|Irish Arts & Entertainment, October, 2015|
We first had the good fortune of meeting Irish born Walter O'Brien at the St. Patrick's Day Civic Day Luncheon hosted by the Irish Fair Foundation at Tom Bergins Pub on Fairfax in March earlier this year. O'Brien was in attendance as he had been chosen as one Walter O'Brien of the well deserving Irish Honorees in the City of Los Angeles by the City and the Foundation.
We had done a piece in the March Irish Arts & Entertainment on the honorees and I immediately recognized O'Brien from his picture. For our readers that do not know Walter O'Brien (and to set up the story of my self introduction), let me explain).
The CBS hit drama series Scorpion is based on the true life character Walter O'Brien who is one of God's and/or Nature's anomalies and gifts to the world. O'Brien by any standard is a genius, a problem solver, computer whiz and tactician of the First Order with an IQ much higher than Einstein's. The show depicts the exploits, many fictional but some based or drawn from the real life experiences of O'Brien and his team of other high level geekish peers and specialized problem solvers. It is a great show that has captivated viewers (Over 26 Million for the premier) and will surely become a mainstay of classic TV action drama for many years to come.
With this knowledge in hand, I calmly walked up to THE Walter O'Brien and introduced myself by glibly saying, "Hi, I'm Jim McDonough, it is a real pleasure to finally meet someone as smart as I am!" O'Brien smiled and shook my hand, he was quite cordial, very warm and by his reply obviously a good sport, "Well, there aren't that many of us, we've got to stick together, it's good to meet you!"
I was of course flattered and for a split second was not sure if he knew I was kidding (he knew) but I was delighted at his cheerful and open response and how approachable this guy was.
We chatted for a couple minutes and agreed to follow up. By dint of good Irish Luck, we ran into him again as he was asked to walk in the Big Irish Fair parade again in June and we set up the ensuing interview. At the Irish Fair, Walter was relaxed, very friendly and obviously enjoying himself.
Our next conversation was by phone to set up our interview which transpired in early July at Tom Bergin's Pub on Fairfax in Los Angeles. Even on our phone call, I could not help but notice how outgoing, open and interesting O'Brien was. I was looking forward to meeting him to learn more about this exemplary example of the good natured Irishman.
Our first glitch was the time of the meeting. I had suggested 4:00pm at the pub on Fairfax and it turns out they do not open till 5:00pm. I was somewhat embarrassed for not double checking the time but I did not want to waste his time so I called him to apprise him of the situation. No problem was his immediate reply, traffic was heavy and he pulled into the empty lot a few minutes late.
He was driving kind of a non descript late model luxury car and we ended up sitting there doing a preliminary interview and gab session.
O'Brien is a multi faceted individual and he is so quick that frankly it was sometimes a little hard for me to keep up with him. One of his facets, an ability to express sheer delight, is part of his charm. He was gleeful as he told me about his car!
The time in the Tom Bergin's parking lot flew by as we just chatted and O'Brien told me about growing up in Ireland and his early life as a very smart, very inquisitive yet somehow very normal little Irish boy. He credits his parents and his Irish upbringing with his caring nature and desire to always be a decent and productive person.
This brings up another facet of Walter O'Brien, he is in many ways a very private and reserved person. For a lot of reasons, he likes to keep his family out of the limelight. He is proud of his parents and siblings and close to them but we respect his wishes on that topic so for that reason his early life is kept to a bare minimum. In general, O'Brien did share a couple early childhood memories with us.
Walter O'Brien was born in Wexford, Ireland on February 24, 1975 where his Father was a farmer. The family moved to a larger farm near Kilkenny about 10 years later. O'Brien always attended local schools run by the Christian Brothers as a child.
I asked him if he read a lot when he was little and he replied that he did not but then went on to relate how he did read and like adventure stories and war stories. (Clues to a budding tactician and global strategist for sure!) He did remember being a very inquisitive and high energy kid who was constantly asking his older, calmer brother questions about everything. He also was fond of taking things apart to see how the worked, radios and TVs. Signs of his high intelligence did emerge early however, he had an insatiable desire to solve riddles and puzzles of every sort. He was always more of a problem solver than a reader, his Mother would buy him puzzle books well past his age level and he would quickly go through them and request more. His interest and affinity for computer technology began when he was just nine when his Dad picked up an early home computer, an Amstrad, made in the UK around 1984. His next step was to get his first Commodore computer, a very early IBM running DOS. This was long before the internet or browsers existed but the young O'Brien figured out to go through his phone line to hook into networks and bulletin boards in England and eventually discover the early Compuserve network. He admits to running up the family phone bill in those early days too.
