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Sep. 7, 2012 10:30 am

Ed Mullin: Robotics shows kids that “This could get me a job someday at NASA”

Ed Mullin is the self-proclaimed robot guy in the [Baltimore Tech] Facebook group. Had you attended the Robotics Olympiad in August, you might’ve seen Mullin strolling around. About 12 years ago, Mullin was the CTO and second employee for Jason Hardebeck’s WhoGlue during its early days—long before the startup, which enabled membership organizations to create […]

Ed Mullin is the self-proclaimed robot guy in the [Baltimore Tech] Facebook group. Had you attended the Robotics Olympiad in August, you might’ve seen Mullin strolling around.

About 12 years ago, Mullin was the CTO and second employee for Jason Hardebeck’s WhoGlue during its early days—long before the startup, which enabled membership organizations to create private social networks, sued Facebook (before being bought out by Zuckerberg and company)—and Mullin wrote the code for the first version of the product.

Now Mullin works as the CIO for Towson-based LCG Technologies, a consulting group that instructs corporations how best to invest in information technology.

A proud Baltimorean—Mullin went to Calvert Hall College High School and Loyola University Maryland when it was still called college—he’s now active in assisting the Digital Harbor Foundation and several other groups arrange for the first-ever Baltimore City Public Schools’ robotics competition, tentatively scheduled for May 2013 at Johns Hopkins University. He does this when he’s not feeding the chickens on his 38-acre farm in Baltimore County.

Technically Baltimore sat down with Mullin to glean something from his startup know-how and find out why robots might be the answer to a robust Charm City workforce.

TB: You were once the startup guy. What do you think startups in Baltimore city today don’t understand about growing a business?

EM: Ideas are a dime a dozen. Ideas are like body orifices. Everybody’s got them. The issue is execution and marketing and taking it to the end zone. And then, what is the point of doing it even if you get it all that way? Did you change the world for the better? Did you employ a bunch of people? Did you make a lot of money for yourself? When we were doing WhoGlue we actually thought we were going to change the world. And if we had been Facebook, we would’ve.

TB: Except WhoGlue was eventually bought by Facebook. What advice has come out of that?

EM: I don’t want to crush anybody’s dream. But on the other hand, in certain circles, I play the role of the guy from the big companies. And I like that role because I’m like, ‘Try to think about this maturely, guys.’ If you don’t have an exit strategy, if you don’ t have a customer base—they’re always all, ‘How do I get funding?’ How do you get some customers? Because if you have customers, you don’t need funding.

TB: Venture capital isn’t all that bad, though.

EM: What [venture capitalists] want is to give you money for three years and either sell your company for a large profit or take it public, which is probably not going to happen. Those are all things that are not inherently good for the environment of a city. Because selling it out to another company is wonderful, but then that probably means leaving.

TB: Does that mean there’s too much emphasis on startup culture in Baltimore?

EM: I work with all these companies, and as I go around they ask, ‘Ed, do you know any .NET developers?’ We can’t find any because they’re all off doing PHP trying to be the next Zuckerberg in some startup. I don’t want to tell people not to do that, but I hope you’re not sorry in five years when you’re not Mark Zuckerberg.

TB: In other words, there are technology jobs here already that are just fine.

EM: The part that cracks me up about Baltimore TechBreakfast—and I love that event, and I love Ron [Schmelzer, the organizer], don’t get me wrong. I think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. But they use that term tech, and I’m like, guys, you are the one percent of tech in the Baltimore area.

And I often think that money, energy and thoughts go way toward that one percent. Whereas the other 99 percent of tech in the area is big tech, and if you want to create a workforce that’s got good chances to have good-paying good jobs that stay in the area, stop focusing on that one percent and get your butt over on focusing on the 99 percent.

TB: And we have an untapped workforce of young city schools’ students who could take those big tech jobs.

EM: The problem is, the kids don’t have the skills. They can’t do the work. So you have this workforce and you have this chasm between them and the actual jobs. And there’s no good way to get across at the moment. There could be, and we’re trying to figure out sustainable ways to get kids across, but it’s a work in progress.

TB: Presumably, this is where the robots come in? Give kids robots, and gradually they learn skills that can be used in the IT departments of big companies. 

EM: Robotics gets people off the sidelines and intermixing. The cool thing about it is that it’s fun and kids enjoy it and you can bust through the digital divide for a very low price without a tremendous amount of effort. … I was blown away when I went to [my] first competition and saw the kids were forced to work in a team. They have to do engineering notebooks and they have to present that to the judges. All this stuff prepares them.

TB: So a robotics event—like that Robotics Olympiad this summer—becomes a scouting ground for company recruiters. 

EM: It absolutely is. When my kids lucked out and went to the world championship, that’s when I realized. … The engineering companies were there. They had a mini trade show. They had all this equipment out and let the kids play with [the equipment]. We need to get these [robotics] leagues moved out of the privileged few and out to the many.

TB: Which is why we’re now looking at a 2013 robotics competition for Baltimore city public school students. 

EM: That will be a major competition for the city schools, and we’re trying to get some really good sponsors. Like the Super Bowl, there’s a lot of show and theater to it. And the more of that we can do—and also have booths there from area colleges and future employers and things like that, things that they have at the world championships—that shows kids not only we’re having fun, but “This is going somewhere. This could get me a job someday at NASA.”

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Andrew Zaleski

Andrew Zaleski is a freelance journalist in Philadelphia and the former lead reporter for Technical.ly Baltimore. Before moving to Philadelphia in June 2014, he was a contributing writer to Baltimore City Paper and a Tech Check commentator for WYPR 88.1 FM, Baltimore city’s National Public Radio affiliate. He has written for The Atlantic, Outside, Richmond magazine, Washington City Paper, Baltimore magazine, Baltimore Style magazine, Next City, Grist.org, The Atlantic Cities, and elsewhere.

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