Austin’s Internet Pioneers – Julie Fergerson

Note: This is the second in a series of biographies of and interviews with the people who made things happen in Austin’s early internet history.

In the early 1990’s, Julie Fergerson managed the help desk for IBM’s Austin office. She was bothered by the inefficiencies of their systems, so she began using web technologies to reduce costs and improve technologies. In doing so, she created perhaps the first corporate internet.

After leaving IBM, she co-founded ClearCommerce Corporation, an internet payment and fraud prevention company. At ClearCommerce, Julie established herself as one of the industry’s foremost exports on Internet fraud.

Brian Combs: When did you first get on the Internet?

Julie Fergerson: I was 10 (1978) and my Dad brought home a VT220 to connect to his work with a 300/1200 BAUD modem (really slow by today’s standard). I figured out how to access “the internet” back then and chatted with college professors, posted on message boards and played on his company network, they had Star Trek in ASCII characters, it was really fun.

BC: How did you get involved in IBM’s early web efforts?

JF: I ran the help desk and every time a server went down my help desk costs would get really expensive, I needed a better way to communicate to the Austin site. I also supported a product called Interleaf and was support the group that was merging the Bookmaster DTD (document type definition) into Interleaf, so we could load IBM documents easily, Bookmaster was IBMs standard format. Since HTML is sort of a DTD I was studying the CERN project very closely and figured out how to make a web browser work on the main frame systems with green screen, make it work on OS/2 and also make it run on AIX. I then licensed Dilbert the comic strip and we also had a guru figure out how to put the current and weather forecast out there and put it up there, so people had a reason to view it. It wasn’t called the world wide web at the time, but I helped create one of the first internal web servers with really cool content.

BC: What led you to payment and fraud detection technologies?

JF: I purchased a lot of shareware online and was fascinated by the cumbersome way the shareware authors had to pay. So I built a system that allowed people to pay online, the day after we went live, the very next day we started to see fraud and started building fraud detection solutions. That was how ClearCommerce was born (1995).

BC: Of which of your internet projects are you most proud?

JF: I co-founded the Merchant Risk Council with American Express (1999). When we started the group, Internet fraud rates averaged around .5% and many merchants were experiencing fraud rates well above 1%. The purpose of the group was to allow merchants to get as organized as the crooks. Within 5 years the organization grew significantly and fraud rates experienced by merchants average .35% and when merchants implement the best practices as explained by the Merchant Risk Council, their fraud rates get close to .1%, which is the same as card present rates.

BC: What projects are you working on currently?

JF: I am working at Debix, trying to solve the problem of Identity Theft at the consumer level. We are making good progress and measuring the problem.

BC: What do you think of the focus the last few years on social media technologies and channels?

JF: It is always fun to watch fast growth of any technology. I try all the social media technologies to test them out. We have great success with Webinars for business. I still haven’t figured out how Facebook could be used to generate revenue, but continue to play with it. I tried twitter and was quickly overwhelmed with followers and it creeped me out that all these people I don’t know felt they had some sort of entitlement to my life, even though I kept it related to business. There are so many really cool things that we can do online and I love reading blogs. That said, the evolution of social media has put a huge strain on news reporting and I predict in the next 5 years we are going to see major, and not very positive changes to how news is reported and delivered.

BC: Other than social media, what are the most important things happening online today?

JF: International criminals are taking over our information, accounts, and I believe it is only the beginning. With the Citizens bank data breach where over a million dollars disappeared in a few hours is just a sample of what is to come. I don’t want to be all doom and gloom, but the organized crime is just starting to test the waters and within the next 18 months we are going to see some organized attacks against businesses stealing millions of dollars.

BC: What should we be watching for (or watching out for) on the Internet in the future?

JF: I am looking for more convenience and expect we will get it. I love my iPhone (finally, I hated it for the first 12 months until 3.2 came out and I upgraded to the 3Gs), I want to see the iPhone technologies merge to my laptop – the touch screen, the applications, the GPS, THE USABILITY, etc…

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