Joe Firmage

Biography - I was born in Salt Lake City, Utah on October 26, 1970. I was child number five in a family of seven children. My family was always academically inclined. My father is a law professor at the University of Utah and always politically engaged and active in community and government affairs. We were a highly-charged family from an intellectual point of view, and if there was one undercurrent through my life that molded me, it would be a focus on learning and understanding the way things are as opposed to the way things appear to be. My mother stayed at home and raised the kids and did a wonderful job. I did very well in school. I had wonderful teachers, and I can remember every one of them. I closed out the sixth grade with the "Hope of America" award for my grade school, it was an award given to students who showed promise for impacting the future of the country. From that point forward, I was split in my desire to focus on the technical and pure science subjects, and a desire to focus more on liberal arts. I skipped the ninth and 12th grades, which was interesting, because I kept leaving and creating a new set of friends from the high school years, which had it's upsides and downsides. I never established the social bond in high school as a result of that that I would have liked to. I was athletically engaged and I was a photographer for the high school yearbook, but I never developed the close friendships because I kept advancing beyond my class. I went into college on a physics scholarship at the University of Utah. About one year in, I got involved in these Macintosh Computers and thought, "boy these are interesting" My mother, at the time, was running a greeting card business and she needed to manage her accounts payable and accounts receivable, so I thought I would write the software. I was astonished at how difficult it was, astonished. So I set about a way to create an easier way to create software for these graphical computers and the result of that was ultimately to become my first company, Serius corporation, launched in April of 1989. I got our first million-dollar investment in July of 1991 and that was our big break. Within a year we raised seven million dollars from a variety of companies, including Novell. In the spring of 1993, Novell stepped in and eventually signed an acquisition agreement in June of 1993, and purchased my company for 24 million dollars. From that point, I became Vice President of the new tools division at Novell. In the summer of 1995, after the Internet phenomenon was in full swing, my entrepreneurial spirit began to become very restless. I began an intensive process over three months of trying to figure out exactly what I would do. I shifted my attention to something that Novell did fantastically well in the early 80's and that was to build a channel of service companies that would help businesses adopt this new technology. U.S. Web would become the world's largest professional services company that focused on the Internet, and here we are.

Why do you think we are here, on this earth?
It is a very interesting question because my position has changed, over my brief life. I had grown-up in a very, very Mormon family. When I was 15 I began to have questions about the more dogmatic aspects of the religion and I came to the conclusion through my philosophy and physics studies at the University of Utah that there were some basic flaws in the assumptions that religions have today. I became at least agnostic if not atheistic through my late teenage years. Since my teenage years, I have become familiar with what might be characterized as fringe phenomenon; phenomenon that occur in our world that we don't yet scientifically understand. Thereafter, spending four or five years reading into this type of material, I have come to the conclusion that there has to be some very fundamental concepts that we don't yet understand. So back to your question, "why are we here?" I think the common thread through all of history, both from a scientific and from a religious point of view, shows some belief or some intuitive sense that we are here to progress. We are here to learn something that could not be learned in any other way. As we move on from this existence, we will have acquired something through this experience that evolves us, or improves us, or enriches our future in some other existence.

Who do you admire and why?
I most admire explorers, people who venture off into the unknown with only their self-confidence and their belief in themselves to support their future. I look at our society today and I observe that one of the most fundamental qualities of life that has always existed before this century, but has not existed to the same degree in this century, is a frontier of the unknown within the reach of the common person. So the explorers of our age become fewer and fewer into more arcane and specialized areas of our universe. Yes, there are frontiers in physics, or under the ocean, but they are far out of reach of the average person today. I admire the great explorers of old who push frontiers as a general category. I have great admiration for astronauts of the 1960's, explorers in the truest sense; putting everything on the line just for the sense of learning. That level of courage is very motivational to me. I think it is something that our society lacks. If we have frontiers within reach of common people, I think many of the ills in society today would be dealt with differently and would be mitigated to some degree.

What are three rules or values that you try to live your life by?
I have basically only two moral principles that mean anything to me. Everything else is noise. The first is basically the Golden Rule; to treat people as you would be treated. So much follows from that, not much else is really useful. The other is honesty. I am a big believer in honesty in human interaction. So those are the two "moral principles" that have non-relativistic significance to me. Everything else is relative.

If you were to think of someone in your mind and say to yourself, "that person is the epitome of character or integrity?" what kind of characteristics would that person have to emulate in order for you to give them that title?
It probably harkens back to the last question you asked. I look for those two qualities in other people, just as much as I would ask them of myself. I have a high degree of respect for people who show qualities of leadership and compassion, but really it gets back to the core moral principles. Virtually all the ills of society and deficits of character that we observe in other people, are traceable back to my two core moral principles. If they were observed, we would not see them.

