Times Business & Industry Hall of Fame 2017: Johnson casts wide web in computer security - May 8, 2017
Courtesy of NWI Times
Written by Anna Ortiz
Nestled in a hub of businesses on winding streets off Broadway near U.S. 30, Cimcor, a global cybersecurity company, would fit right into California’s Silicon Valley or Seattle’s cyber-business scene. However, CEO and founder Robert E. Johnson III says his Merrillville-based company is right at home in Northwest Indiana.
“Customers will ask, ‘Where’s your software developed?’ And we’ll say, ‘In Indiana.’ So many times they’ll say, ‘Did you mean India?’ And we’ll say, ‘No, Indiana,'” Johnson said.
Cimcor has customers such as NASA, the U.S. Air Force and the Chicago Stock Exchange, to name a few, relying on its detection software to keep information and servers secure. Cimcor also has clients across the world from Europe to Africa, and ranked 75th in publisher Cybersecurity Ventures’ top 500 list of global tech companies to watch. Even as the company continues to grow, Johnson, 47, said his feet are firmly planted in the Region.
That’s why this tech pioneer, reared in Gary and educated locally, was selected for The Times Business & Industry Hall of Fame’s 10th edition. He joins other Region business legends previously installed on the honor roll such as the late billboard magnate and hotel developer Dean White (2008), photography entrepreneur Don Burrell (2009), and Family Express founder Gus Olympidis (2010).
“We have great talent right here; we have Purdue, IU and Valparaiso University and Ivy Tech. We have all of these universities here with untapped potential, and they have all been great partners,” Johnson said.
“Another reason I like this area is the work ethic. You’d be hard pressed to find a place where people are as loyal and as dedicated and work as hard as they do here. So we have no plans of outsourcing to any other part of the country.”
Operating a company in an area as racially and ethnically diverse as Northwest Indiana also makes having a diverse workforce more natural to a certain extent, Johnson said.
As an African-American tech leader, Johnson said there definitely is progress to be made when it comes to what sometimes is referred to as the U.S. tech community’s “2 percent problem,” which refers to findings that African-Americans and Latinos make up that small a proportion of the workforce at most tech firms.
“There definitely needs to be more diversity in tech,” Johnson said.
“The only way for that to occur is to expose kids to it as early as possible, so they know this is an option, and something that’s possible for them to get involved in and excel in. I think that it’s not just a matter of racial diversity, but also there’s an opportunity to increase the number of women involved in the industry.”
A start below the ground floor
As early as possible aptly describes how Johnson got into tech growing up in Gary.
His first taste of the tech world came as a young boy walking into the basement of his grandfather, who was an engineer for Amtrak and had a knack for electronics.
“I remember walking down there, and there were all of these electronic parts and pieces. To me, when I went down into the basement it felt like I was in a different land. It was like a lab down there,” Johnson said. “And all of the parts were so interesting.”
As Johnson began tinkering with electronics, the idea of creating robots piqued his interest. His first invention was in sixth grade, where he engineered a robot that could talk and move. He said the next logical step was to go from electronics to working with computers.
“I first started getting into tech when I was 11, and there were limited options back then,” Johnson said. “I was able to raise some money to buy a PC we had shipped from the U.K., and that was my first computer. That first computer was really all about learning how to program.”
From there, Johnson continued saving, teaching martial arts on the side, and finding whatever else he could do to earn enough to buy the next machine.
By age 14, an article had been written about his school science fair accomplishments, and at 15, businesses began contacting him to help with their programming needs.
“And my parents were fine with that, as long as I was getting my homework done and I had good grades,” Johnson said.
In high school, one of his first consulting gigs was writing software for a local day care center. It was a computer program that taught children the ABCs through images and a talking mascot, voiced by Johnson’s mother. He also designed educational software for teachers to keep track of students’ grades and calculate things like grade point averages and standard deviation.
“Growing up was kind of lonely from a tech perspective,”Johnson said. “Because the only people you can find to talk to with similar interests were online, and online had a totally different meaning than it does now; you went through dial-up, you had bulletin boards — it was a totally different thing.”
