The Story of the AI Commissioner

I have been in the tech industry since I was in high school. I took a course on BASIC computer programming in high school and was hooked. My father was a professor at Colorado State University and he had a research project that purchased a portable teletype machine hooked up to a phone modem. He brought this home and I used it to access the county main frame computer (a DEC PDP-10) through my school account. I charged up 100’s of hours of computer time and never had to pay for it, essentially have a home computer a decade before anyone else.

I wrote a computer game about skiing. One of the challenges I faced was making the game be different each time I played it. There was a RAN (random number generator) function in BASIC, but all it was was a series of random numbers between 0 and 1 stored as a table, meaning you still got the same random numbers each time it was called. However, it also took a seed number that could be multiplied by the random number from the table. I discovered that if you took the current time and converted that into a number, you could multiple the random number by the time and get a different output each time. This meant that anyone playing the game could get different results each time. Viola! This was my first real “hack” and many programmers still use this trick today.

I ended up working for one of my dad’s graduate students because of my experience with “interactive computing” (instead of paper tape or punch cards). Together we wrote a program in Fortran called EZ-Map that combined various types of data such as soil types, slope, vegetation, land ownership, etc into overlays to determine potential land uses. This was in 1976 and was my first commercial software program.

Later, I was enrolled in the landscape architecture program at CSU and my major professor asked me, “Are you the same Jameson that worked that wrote EZ-Map?” Assuring him that I was, he hired me on the spot to help him with a program he was working on that he had acquired from Harvard (where he had gone to school). What he wanted to do was write a new subroutine to do “visibility analysis”. Essentially, the idea was that from any given point, or a series of points such as traveling down a road, you should be able to determine what areas could be seen from those points so you would know where unsightly items like transmission lines, clear cuts, or strip mining should be avoided.

The result was I spent many hours in the basement of the CSU engineering building (where the main frame computer was housed), perfecting this program. I met some very intelligent and equally as nerdy “hackers” where we exchanged coding secrets.

After graduating from CSU, I worked for about a year for an engineering company named D’Appalonia, where I was involved in doing environmental impact assessments utilizing the computerized visibility analysis I had created in school. During this time I married my college girlfriend, Jill. Due to a shortage of projects I was “laid off” and decided to go back to school.

I attended the University of Arizona to pursue my masters degree in Landscape Architecture. While there , personal computers were just beginning to come out. I purchased a Texas Instruments TI-99A, and wrote a graphics program for it that allowed you to do landscape design. You could add trees, shrubs, benches, walkways, fountains etc to you design and move the objects around on the screen until you got exactly what you wanted. I also purchased an Apple II and was fascinated how you could remove the top and add in extra cards, such as a graphics card. I spent hours learning VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program, and using it to create budgets for landscape designs.

Because of my work at D’Appalonia, I was referred to a local landscape architecture firm in Tuscon who was preparing a proposal for a transmission line siting project. The name of this firm was Lifezones and the principal of the firm was Mike Bell. Lifezones did not end up getting the transmission project, but I got hired by them anyways and worked for them while attending graduate school. Right about the time I was graduating, we got approached by a company who wanted to demonstrate a new program to us named “AutoCAD”. I met the two individuals (named Don Brown and Dominic Pistillo) at a hotel room where they showed me how the program worked – you could draw lines, arcs and circles to create objects, such as a sprinkler head (for landscape design). They showed how you could place a sprinkler head on the moon at full scale and zoom all the way in so that you could read the text on the top of the sprinkler. Pretty cool, even though I knew this was not practical for landscape architure.

None-the-less, I went back to Lifezones and convinced them that they really need to buy AutoCAD. This was the future! So, Mike Bell ponied up for two complete AutoCAD stations including the hardware and software, plus a plotter so we could output the designs. Almost immediately, both Mike and the other landscape architects were frustrated that they didn’t know how to use it. Mike looked at me and said “Jameson – you better fix this!” Knowing how much money he had spent and that my job was on the line (with a new baby on the way), I knew I had to do something.

Fortunately, my father-in-law worked for IBM. He was able to purchase an IMB PC-AT a his employee cost (which I gave him the money for), and now I had a computer at home that was even more powerful than the workstations we had at the office. AutoCAD was not copy-protected in those days, so I brought a copy of the program home and worked on it every night to make it “do landscape architecture.” I took many of the things I had learned about hacking and designing my own landscape design program and added them on top of AutoCAD. Trees, sidewalks, and even automatically creating parking stalls at exact dimensions were all part of what I created.

About 3 months later, Don and Domonic (the two guys who sold us AutoCAD), came back to see how we were getting along with our new CAD system. I showed them what I had done. Their eyes got real big and they started saying “we could sell this stuff!” After some discussion, Mike and I agreed.

We named the program “Landsoft” and flew out to San Francisco to meet with the creators of AutoCAD, specifically John Walker, David Kalish, and Mike Ford. Duff Kurland, Greg Lutz, and Kern Sibbald were also in attendance. John Walker was the ultimate geek and he and I hit it off immediately. The result of the meeting was that they “couldn’t do anything for us,” but instead decided to start a “third-party developer program.” David Kalish would be in charge of third party developers and they would work with people in multiple disciplines, not just landscape architects, but engineers, interior designers, etc.

Next, Mike and I went to Cincinnati to attend the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) annual convention. We showed off “Landsoft” and knew we had a hit on our hands. Autodesk had suggested that while we were in Cincinnati, that we look up a guy named John Lynch who had also created a third party application for AutoCAD, but specifically for civil engineers. We did, and I knew that John and I were kindred spirits.

