Sept 26, 2004
By RICHIE DAVIS
You’d never know by looking at the blue-shingle house on Greenfield’s Orchard Street, with its crimson shutters, but this is a high-tech hub.
Richard Roth, who has lived and worked here for three years, calls himself a software developer and more recently an “architect” of World Wide Web sites, providing intricate “back-end solutions” for complicated addresses in cyberspaces.
With long brown hair tied neatly behind him, a long moustache, wide wire-rimmed glasses and a rapid-fire patter, Roth is a super-geek, wired, yet as relaxed as if he were home with the technology. He is.
“At any one time, we’re phasing in something new – or actually, 10 at a time,” he says, alluding to a core of co-workers in New Jersey, New York, around the Pioneer Valley and beyond who tweak cyber-solutions by e-mail, instant messages and phone.
From this unlikely perch in Greenfield, Roth has overseen On-the-Net, which helps troubleshoot and build onto existing Web sites with custom tools to fit needs that clients say they want “yesterday.”
Roth’s newly created TNR Global – of which On-the-Net is a component, also does domain registration, Web hosting, design and administration, database development and e-mail purging. Customers also include Crain’s Industrial Publications and First USA Bank’s Credit Card Division.
With six employees, who work mostly from their own homes around the Pioneer Valley, Roth’s virtual business and those it works with have helped develop and service a variety of complex Web sites. The linchpin is Thomas Publishing Co.’s searchable, digital directories to more than a half-million service companies.
Thomas, which has a massive database of manufacturers, distributors, dealers and services, has – with help from Roth and his partners – published a galaxy of continually updated Web sites, advertisements and mailing lists. Just keeping track moment to moment of pending changes in various stages requires a separate directory, and virtual “sticky messages” that steadily appear and proliferate on the computer monitor in Roth’s office.
It’s hard to imagine that this used to be someone’s upstairs bedroom.
“I will do only that for which I have passion,” reads one of many dotting the walls, amid crammed bookcases and cybertools.
“Thomas has billions of data records,” said Roth. “Any real heavy Web site has constant improvements, with interaction between various levels of customers feeding back to us.”
Every morning at 2 a.m., one of Roth’s two dozen Web servers automatically reaches into the Thomas computers and picks up new data. Using as many as 40 intricate checks, it repairs “broken” links to and from thousands of Web sites.
Pioneering in cyberspace
From the last decade’s seemingly ancient days dominated by online bulletin boards, Roth began “massaging” data for use on the emerging World Wide Web to help companies tackle new ways of doing business.
In 1996, he teamed up with New Jersey-based Creative Media Group to create online versions of the century-old printed Thomas directories. Thomas gathers the data, selling ads, subscriptions and other services – and then turns it over to the computer firms to juggle.
“A lot of what we do is try to figure out what they want and guess it far enough ahead of time to be one step ahead them,” Roth said. “Until someone sits down with a technology, they don’t know what they want.”
Roth seemingly got a jump start in technology before he was born.
His grandfather designed airplanes in the 1920s. His father designed automobiles in the 1940s. He has been programming computers since he was a high school student on Long Island, where he also did an early experiment in computer-aided instruction in the 1960s. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.
With an advanced systems engineering degree under his belt in 1972, he worked as a program designer on the West Coast in the 1970s, expanding his own expertise with mini-computers as they grew from technical toys to powerful personal computers today. Roth moved to Connecticut in 1977 and then to Northampton seven years ago, starting seven companies along the way. Among these was DataViz, which produced MacLink, a key translator between Macintosh and Windows formats.
Roth also found time to share his expertise in manuals and articles, and in courses at Hampshire College, Greenfield Community College and elsewhere. One guidebook is titled, “So You Want to Be an Internet Provider.”
“In 1968, when I was in high school, we did online dial-up,” he said. “Then I was doing dial-up in the ’70s, when I moved from San Francisco to L.A., and I was linked to the computers in L.A. This stuff is not new to me, but how you apply it is part of the challenge.”
Building on the growth of the Internet in 1994, Roth started On-the-Net, which troubleshoots for Web site developers and provides security and other services for about 3,000 sites.
Roth’s world of cyber-juggling – partly reflected by a dozen instant messages from virtual partners and employees that appear on his screen as he talks with a visitor for an hour or so – requires a Mission Impossible mentality:
“There are aspects of this technology that say, ‘You can’t do that,’ but a lot of us say, ‘Yes, you can.’ That has to do with the 80-20 rule. Maybe you can’t do 100 percent, but you can usually do a heck of a lot better than 20 percent,” Roth says. “If you carve out the right piece down to what they really need, you can do something that comes pretty close to taking it to the next step.”
On the Internet: http://www.tnrglobal.com