Tom Van Laan (M.B.A. ’84) is CEO of Houston, Texas-based CloudCalc, Inc., a provider of cloud-based structural analysis. This software allows engineers to design, analyze, and collaborate from anywhere, using a mobile device or PC. Specifically, it allows engineering project teams to determine whether the response of a structure to the loads imposed by various internal and external factors—such as the occupants, adverse weather, earthquakes, and other anticipated events—conforms to the requirements of the applicable building regulations.
Van Laan believes that software development is one of the greatest forms of creative expression in the 21st century. “Using this medium, you can create almost anything you can imagine, more quickly and less expensively than you can working in just about any other way,” he says.
Van Laan also enjoys writing—he has authored a book (Piping and Pipe Support Systems: Design and Engineering, published by McGraw-Hill) and currently writes a blog (blog.CloudCalc.com), where he shares his thoughts on everything from general computer tips to marathon running to world travel to dancing, all as seen through the eyes of an engineer.
After graduating from high school in 1974, Van Laan decided that technology was the best career path for him. The only problem? He didn’t like computers. “Working on large mainframes back then, you had to wait in line and run punch cards through the reader,” he says. “It was a bottleneck that isolated the person from the computer.”
That all changed in the late 1970s when personal computers such as the Apple II and TRS-80 were introduced. This fueled a new passion—to be an entrepreneur and run his own software firm. Van Laan put together a “preparedness” plan that included additional education to boost his computer science, sales and marketing, and business management skills, in addition to achieving professional licensure as an engineer and gaining recognition as a published author.
He also shelled out more than $3,000 for a state-of-the-art computer in 1980—an HP-85 desktop unit complete with a built-in monochrome screen, 16K RAM, and tape drive backup. “I had a conflict with money at the time because I met a woman I wanted to marry and could buy either the computer or a ring,” he recalls. He explained to her his roadmap for becoming a technology entrepreneur—believing in him, she simply said: “Go for the computer.” He later married that woman, Ruth, in 1981, and today they have three children—Nick, Marika, and Katrina.
As part of his five-year plan, Van Laan researched M.B.A. programs in the New York City area. Working as an engineer in the Manhattan offices of EBASCO Services, however, didn’t give him lots of free time. “New York Tech offered the opportunity to take evening and weekend classes, allowing me to fit classwork into a busy schedule,” he says.
One of his favorite New York Tech classes was organizational psychology in which he learned how to manage employees through win-win solutions. This would prove essential years later when Van Laan became CEO of COADE, a developer of engineering software for the plant and process industry, a position he held for more than 15 years. “There was a constant challenge to solve problems and bring out the best in everyone,” he recalls. “What drove me was trying to turn every problem into a win-win situation like I was taught at New York Tech. Once I analyzed a conflict to see what people really wanted, finding a way to deliver a win-win outcome became very easy.”
In 2014, Van Laan founded CloudCalc after seeing the potential for cloud computing to deliver the ultimate engineering solution—one that combined mobility, web access across any device, and seamless collaboration. Already the company serves 2,000 customers across 100 countries. “Now engineers can visit job sites, make changes, and get feedback instantly,” he says. “The cloud promotes collaboration. And users always have the latest software without needing additional IT support. CloudCalc really delivers everything engineers and their clients want.”