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An interview with

Roger Boisvert, redux

In the December 1993 and January 1994 issues of the Algorithmica Japonica, then-Vice President and Editor Wm. Auckerman ran an interview he had done on November 11, with Roger Boisvert, in a Mister Donut shop in Kichijoji. To give you a picture of the times, the introduction began with "Most of you have probably heard of the Internet by now: that vast international metanetwork (a network of networks) linking over 2.3 million host computers via nearly 50,000 registered internetworks in 137 countries (and growing by some 20% per month). Until now, though, access to the Internet from Japan was difficult at best and, unless you were lucky enough to work at a university or large company with Internet access, expensive as well. That has changed, though, thanks in part to former TPC president Roger Boisvert. After 9 years at McKinsey and Company, Roger left in September to become president of InterCon International KK, Japan's first commercial Internet service provider." If you were to look up the current statistics for the Internet, you would see that they have changed dramatically since that time eight years ago. Roger rode that wave of change with panache, imagination, and dexterity right up until his untimely death, and helped many others to keep up with the changes, too. The interview is excerpted here; photocopies of the entire interview can be obtained by contacting the Algorithmica Japonica editor at

AJ: Let's move the focus back to your company. Tell me about your parent company in Herndon, Virginia.
Why did they decide to enter the Japanese market?

RB: It was originally a software company. The dream of that company when it was born was to make access to the Internet easier for ordinary people. Before that, the Unix gurus had no sweat; they could figure out how to use the Net, and they had a good time with it. But for ordinary folk, the interface was too hard to use. Anyhow, the dream was easy-to-use software to make it easier to use Internet. The dream expanded to commercial access to the Internet, to make it easier for people to use the network. In the United States, there are 50 or 100 companies providing access--probably more than that. In Japan there was nobody, zero. So when they came to Japan and saw that there was nobody providing this service, they thought, "Gee, maybe we should do it."

       Look at it from this viewpoint: If our business is selling software to make usage easier, but nobody is using the network, if we can make it possible for people to access then we'll sell more software. It was really just an extension of making it easier for people to use the system. Since the system didn't exist here, so we'll create the system.

AJ: Is your parent company a large organization?
RB: The parent company is small, just over 50 people; it's been in business for 5 years. It's growing about 10% per month, which is respectable, but it could be doing better. I intend to see my company growing at 20% per month reasonably soon.

       InterCon International KK only has a few customers now--a couple is more accurate. It takes time to make these sales. It's still busy, though. We don't yet have the toys and tools to make it easier: all the management tools aren't in place yet, on the computer side, and certainly internally we don't have all the tools; there are too few people--things like that. It takes a little time to get started, but I'd say that within a couple of months we'll start taking off. Then we'll have sales people; we'll have engineering staff--local engineering staff instead of a borrowed American.
       Probably the greatest difficulty for us is finding qualified engineers: people who understand IP (Internet Protocol). There are few in Japan: 142 people who've gone through some formal training, total, in all of Japan. My engineer has 8 years of experience in the IP field alone. The best we know of in Japan is 2 years. And there's a vast difference between 2 years of experience and 8 years.

AJ: Do you expect the market for commercial use of Internet in Japan to grow rapidly?
RB: The first government-authorized and accepted commercial use of the Internet in Japan was September 17, 8:02 p.m. The guy from my company responsible for the academic network was sitting with us at the moment that happened. He was very pleased to see it happen; it means that all those companies that are using up his bandwidth now have no excuse.

       JPNIC is not setting it up to make growth of the Internet quick in Japan; they're designing it for slow growth. I'm not sure that it's intentional; I think it's poor business judgement by some very young, inexperienced academics. The result is extremely high cost right now. Let's just say the costs are way too high, beyond what we need to charge; there are also extremely high leased line costs. I'm getting numbers now, but I understand that to lease a line in Japan is 6 to 8 times what it is in the States. Also, it costs $25 to register in the States; it costs 100,000 here.

AJ: That's quite a difference.
RB: There's a big difference between $25 and $1,000. There are extremely high costs, and we're stuck with the consequences. So nobody is going to get $25 per month access in Japan; it ain't going to happen for a while, I can tell you.

       If people ever talk the Japanese government into providing both free access to the backbone, and a free international leased line, then we can begin to expect prices even more competitive with American pricing. Don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen, though. The Japanese government is not likely to do either of those in a big rush.

AJ: Let's move back in history a bit. How did you get started in the computer field?
RB: Let me think of a short way to tell this story...I was working in Canada as a marketing analyst. The I got a phone call late one night from my mother-in-law that said, "help!'