If you had the power, by some miracle, to instill one truth or one value that you hold, and instantaneously everyone on the planet would know it as you know it and follow it as you follow it, what would you choose?
I am not convinced that the universe intended us to be perfectly virtuous beings. Clearly the issue of ethics and morals and whether they are absolute or determined by our society plays into that question. By waving a magic wand and instilling the virtue of honesty into everybody might successfully destroy the world, who knows? The world as a whole is built upon a balance between forces and if you fundamentally shift that balance, everything could just collapse. Moral beliefs derive from a sense of our existence and that would be, for me, a sense of optimism. Optimism in the face of whatever confronts you and the realization that the universe is a completely amazing environment in which to exist. I find a common thread amongst the problems of our world evidence themselves in the violation of those moral codes, but are more rooted in a sense of despair, a sense of a lack of a future. The world is just far too interesting a place for me to ever have that kind of feeling, irrespective of how difficult my particular challenge might be at any particular time. So I would instill a sense of optimism in people, and I think it would be remarkable to see what would happen as a result of that.

If you had three wishes, what would they be?
Clearly wish number one would be to have the ability to be an explorer, nothing else would even come close. The ability to explore the frontier beyond our planet. To be able to be equipped with an understanding of space and time, which I feel will be within our grasp hopefully sometime within our life span, that would enable us to explore other planets and other places in the universe. I have always been fascinated by the era of the dinosaurs, not so much because they were interesting creatures, but because they were so fundamentally different. Nothing would be more interesting to me than to be able to explore 100 of those. I could spend a lifetime doing that, so that would be wish number one and who knows? Maybe it will be realized in my lifetime. That is why I went into physics in the first place. I think everybody has a wish for the intellectual side of themselves, a wish for others and a wish for the emotional side of themselves. I have given you the wish for the intellectual side; the food for my brain for the rest of my life. Emotional side; I would like to find that perfect person, that soul mate in my life. The third, a wish for everybody else. I would like to see our world empowered with the opportunity to explore and the opportunity to expand it's horizon on a basis that is available to the average person. That would cause optimism which would create the opportunity to re-exert some compass and moral, social structure into an increasingly chaotic world.

How would you define love?
A need that emerges into your biological and emotional self that is as significant as food or water or any other basic sustenance. It is emotional food, if you will, and some people find that at different times in their lives. Some people find it early, some people never do. I think humans evolved with some basic need for love. I look at it as I do many things, from a semi-scientific point of view. It is a basic need of all human beings, that they experience that emotion in one sense or another.

How would you define happiness?
Happiness is satisfaction. Happiness is different from excitement. It is different from thrill. It is different from the thrill of the moment. Happiness is contentedness, satisfaction with the state that you happen to be in.

Can you think of an event or something that has happened in your life that has either inspired you or changed the way that you look at life?
When I was 23, my company was acquired for 24 million dollars. It was a very interesting event in my life to have had the opportunity to acquire enough money to rid oneself of some of the basic materialistic motivations that tend to propel people in our civilization today. I gained a much more significant appreciation, for the things that you cannot buy. Had I not gone through that event, I would have not had the opportunity, I think, to have crossed that threshold of understanding. Certainly not as early as I did, for which I am very grateful because I am but 26 years old and I have a long future ahead with that understanding already established.

What do you think happens after we die?
I have come to the conclusion that our physical world is the sediment of reality. After having studied what I have studied in the world of science and having intuited my way through clues out there for us to interpret, my sense is that matter, stuff that makes up everything physically, is the crust that has developed through the collective imagination of all things in the universe. Think of it this way, if a million people think of the same thing simultaneously, the likelihood of it occurring measurably rises. And if you take that concept and multiply it through all of history and through everything that exists at any given moment in history, I think what you will have created is the physical reality that we see. Therefore, when we die, the physical component of our existence, that is participated in this sediment of reality, ceases to operate. That component which doesn't participate, or from which that sediment has emerged, perpetuates itself and goes on. I think that this physical reality is important because it has taught us something. I don't know what it has taught us, but I know we will find out at some point. I think when we die, we will move on to another experiment that further enlarges whatever faculties these types of experiences can enlarge.

What inspires you to get out of bed everyday and see tomorrow?
I am creating. I am doing things that I have never done before, therefore I am learning. I am exploring whatever boundary it is that I can press each day. I could not possibly function in an environment where I was a mechanized cog in some large wheel. Everybody chooses a different segment of their life to push their own frontier and those who have no such outlet I fear for. Look at some basic cultural phenomena. Crime, for example in South Central L.A.. What frontier is it that those young kids can press against? The only frontier that I know of, is that which is illegal. Everything that is legal is economically and otherwise out of their reach. I fundamentally believe that people will always press against whatever frontier they have access to, whatever it is. Because for whatever reason, that is built into our physical or spiritual make-up. That may be why we are here. If it is why we are here, that is why people push against the frontier. They are trying to fulfill their mission. So I wake up everyday because my frontier can be pressed.

What is your wisest piece of advice, or the wisest thing that you know?
Probably something along this line. We make the rules, more or less. We make the rules for our lives. That applies to just about everything, we make the rules for our lives. Even those who from outward appearances have nothing, still at a fundamental sense make the rules for their existence. That applies at an individual level, that applies at a cultural level and as a civilization as a whole. It is within our power to make our future in every respect that we could imagine.

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Copyright 1997, LeAnn Thompson