Silicon Grads

NYIT alumni talk about life in the center of the tech universe

By Michael Schiavetta (M.A. ’07)

“It’s all about taking risks,” says Bill Zerella (B.S. ’78). “If you risk and fail, you are still considered a success. In Silicon Valley, you can wear that as a badge of honor.”

The NYIT alumnus smiles as he reflects on this unique corner of Earth surrounding California’s Santa Clara Valley, whose name is synonymous with all things high-tech. Here, in Silicon Valley, is where the world of tomorrow starts its day.

From William Shockley’s invention of the first transistor in 1953 to the Internet boom of the 1990s to Steve Jobs’ introduction of the iPhone in 2006, Silicon Valley has always been the launch pad for technologies that define the world we live in today. High-profile companies that call this area home include Google, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, eBay, and Yahoo! How they achieved their fame and fortunes can be traced to one simple fact about life in the valley.

“There is a unique ecosystem here that supports venture capitalism,” says Bill. Built within the DNA of Silicon Valley are the strands that support the little startups that could: legal and accounting firms tailored for early-stage businesses; a highly skilled labor force that comprises the world’s top engineers and tech visionaries; and, of course, the cavernous pockets of investors looking to fund the next big thing.

Bill Zerella (B.S. '78) and his wife, Nancy (along with Clover and Waffle), at their home in Los Gatos, Calif.

“Other places around the world have tried to replicate this environment, but only with limited success,” says Bill. In Silicon Valley, your value is not based on where you come from or who you are, but rather on what you’ve accomplished since your arrival. Entrepreneurship and taking risks are all part of the game. And failure is just another way of saying “try again.”

Bill is the chief financial officer of San Jose, Calif.-based Force10 Networks, a global telecommunications provider that recently merged with Turin Networks (where he had served as CFO for nearly three years). The combined entity delivers data center networking equipment, wireless backhaul services, and Carrier Ethernet solutions to more than 1,300 corporate customers worldwide. Its services are also deployed at five of the top wireless network providers in the United States, as well as 11 of the top 17 broadband Internet service providers.

In addition, Force10’s merger with Turin resulted in an installed base of $1.2 billion of company equipment around the world. “Half of the Internet traffic in the United States will flow over our networks,” says Bill.

His role as CFO, he says, “keeps him busy.” But those who know him best also know that Bill is a man who enjoys a challenge. His father, a hard-working middle-class plumber who worked for the Port Authority of New York, dropped out of school in the eighth grade. It was a decision he would not let his son make.

“He understood the value of education,” says Bill, who holds degrees from NYIT and New York University. “As it turns out, he was right.”

Bill’s need to improve his worth through education blends well within an industry where information, knowledge, and the willingness to take risks are the catalysts of success.

“Bill was always driven by an entrepreneurial spirit,” says childhood friend Joe Ambroso (B.S. ’78), who serves as chief financial officer of New York-based real estate brokerage Remax Metro and president of executive search firm Lucern Partners Group. He recalls growing up with Bill in Babylon, N.Y., where they took the same classes in high school and even chose to attend NYIT together to earn bachelor’s degrees in accounting.

After getting his degree, Bill worked for several firms, including Anorad, a manufacturer of high-precision motion control equipment, which gave him his first exposure to the tech industry. In 1993, he moved to Baltimore, Md., to work for G-Tech, a transaction processing firm that focuses on the lottery and gaming industries. Four years later, amid the dot-com craze of the mid- to late 1990s, Bill headed to Silicon Valley to work for a startup.

From a business standpoint, it was a culture shock for the native Long Islander.

“The business culture in Silicon Valley is much different than New York,” says Bill. “There is less of a class system, even though the wealth is staggering.” And, not surprisingly, professionals in this region are more likely to immerse their careers and personal lives into an increasingly digital culture, and consequently are more attuned to emerging trends. In particular, two sectors of the tech industry are poised for sharp growth.

“The whole world is going wireless,” says Bill, noting that this sector is predicted to grow from $400 million to $5 billion over the next five years. Another hot segment is green technology. A February 2009 report by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network noted that green tech jobs grew 23 percent from 2005 to 2007. And despite the global economic downturn, venture capital investments in 2008 for the Silicon Valley green tech industry grew 94 percent over the previous year.

Although he works in the heart of the tech universe, Bill is not a lover of all technology. Like many parents, he could live without text messaging and video games. And he has grave concerns about digital security in a world where hackers stole the personal information of nearly 10 million Americans in 2008 alone.

Nevertheless, he remains a strong advocate of the Internet, which he describes as being as important to the modern world as the invention of the first integrated circuit. “It’s just incredible how the whole world is so connected.”

Sometimes, though, Bill enjoys unplugging himself from work to spend time with his wife of 25 years, Nancy, an interior designer, and their two children, Matthew and Emily. Together, they visit the areas surrounding Silicon Valley, including picturesque Napa Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The geography is just so beautiful,” says Bill.

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Spring 2009 Table of Contents