       The basic situation was that my brother-in-law had opened a coffee shop, used my mother-in-law's money, then the moment he opened it up, he got sick. He could only handle an hour or two a day, so my mother-in-law, who was a retired housewife, now had to work in his coffee shop. She didn't want to, but she had no choice; all her retirement savings was tied up in this thing. It was lose it all, or work it. So she started working 100 hours a week doing something she didn't like.
       She asked if we could help. I thought, well, if I send money she'll pay debts, and there's no end to it. So if we were going to help, the only way was to do it physically, to be there and do it. So we moved to Japan. I worked 60 hours a week in the coffee shop, unpaid, then taught English on the side for 40 hours a week because I needed steady income--I had a wife and kid to take care of.
       We sold out the coffee shop at break-even a year-and-a-half later, and of course I was hankering to get a reasonable career again, because teaching English was not my desire. A friend of mine, my climbing partner, suggested I talk with this one headhunter. And the woman liked me. An interesting piece of the story is that the woman's business was placing women. She had not placed a man in years.
       What she was looking for was, is the guy non-sexist, first of all? Am I fair to women, things like that. She decided that I was OK, so she said, "there's this company called McKinsey. Know anything about them?" I said, "They're accountants or something, aren't they?"
       She said they were looking for a computer expert. I said, "What are you telling me for? I have no background, I know nothing about computers." She said, "Don't worry about that." Then she stood up--this is inside a coffee shop--walked over to the phone in the shop, stuck in 10 yen, dialed the number, and turned around and handed me the telephone.
       I thought, Oh my God, Oh my God. When I got on the line with the person I was supposed to be speaking with, he said, "We're looking for a computer expert. What's your background?" I said I had none in computers.
       He said, "Well, what are you calling for?" So I replied, "Let me ask you a question: Why are you looking for a computer expert?" he replied that they needed somebody who could bring in computer knowledge and skills to their Tokyo office.
       Me, grasping at straws, I said, "Oh, then you don't want a computer expert. You want somebody who can teach, to teach beginners, right?" There was silence at the other end. Now I was really grasping at straws, because I didn't want to teach English any more. After about 15 seconds of silence, I said, "I'm a teacher, I can teach." And there was another silence. Then finally he said come on in.
       I didn't know it then, but to McKinsey one of the things that are important is being able to challenge authority and standard logic. Standard logic says you need someone who's skilled in a subject to teach beginners and bring in a technology. My logic said you need somebody who can teach to teach it.
       They interviewed me, over the space of 6 months and 10 interview days, which was a long time. The job description changed a bit, because they couldn't find what they were looking for. Eventually they changed things so it was possible for me to be hired. It took 6 months to do it, and had they found a computer expert in the meantime, they would have hired that person. But they couldn't find anybody. At that time, 9 years ago, there were no such people in Japan.

AJ: But obviously you did eventually learn.
RB: I did begin to learn. I spent a month in the U.S. working with someone who did know the stuff. I started off teaching people as I was learning. I picked up skills on my own, because there was no one who could teach how to port Japanese text to an English computer, for instance. And it just grew from there.

       After six months or so, I was working on a study because there was no one else around who knew how to use computers. I figured out how to analyze 100MB of data, even though the biggest computer had a 20MB hard disk. The "experts" al said that it couldn't be done; the head office said, "Fire that man, he's insane, it can't be done." They checked with IBM; they said, "impossible." But we did it; it took seven computers, and mind you it wasn't easy, but we did it. Then because of that, I started working on other studies, learning more about computer technology...

AJ: How did you get started in telecommunications?
RB: Well, when I was working at McKinsey, I was off by myself, doing things that no one had done in Japan before. I needed to search around the world for other people who had the experience, the tools I needed.
       In fact, TPC is one of the first places I turned to. I heard about the Tokyo PC Club and went to one of the first meetings. I found a bunch of people there who were not afraid of beginners; most of them were learning themselves. There were no real experts in Japan at the time, so they were helping each other out. They were glad to try and answer my questions. But the meetings were only once a month; I needed a way to reach these people daily. Problems didn't happen just before a meeting--they were constant.
       It was about this time that the first TPC BBS was going up. I got involved immediately learning how to use it. I started using telecommunications then, not only in Japan but also worldwide to get answers and hold onto my job.
       So, I have a long history in communications, though certainly not in the Internet.

© Algorithmica Japonica Copyright Notice: Copyright of material rests with the individual author. Articles may be reprinted by other user groups if the author and original publication are credited. Any other reproduction or use of material herein is prohibited without prior written permission from TPC. The mention of names of products without indication of Trademark or Registered Trademark status in no way implies that these products are not so protected by law.

Algorithmica Japonica

November, 2001

The Newsletter of the Tokyo PC Users Group

Submissions : Editor

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