Walter's Young Life and Early Exceptionalism
At school and through his early cyber outreach he became friends with other bright peers as he learned and exchanged information. This is also a big clue to O'Brien's future and consummate networking skill that he uses so well to this day.
We got the true story of one of his early hacks, the Space Shuttle caper; it is actually more intriguing but less dramatic than the version that is the opening of the Scorpion TV Show. It happened as young O'Brien was delving into his information gathering via the primitive pre internet "networks" he stumbled on a very big file and he was curious as to what it was. After numerous attempts (and frequent disconnections) the then 13 year old Walter figured out how to download and save the information in the file in small pieces on his own computer. After about four days of steady undetected hacking, he had the whole file. He printed out all the pages and put them together "like a jigsaw puzzle" and had a detailed blueprint of NASA's Space-shuttle on his wall as a trophy for his hard work. Even at 13, he figured he might have gone a bit too far so he consulted with his young colleagues and was prepared with a defense and an extradition waiver agreement should any authorities track him down. Sure enough the NSA via some INTERPOL agents paid a visit to the family home to check him out. He was able to explain his innocence and zeal and they ended up making a deal. At least that is all he is allowed to disclose about the incident.
Another facet of his being that O'Brien displayed and mastered at a young age was an amazing ability to focus. His determination and tenacity when working on a project are the stuff that legends are made from. An early example was his singleminded and singlehanded creation of one of the most complex computer generated code translation programs ever designed, WinLocX. He identified a need and problem and figured out how to solve it while still in college at Sussex University in the UK.
At Sussex, he met and became friends with a group of linguists. He also learned a new concept: Globalization- Localization (See MORE in Business Highlights Box p.27). In this instance the concept was an opportunity. At this point in time, there was an immense amount of software on the market created, marketed and owned by a variety of companies including Microsoft, Oracle and others. The software was primarily written in English. There was a huge demand for the thousands of programs and applications already in use in other markets around the world. The enormous hurdle was how to efficiently and quickly translate the software for use in all of those new markets and in different languages. As daunting as the task seemed; O'Brien was convinced that a program could be written that could be adapted to help translate the original software into dozens of other languages whilst taking into consideration all of the linguistic and cultural oddities and exceptions.
In fact, the project became his final thesis and he needed to turn his concept into a workable solution to graduate. The young O'Brien had a lot at stake and "Failure Was Not An Option." Often working alone for months on end and with his degree, reputation and future all on the line; O'Brien persevered and finally the fourteenth version of the program worked. After he graduated from Sussex, he came to the United States where his software was adapted and enhanced to translate English software instructions into 49 different languages. He went on to provide the solution to fortune 500 companies and acquired countless customers (at about 12 cents per word translated) and the translation company was eventually acquired by a Microsoft subsidiary. That early stroke of genius at identifying the problem and monetizing the solution made O'Brien a wealthy man.
Walter the Unassuming Mogul
O'Brien is obviously an astute businessman and entrepreneur. These are traits and skills that he seemed to master and hone from his early consulting days back as a young consultant in Kilkenny when he founded Scorpion Computer Services as a teenager. To put it mildly, O'Brien has stayed busy for most of his life. Even as a young teenager he had started a business in his hometown in Ireland. He named it Scorpion Computer services, an homage to his hacker name. He told me it was, "An early Geek Squad type enterprise, fixing bad floppy discs and setting up printers." He even sold custom computers rivaling Dell in early sales numbers. O'Brien explained that he wore a suit to try to look older than his 15 years and even emulated a deeper voice on business phone calls.
To his great credit and once again that streak of determination, that first entrepreneurial venture has been in continuous operation, albeit now with Fortune 500 clients and the US Military. O'Brien has always had Scorpion, through his school years to the present, they are intertwined.
Again in college in the UK while delving into such cutting edge ideas and technology (remember this is in the early 90s) as Artificial Intelligence and Globalization Localization, he certainly was aware of the potential to make money from his endeavors. Our impression of O'Brien is that it takes a lot more than the money aspects of his work to challenge him.
What makes him tick is a deep sense of making a positive contribution along with solving the problem. Again, from an early age, the task itself combined with the solving of the puzzle brought and brings satisfaction.
