From Geek to Google

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Nelson Minar (right) at Reed’s Highland Games in 1992

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Nelson Minar today


Like many Reedies, Nelson Minar ’94 took a year off. But he didn’t go anywhere. He worked in the now-defunct D-Lab—a student laboratory for software development. The experience kept him from burning out, and it also provided the groundwork for seminal programming that propelled him into a career at the cutting edge of the internet revolution.

“I needed a place to explore computers and play around with computing,” Minar recalls. “At the D-Lab, I learned how to make a computer do what you want it to do.”

He’s still doing that today.

As a software engineer in Google’s API development department, Minar has helped software designers build the Google search engine into their own software. One example, plagiarism-search software, allows a professor to plug a student’s paper into a Google search program that then trolls the web looking for sentence matches that are too close for comfort.

A five-year veteran at Google, Minar has profited from the internet giant’s IPO. He’s given a substantial gift to Reed’s financial aid endowment and to the annual fund. “While I was a student, I benefitted a fair amount from financial aid,” he explains. “I couldn’t have gone to Reed without it. I always felt like if I could pay it back somehow, I would.”

Minar’s timing at Reed was perfect, spending days (and nights) squirreled away in the D-Lab. “I was very proudly one of the computer geeks down in the sub-basement of the library,” he says. “I left Reed right at the time when the web turned into something that everybody used. I was able to learn about all this technology and contribute to it early on.”

Minar participated in other subcultures at Reed, such as scrounging in the commons and staging a kiss-in at the local mall with Queer Nation Portland (founded by some of his Reed friends). “The idea of men kissing in the mall doesn’t seem that radical anymore,” he says, “but at the time it seemed that way.” Minar remembers the scroungers of his era as “students who couldn’t afford to, or didn’t want to, pay for their own food. Or, like me, they were too lazy to cook for themselves. Free is a good price.”

Productive procrastination during his thesis year led Minar, who set up Reed’s first web server, to create an early HTML editor for people to develop personal web pages. The college conducted a short-lived debate before deciding that widespread participation in the burgeoning internet outweighed the risk of students posting their own web pages. “It’s very valuable to have this kind of open exchange,” Minar says.

Of course, there’s a downside to internet openness. During his D-Lab days, Minar, a vegetarian, earned the enmity of a national animal rights group after he posted a decidedly satirical message about bestiality to the web.

In his junior year, Minar worked with philosophy professor Mark Bedau ’76 on research into artificial life. Bedau remembers Minar as forever barefoot, intellectually irreverent, and fearless.

The work led to a staff position after graduation at the Santa Fe Institute, an interdisciplinary think-tank. There, Minar developed the SWARM program, a toolkit to help write simulations. In one case, he aided an anthropologist studying Pueblo village formation by writing a program similar to the computer game Sim City.

After earning a master’s degree at MIT, Minar tried his hand at entrepreneurship, founding Popular Power with Marc Hedlund ’93. Their startup coincided with the bursting of the internet bubble. In search of something “interesting that was not going to go out of business,” as he puts it, he soon landed at Google.

Possibly the first former scrounger to bestow a major gift on his alma mater, Minar reflects on his gift by saying, “Reed more than anything has made me who I am. I think it’s a great place to give money to because of the good it does in the world. It just seemed like a very obvious thing to do.”

Minar lives in San Francisco with his long-time partner, Ken Scott, and his cat, Ejnar.

Want to know more? Google him.