Growing up faster
Once he graduated from Horace Mann High School in Gary, Johnson finally met fellow enthusiasts at Purdue University Calumet with which to share his interest.
Sam Maniotes, who today is a senior project manager for United Airlines in Chicago, met Johnson at Purdue Cal when both were studying computer science. He said he remembers the endless discussions they had about the cyber world 25 years ago.
“I can remember him in college being the first to experience new technology and being very informative about how that new technology would change the way we work with computers,” Maniotes said.
“Robert was one of the only people I knew who couldn’t wait for computers to be smaller and faster. To this day, Rob is always learning about how he can utilize the benefits of new technology.”
In 1989, Johnson earned his associate degree in computer programming, then came his bachelor’s in systems programming in 1991 from PUC, now called Purdue University Northwest. In 1996, he earned a master’s of science in management from the same school. He also has taught Operating System Internals at PNW and continues to be on many of Purdue’s boards and committees.
Solving the world’s problems
Between 1995 and 2002, Johnson developed computer programs to solve problems he recognized bubbling up in the burgeoning tech world.
When Johnson founded Cimcor in 1997, his focus was on process automation and control, working with machines used in the industrial field by companies like U.S. Steel and Ford Motor Co. Johnson developed software that would protect machines from being affected by the Y2K bug, which many thought might wreak mayhem on computational systems with the coming of the new millennium in 2000.
When Apple in 1993 released the Apple Newton MessagePad, a predecessor of the iPhone, Johnson wrote a program that would sync the device with Microsoft Outlook, called “OutLink.”
He said he also developed the first commercial method to dynamically filter cellphone calls and text messages. It was called “CallFilter,” and it allowed users of the early Palm Treo, a personal digital assistant and phone combination, to filter and block calls and messages. It essentially acted as a firewall and automated assistant for calls and text messages.
“That was the first tool to ever do that,” Johnson said.
He also developed InternetVelocity, which was sold both online and in major retailers nationwide. It was a software tool that dramatically sped up dial-up service by compressing data, optimizing how data is retrieved, eliminating ads and preloading data needed by pages. It also was the first ad-blocker tool sold at retail, he said.
“I know now you’re starting to hear about ad blockers; I did it first with InternetVelocity,” Johnson said. “I wrote the first commercial ad blocker.”
Today, Cimcor markets its own CimTrak-branded security software, a patented product, which can provide intrusion-detection and real-time remediation for clients’ IT systems and files. It is used in the payment card, health, banking and other industries, protecting computers from cyberattacks.
“It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, and that’s the problem we are trying to solve,” Johnson said.
In broad terms, Johnson’s software acts as a magnet, detecting and immediately extracting the offending element that may represent a security threat, as well as immediately fixing the problem.
Trusted File Registry, which was filed for patent in February, is the latest enhancement to CimTrak and Johnson’s next venture for Cimcor. It’s a massive database of software updates that helps businesses and organizations track automated changes. He said it saves companies time and money from scouring through thousands of updates and monitoring hundreds of servers.
Sharing knowledge, giving back
Johnson’s inventiveness and leadership have not gone unnoticed.
The Cimcor CEO has appeared on several national and global platforms talking about what he knows best: the world of tech. He has made appearances on World Business Review, CNN, Bloomberg Radio and Inside Indiana Business, as well as presented at the 2008 International Conference on Digital Information Management in London and has presented at the CSI (Computer Services Inc.) annual conference.
He also has worked tirelessly to build a legacy of tech in the Region, particularly when it comes to educating the next generation of tech workers, leaders and entrepreneurs.
He serves on advisory boards for Valparaiso University’s Cyber Operations/IT programs, PNW’s Computer Technology department, Indiana University Northwest’s Computer Information Sciences programs, and Abu Dhabi University’s College of Business Administration. He also is on the Dean’s Executive Council for PNW.
In addition, he currently serves as chairman of the board of directors of the Legacy Foundation and on the board of directors for the Methodist Hospitals. And those are just some of the organizations he currently lends his expertise to.
Johnson also has served as committee co-chairman of the Northwest Indiana Good Government Initiative and was appointed by the governor of Indiana to the board of commissioners for the State Student Assistance Commission of Indiana.