But then the waters started to get muddy. Mike wanted to concentrate on landscape architecture and not on software development. Don and Dominic wanted to know how they were going to make money on our creation. I finally hired an attorney and decided to start my own company. I made an agreement with Mike to pay him a royalty up to a fixed amount over the next several years. Don and Dominic would become the first “dealers” for our new product. I renamed the product and the company to LANDCADD, and brought my wife Jill in as my partner (after all she had a ton of sales experience and I was just the geek behind the scenes.)

I called Autodesk and told them about the new arrangement, and they invited us to attend Comdex (Computer Dealer Expo) in Las Vegas with them in their booth. All we had to do was show up with our software – they would provide the booth space and a computer. We didn’t have to pay anything except our own hotel rooms (which we got at a huge discount due to Jill’s brother, Jack who had an “in” with Caesar’s Palace). Because we were in the Autodesk booth, we got a ton of traffic to our little computer station and got invitations from all sorts of companies like Hewlett Packard (HP) and various graphic card manufacturers and plotter manufacturers to attend the live shows in the evening. We were young and dumb – so we went to see all the entertainers at night, then got up the next day to work the booth again. But most importantly, we made a lot of great contacts and signed up several  more “dealers” for our software. And I got to hang out with John Walker, who may be the most brilliant coder I had ever met.

Of course, we had to determine what was required to be a dealer, and we decided that 1) they had to be an AutoCAD dealer (that way they came pre-qualified), and 2) they had to buy two copies of the program (one for demonstration purposes, and one for re-selling to their first customer).

At Comdex, Autodesk had also invited John Lynch and his civil engineering application to be in their booth. He and his wife Joyce Williams were at the “station” next to ours. It was pretty obvious that John was really there to try to get a programming job with Autodesk rather than trying to sell his software. Jill (my wife) and Joyce (his wife) hit it off and became friends. It wasn’t long after that show that we got a call from Autodesk telling us that John was now a software developer for Autodesk, and Joyce Williams was now the person in charge of third-party applications.

Having that kind of relationship with Autodesk was huge – we were no longer just a couple of nerds trying to get in on AutoCAD’s success, but we were friends with the coders and the person in charge that could really help us with our marketing.

During this time, John Walker managed to get a copy of the LISP programming language and embed it into AutoCAD. Lisp (list processing) was the language or artificial intelligence or AI. But with AutoLisp as he called it, you could not only program it to do traditional AI tasks, but to interact with the objects and data in your CAD drawings. For example, we created an irrigation design module that would allow you to select the outline of a turf area, and the program would determine what kinds of sprinklers were needed (including both the throw radius and the spray angle like 90 degrees, 180 degrees, or 360 degrees), where the pipe should be placed, and how large the pipe needed to be. All of this was done automatically using our program. We also created a plant growth simulation program that took data based on growth rates for the species of plants in your drawing and would show how a landscape would look over time.

AutoCAD grew and became a public company. Landcadd grew as well, to the point that at one time we had as many as 30 employees and were selling products through a series of hundreds of dealers and numerous distributors in other countries all over the world. Eventually, over 60% of our software was sold internationally and the software was translated into 25 different languages. I (Greg) personally travelled with Autodesk around the world meeting with our distributors throughout Asia and Europe.

The result was that we received numerous awards including being named International Developer of the Year, Colorado small Business of the Year, and were listed on the Inc. 500

As the market changed, the third party world began to consolidate. Companies began merging to create bigger companies, and we got caught up in this as well. In 1995, Landcadd merged with Eagle Point Software (as well as a couple of others) to bring together all aspects of the AEC community (architecture/engineering/construction) under one roof. We then took the combined entity public and were traded on the NASDAQ stock exchange.

But, I had now worked myself out of a job. I needed to work (after all I had a wife and 4 kids). I ran into a past employee at the Chicago airport one day and we decided to create a company together to do database software that would tie into AutoCAD for facilities rentals. The idea was that you could rent out facilities that were not being used heavily during off-times. For example, school districts could rent out ball fields to youth soccer clubs, or gymnasiums to churches on Sundays, etc. Again, I was the programmer, and my partner, Bill was the salesman. This lasted a couple of years, but as the internet began to take shape, I found myself drawn to creating web applications. My partner Bill wasn’t interested in doing websites – he had found a niche with selling software to schools, so we parted ways.

I’ve been building ecommerce websites ever since. I started out writing my own ecommerce platform and working primarily with wholesale accounts. Unlike retail stores where you poke around and look at various items on a website then add something to your cart and checkout with a credit card, a wholesale site needed to allow users to select items from a spreadsheet-like list and say how many of each item they needed by selecting a line item.. Then when they checked out they needed different payment options such as net 30, net 60, or payment over time. For example, one of our customers as a conrecte pumping company that sold $250,000 concrete pumps. That is not the kind of purchase that you pay for with a credit card! One client actually had 99 different payment options.

As WooCommerce and Shopify began to make ecommerce more common and those programs began to grow and dominate the retail market, our focus shifted from creating our own software to working with these industry standards. WooCommerce in particular was very adaptable to being able to customize it to accomplish different tasks, including wholesale sales. To date, I’ve developed hundreds and hundreds of ecommerce websites. With the current interest in AI, I’ve been incorporating how to use AI to develop products and then use AI to help market and sell those products on ecommerce websites. Unlike many “overnight experts” I had been developing AI applications since the mid 1980’s so the current craze was something I was intimately familiar with. I am now creating both custom GPTs and custom AI solutions for different industries including public speaking, travel industry professionals, ecommerce, landscape architecture and even realtors. It’s almost like it full circle, coming back to creating AI software applications and really helping to revolutionize different industries. That is why I have been named “The AI Commissioner” by my peers.