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Why Dream to Learn?

POSTED IN: My DTL blog: Chris' blog

Why Dream to Learn?  I have an eclectic history:  I have degrees in anthropology and law, and have spent fifteen years working as a web software programmer and technical executive in the San Francisco Bay area.  I start with what Dream to Learn means today, and then, for those interested, provide some detail on my past history. 

Dream to Learn

For me personally, Dream to Learn brings together four themes:

  • a passion for understanding, encouraging and facilitating constructive communities of all kinds
  • the conviction that being human means always to be learning
  • an abiding interest in and experience with software and internet technology, especially as it applies to facilitating social interaction
  • the certainty that we've only begun to explore the positive social potential of internet technology

This is a terrific time to starting a company devoted to online learning communities.  Cloud infrastructure companies like Amazon make it possible to avoid many of the startup costs that used to be a requirement for launching an online service.  The open source software ecosystem is rich and vibrant, and software like Apache's Cassandra database, which drives Dream to Learn, is not only free and open source, but arguably the best possible tool, regardless of price.  New programming ecosystems like Clojure -- which brings together the expressive power of Lisp with the simplicity of a functional programming language, and with easy access to the Java library ecosystem -- make it simpler to create feature-rich services.  

Dream to Learn, Inc., is a very small company.  I'm writing the code and doing all the systems and database engineering.  Eunice Woods is helping out with the user experience and the user interface. Ryan Anderson is a member of the board or directors, who is volunteering some of his time to help with product design, testing and strategy.  We're putting together a board of advisers, starting with Dan Senter.  Keeping the company very small and expenses low means that we can focus on building a great product, without worrying about rates of return for our investors (at the outset, we have two investors, myself and Ryan).  This is my fourth internet-software startup, and this time I want to focus on the product and do it right.

My earlier years

In school and in college, I was always driven in two directions.  What comes easiest to me is computer programming.  My first computer was an Apple II+, and I wrote endless programs in Basic and assembler. I remember spending part of the summer before college writing an editor for 6502 assembler code, in assember.  But computer programming was too easy, because it operates on pure systems.  Yes, those systems do interact with the world outside, but in the 1980's that interaction felt very limited to me.  In the world at large, nuclear annhiliation was an ever-present threat, revolutionary upheavals were happening or trying to happen in Central America.  Trying to come to understand that world felt more important to me, and so I studied anthropology, traveled in South America, and did the Canadian equivalent to the US Peace Corps, Canada World Youth.  I kept up with programming, finishing a minor in Computer Science at the University of Toronto, but my focus remained on the social sciences.  

For graduate school, I considered focusing on the conflicts in the middle east, but decided instead to go to law school.  I was impressed by what I saw as the power of international law in the Montreal Protocol then being negotiated to ban CFC's that were threatening the ozone layer.  I chose to got to Dalhousie Law School in Halifax because of their strength in environmental law.  I loved law school for the discipline of reducing complicated real-life problems to logical systems, and I excelled -- I came first in my class, and went from law school directly to clerk for the Supreme Court of Canada.  From there I went to do a one-year master's in law at Harvard with a Fulbright scholarship.  The original plan had been to go from there directly into a law-teaching job at a Canadian law school, but opportunities were limited that year, and I was loving being at Harvard.  

So I went on into the Ph.D. program in social anthropology at Harvard.  I was fortunate to be able to study under the legal anthropologist, Sally Falk Moore.  Professor Moore finished her law degree at Columbia in 1945, and then to work at the Nuremberg trials after the end of World War II.  From there she did her Ph.D. in anthropology at Columbia, and has spent her career studying how law works as a social practice, with her principal fieldwork in Tanzania.  I did my own fieldwork in Guatemala, working with Guatemalan refugees who were returning from Mexico at the end of the brutal Guatemalan civil war. My initial focus was to be on the meaning of "human rights" for these returnees, but my focus shifted to the attempt of a specific group of returnees to form a new community, with all the damage that had been done by the years of war.  

I did my fieldwork in Guatemala in the second half of the 1990s, just as the internet and the web were taking off.  I took a laptop and a solar panel with me into the jungle in Guatemala.  I started using Eastgate's Storyspace software to write my field notes as hypertext, but the program was buggy and I lost my data too many times.  So instead, starting from a bibliography management program that I had written and used for my papers in graduate school, I wrote my own hypermedia database program.  The program quickly went from a way of managing my own notes, to a way of generating a hypermedia web, with hundreds of thousands of links.  I generated my dissertation as a CD-ROM, with the academic chapters of the dissertation itself linked to the supporting material -- people's stories, the kinship relationships between people, where they had lived, and so on.  I called it an ethnoweb.

However, my committee wasn't at all excited by the idea of a dissertation on CD-ROM.  I did eventually hand in my dissertation in paper form (just a printout of the dissertation chapters from the ethnoweb CD-ROM) and get my Ph.D. But this was the late 1990s, and the internet bubble was expanding rapdily.  I found a job working for a startup started by a theoretical physicist from Harvard, Uri Sarid.  DigiGroups was building online communities for business.  I ended up writing a lot of code, including an API very much like JSON (which hadn't been invented yet) for communicating between client and server.  I left DigiGroups in 1999, some time before the company was sold, to become the director of engineering for Presedia, a small startup building presentation software.  Presedia was then acquired by Macromedia, which was later acquired by Adobe.  The underlying Presedia technology became what is now Adobe Connect -- a web conferencing platform.  

Concurrently, on my own time, I was writing the server code for Secure Diagnostic Imaging, a service for the remote diagnosis of eye diseases using stereo images.  The service is still in very active use, and has helped tens of thousands of patients in Canada and in Africa.

In 2007, Michael Fitzpatrick and I left Adobe to co-found ConnectSolutions.  As the CTO at ConnectSolutions, I built a platform for hosting, managing and extending Adobe Connect.  This platform drives some of the largest installations of Adobe Connect, including what is likely the largest one of all, the US Department of Defense.  ConnectSolutions was a profitable company from early on -- we started with a small seed loan which we quickly repaid, and then grew organically.  In late 2012, we took on our first round of VC funding from Frontier Capital, to help the company grow more quickly.  As of July 2013, ConnectSolutions had 60 employees.

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About the Author

Chris Tennant

Chris Tennant

I co-founded Dream to Learn in 2013. I love the outdoors, growing and building things, and the challenge and beauty of writing computer code. I live in Eugene, Oregon with my wife Giuditta, my two kids Joshua and Rebecca, and our cats Sprinkie and Hugino.

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Created: June 28, 2014


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