that front," he quickly confesses. When he does have downtime, he's likely to be outdoors hiking, fly-fishing, skiing or rafting.
"Work/life balance? It's not existent," says Fowler. Still, he feels it's important to unplug totally from time to time. His most recent downtime was spent camping in a remote part of Costa Rica.
"Usually," he says, "when I'm going away, it's to places where I can't be found."
The well-examined career
Today's young innovators couldn't care less about corporate ladders or corner offices. They're self-designing unique careers according to their personal interests -- and at their own hyperspeed pace.
Thomas S. Chin, 32, had a passion for software long before joining HotJobs.com as a 22-year-old intern. Within two months, he was the start-up's chief scientist, working day and night.
"There was a two- or three-year duration when I worked seven days a week. I was pretty much a workaholic," Chin recalls.
In 2000, at the age of 25, he retired with enough money to never have to work again. But retirement didn't last long. In 2005, Chin designed and developed BitShelter, an online object store system that operates on heterogeneous hardware. His current project is PhotoShelter, an online archive and marketplace for professional photography.
Hayden Hamilton, 30, turned down a big promotion and ultimately left Ford Motor Co. after sending the company's executive leadership a memo outlining his ideas about huge opportunities he believed the automaker should exploit.
"The VP said he thought they were fantastic ideas and wanted to promote me to be the right hand of the COO. But I came to realize that it would pull me in for the next several years and seriously put me on this path. I didn't think this was what I wanted to do with my life," he recalls.
Ari Juels, 37, chief scientist and director at RSA Laboratories, took what he calls "a significant detour into the realm of literature" before shifting into technology. He has completed a novel, which an agent is now promoting, and he has an avid interest in tea, Daoism and the contemplative life.
"The drive for technology and the current economic mentality aims at the production of more wealth," Juels says. "I hope technology can be commandeered to solve the problem of human happiness. That could mean a cleaner environment or richer human contact. It means changing the mind-set with which we apply technology."
At RSA Laboratories, Juels is working on identity authentication technology in the form of a key fob that will automatically transfer a user's personal information and preferences to any device -- from a telephone or vending machine to a supercomputer.
"I do try to make a stronger connection between security and human needs than I think has been traditional in my field," he says. "It's personally fulfilling to see technologies translated into products."
Avenues to innovation
Min Wu, who grew up in Bejing, learned computer programming in the third grade. The daughter of two engineers, she recalls spending summers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, close to her father's research laboratory.
Today Wu, 32, conducts research of her own at the University of Maryland, where she is an associate professor of computer science.
Her specialty is information security forensics. Wu and her colleagues have developed an invisible ID that can be embedded in digital content, such as films, music and pictures, to protect it from unauthorized use. A patent is pending for the technology, which Wu views as a valuable contribution to continued IT innovation.
"Without a way to protect intellectual property, we will see a lot of hurdles to new technology put up," she explains. "My focus is working toward further innovation of new technologies."