Another facet that is unique about O'Brien is his desire to inspire and foster others to make a contribution; to lead by example.
We have interviewed a lot of highly successful and motivated people in the past twenty years. With O'Brien, there was a definite distinction, when we were discussing successes; he equated ScenGen and inspiring an 11 year old who developed an App because of watching Scorpion with equal pleasure.
We spoke of some rather esoteric principles related to the Common Good and the general well being of humans and society. O'Brien, despite the deep challenges and nature of his efforts and the very real dangers that he is helping to avert with US Government agencies; is still an optimist! In less than twenty years since his graduation from college. O'Brien has racked up a formidable and impressive list of business and technological breakthroughs and successes.
After he sold to a Microsoft subsidiary in 1997, his next big project was working for one of the biggest investment funds in the world. He developed complex systems and processes to mitigate risk and help ensure the smooth running of their worldwide computer and database networks for seven years. It was during this period that O'Brien built his residence just minutes from the office in downtown Los Angeles.
Meticulous calculations are part of O'Brien's DNA. He chose his home location because it was close in time to his work; he explained that, "...at $1 million dollars a minute cost of downtime...you don't want to be stuck in traffic." His Ferrari, which he dreamed of as a boy sits in his garage most of the time. He calculates the risk and drives it minimally. He likes a motorcycle but insurance statistics indicate he would be 35 times more likely to die in a crash.
O'Brien cannot be summed up easily and his story will likely continue for decades or more as he is only forty. More than anything, he wants to foster the best, to find and nourish potential in others and to make a lasting contribution to humanity. One thing we can say with certainty, he will be making a positive difference and solving problems for many years to come so stay tuned for more on Walter
- Jim McDonough, Irish Arts & Entertainment
After the completion of the senior thesis, O'Brien worked briefly with ISOCOR and Oracle's Worldwide Translation Group in Dublin which soon led to moving to the US. Says. O'Brien about that period and the ensuing products, "The system I developed made it possible for technology companies to quickly translate code into 49 languages. "I basically developed a dictionary that remembered context so the results could be replicated. Sometimes in different versions, 95% of the translations would be the same and it was very efficient and quick for them to use my software."
Move to Los Angeles:
His next big project was in 1999 with an ex-Aero-space company in El Segundo that produced manufacturing software. He moved then to Los Angeles and took on a performance based contract translating a system with 20 million lines of code to Chinese and Japanese. The end result was a product line that was so successful in Asia that the El Segundo company was acquired by a $55bn corporation, Fujitsu. At 24. O'Brien was made the youngest Director in the newly merged entity.
In 2001, O'Brien began a 7 year consulting stint with one of the largest mutual funds in the world with its HQ in downtown L.A. The company managed $1.9 Trillion in assets for 59 million people's retirement and college plans. Under O'Brien's guidance, the system's efficiency went from 92% to 99.9% resulting in billions of dollars in savings.
2012 to the present: Creation of ScenGen:
Walter O'Brien created a scenario generation simulator (ScenGen) used by Lockheed Martin and Northrop Gruman as well as the US Navy's Command and Control system. This system has been used for the battle in Afghanistan and resulted in the saving of lives of American military members.
Scorpion Computer Services which he founded as a kid in Ireland was a forerunner of the "Geek Squads" of today. Says O'Brien, "I have had Scorpion from the beginning, no matter what, and to this day; it is always a part of what I was doing" Scorpion is evolving, O'Brien now sees it not just a high level consulting group but as a model of a think tank that will solve and assist business and society. He explained, "Think of it this way, we want to find and concentrate on harnessing genius, to put the best and the brightest people together. So instead of having an underpaid brilliant teacher working alone, an incredibly smart kid (Maybe a hacker) in jail and not understood or a genius misfit in the corporate world; all of them not connected. We connect them with other highly capable individuals and we solve problems. That is my vision of Scorpion."
SCORPION, the hit CBS Show is based on the precept...
When Failure is Not an Option O'Brien is also the creator and the Executive Producer of Scorpion which went into its second season on CBS in September. It is a great show with several very positive messages delivered via the sometimes poignant and always entertaining plots. The messages are that every problem has a solution which is a wondrous idea especially with today's seemingly endless barrages of dismay and failure from the news and most of the dystopia peddled as entertainment. Another incredible message is taken away by thousands of young smart viewers is that "being smart is cool,"