Michigan Engineer Profile - Alan Steremberg
Alan Steremberg, BSE CE '94
There were a lot of doctors and lawyers in my family, and when I saw all of the technology offerings at U-M, I realized that I could break the family mold and study something that I had a passion for. And I think the University is the greatest place in the world. It's so diverse, with so many opportunities, you can either make the most of it or sit in your dorm and play Nintendo.
Not surprisingly, the forecast for Alan Steremberg (BSE CE '94) looks bright and breezy.
As president and co-founder of Weather Underground, a web-based company that took the online weather industry by storm, providing free, real-time weather information online to millions of users in 50 languages around the world, Steremberg knows more about weather than most people.
"Working with weather for the past 15 years has given me a great understanding of it," Steremberg said, adding with a humorous tone, "and while I'm not quite qualified to be a meteorologist, I do play one on the Internet."
Since Weather Underground's inception in 1995, and its subsequent success, Steremberg has done things in a big way. But he pointed out that one of his first major moves was making his way to the University of Michigan College of Engineering. "The campus is huge," he said. "You feel like you can get lost, which I guess is good and bad. It's kind of self serve - you get from it what you put into it or make of it."
Steremberg, a third-generation U-M grad, was the first in his family to study engineering. "There were a lot of doctors and lawyers in my family, and when I saw all of the technology offerings at U-M, I realized that I could break the family mold and study something that I had a passion for. And I think the University is the greatest place in the world. It's so diverse, with so many opportunities, you can either make the most of it or sit in your dorm and play Nintendo."
He certainly made the most of the opportunities afforded to him as a student. He also created opportunities for others, founding the Student Mac Programmers project, a student organization that gathered talented students in the U-M community.
Steremberg credits Perry Samson, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences, with providing a pivotal opportunity. The summer before Steremberg's sophomore year, Samson was looking for students who were interested in writing weather software for his on-campus group, Weather Underground, and Steremberg jumped into the project, which was to create a way to bring weather forecasts to K-12 classrooms. Steremberg's assignment was to build a tool that allowed them to visualize it in a unique way.
Samson said that "in the early '90s, before web pages and HTML became common, we were trying to imagine a way to display weather maps and satellite images using computer tools. Alan joined our project as a sophomore and brought both tremendous programming savvy and enough politeness to not tell me that my plan of attack was flawed. Instead, he created a new plan and, within a remarkably short time, produced a gopher client that I believe was one of the first models of interactive graphics on what was to become the Internet."
The computer program, Blue Skies, gave users the ability to "pull up a map and plot the weather for 100 popular cities," Steremberg said. "When you rolled your mouse over the cities, up popped the current weather conditions."
When he moved on to pursue a master's degree at Stanford, he decided to revisit the program, which eventually became the backbone of Weather Underground. "I didn't want to get a real job yet, so I freelanced for a startup company to pay the bills," said Steremberg. "Then I decided to call Chris Schwerzler, a friend who had also worked on the initial Weather Underground project." The two of them huddled with five others and transformed Weather Underground into a commercial entity separate from the University.
"Weather Underground is a lot bigger now," Steremberg said. "Now there are more people to manage - about 20 of us - and there's more planning to do. I try to get involved in the development because I enjoy it, but there's not too much time."
Time will become even more precious this June, when he and his wife, Kelly, will be welcoming their first child into the family's San Francisco home. Asked what he would like to be doing 10 years from now, Steremberg said that he'd like to be running a much bigger Weather Underground. Those who know him say it's a pretty safe prediction that he'll be doing exactly that because, for one with his gifts, the sky's the limit.
- Michigan Engineer (College of Engineering)