Entrepreneur choosing her own path

“If it was easy, anybody could do it.” That’s what Kate Gregory tells herself when things start going crazy.

The co-founder of Gregory consulting often finds her time booked solid, between teaching, writing, consulting and her family life.

“I also tell myself that I chose this,” Gregory said.

Gregory was born in Britain and her family settled in Ontario when she was eight. She was always a math and science buff and enrolled at the University of Waterloo in Ontario for applied mathematics. Part of the way through her undergraduate studies, she switched to chemical engineering. She graduated in 1984, one of four women in the 50-plus class.

During her short stay in the mathematics department, Gregory was introduced to computers. “In Waterloo, the math department is where the computer science stuff is, so I was hanging out with a lot of computer science types. It was a good way to solve problems, but it wasn’t the only thing I wanted to do.”

During her co-op terms at university, Gregory was doing quite a bit of programming and her first job after graduating was for Esso designing pieces of oil refinery and tech support.

“I was helping the other engineers with their computers. Well the computers – nobody had them on their desks – the mainframe and the PCs. I had to give these guys formatted disks,” she laughed. “I had to keep those at my desk because people in the building had heard there were formatted disks on the third floor and it was this big deal and people would try to take them.”

After working for Esso for a couple of years, the company had a voluntary career change assistance plan. “They were saying, ‘We don’t want to lay anybody off, so anyone who’s nice enough to quit can have a bribe.'”

Gregory took said bribe and went back to school. She enrolled at the University of Toronto for her Masters in chemical engineering. “I was offered the chance to convert it to a PhD program, which is not a very common thing to be offered.”

While working on her PhD thesis, Gregory started writing C++. “This was at a time when Microsoft didn’t have a C++ compiler.” Gregory and her husband, Brian, started Gregory Consulting in 1986 as a way to supplement her stipend.

“Actually before I graduated, my husband gave up his day job and the company was supporting us both,” she said.

The decision to start the company was very natural, Gregory said. People were approaching the couple and asking for help with computer problems, “So we said, ‘We should form a company to do that.’

“I knew from being this computer support person at Esso that smart people with a lot of formal training – I mean people who knew more about turning crude oil into gasoline than anybody in the world – would not know how to turn the printer on. So it was obvious that there was a market to help people to use the tools.”

Gregory added that the world has changed their business dramatically since then, but the underlying customer-type has stayed the same: someone who knows a lot about what they are doing but wants someone else to make the computer work for them.

A new thing

Her entrepreneurial role took Gregory by surprise. “When I was a kid, I thought I would be a professor. I realize now that what I do is very similar to what a professor did in the ’60s. I do research, I write, I teach – except I have payroll to meet.”

She said having her own business was a way to take control over her life.

“Entrepreneurism is a new thing, but if you’re good and you can, then why not? It gives you the freedom and control. You get the scary part too, but I like roller coasters.”

When the company first started the Gregorys were doing a lot of peer programming and some advice giving, although the balance has shifted now.

Gregory Consulting embraced C++ as its language of choice. Kate said it was a fundamentally better language, and certainly better than the other choices available in the late 80s.

“We adopted the object-oriented stuff immediately. There’s so much to be saved when you do things that way. When Visual C++ came out, the class library, all the work of Windows programming is done for you.”

Although Gregory Consulting still uses C++ in a lot of their solutions, she noted XML is the language of the future. “It’s programming-language neutral. In the first year that we used XML, we did about 10 projects, and we are saving around 30 per cent development time.”

Spreading out

The business moved to Pontypool, Ont., in 1991, and they now have a second office in Peterborough, Ont. In the last 15 years the company has grown from two people to 11, and Gregory noted the next step is to grow slowly.

The location may seem a little remote, but Gregory said they have clients from across Canada and the U.S. “We get recommended a lot and if someone recommends you, no one is going to let something as little as location get in the way.”

Gregory has now either co-authored or written a chapter in more than 16 books, in more than 20 languages. “It’s weird to get this cover and you can’t understand a word, except your own name. I get e-mails from people with questions that are in other languages. I guess if they read the book in Portuguese, they may think I can speak it.”

She is thoroughly enjoying the teaching aspect of her life. “I love it. If I were to win the lottery I would probably teach twice as much. I have a friend who was retiring and when I asked what he was going to do, he said he was going to go to more conferences. And I thought why? That is weird. He should go on a cruise. But I understand that better now, and I think I would go to more conferences too.”

She noted there is immediate gratification in teaching and as an extrovert she likes speaking to crowds. “The more people I am in front of, the better.”

To relax, the 40-year-old mother of two and her husband will go into the wilderness in a canoe they built. “We do that less then we used to. We go off canoe camping. No cell phones. I’ve taken vacations where I brought my laptop and cell phone. Sometimes that’s the only way you can get away.”

Her children both love computers. “It’s a big game for them. Spellchecker is a game, saving, printing, everything. It’s funny to watch my seven-year-old teaching his grandmother how to use the computer. My daughter is actually learning Visual Basic. She’s 11, but she’s going through a teach yourself CD and she seems to be enjoying it.”

As for the future of IT, Gregory thinks it is very strong, mostly.

“I think all that start up and IPO stuff is going to be slowing down, but the basic core of businesses with a problem that they believe can be solved through technology, I don’t think that is ever going away. When the work you do makes the business sector grow, then it’s never going to stop.”