By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
Michael Neel is a man with many life experiences – U. S. Air Force weather forecaster, computer programmer, conference organizer, Technology Cooperative Co-Founder and, most recently, de facto leader of a group called Knox Game Design.
There is a true passion associated with each of these endeavors, but the goal that drives Neel the most is to provide his three daughters – ages 13, 10 and three – and other young people with the technical skills they need for lifetime success.
“If we can get a kid to ship something (a game) before the end of high school, we think we have given the kid his or her swagger,” Neel told us in a recent teknovation.biz interview where he described his life and how game development enables his passion for youth.
Neel was born in Houston, but “we moved around like a military family.” His father was an electrical engineer working in the nuclear industry.
One of those relocations brought the family to Knoxville when the younger Neel was a junior in high school. He graduated the next year from Farragut High School and immediately entered the Air Force where he wanted to be a programmer.
Instead, Neel was given the option of working on a line where he would tie down airplanes on a carrier or help deliver accurate weather every 15 minutes. He chose the latter, a decision that was an early indicator of his passion for challenges.
“I enjoyed the stress,” Neel said of forecasting. “You either sink or swim.”
He was discharged from the service in 1999 without plans to return to East Tennessee, but the death of one of his younger brothers changed everything.
“I’m not sure I would have come back otherwise,” Neel said.
Back in Knoxville, he joined the University of Tennessee where he worked for about eight months before joining Scott Spaid at MediaPulse. In 2005, Neel says that he “went independent,” assisting some Silicon Valley start-ups.
“Working for myself wasn’t for me,” he said in his characteristic matter of fact manner.
Neel joined the Digital Media Group at Jewelry Television in 2005, supporting the software and information technology needs for the cable network’s live broadcasts.
“It’s just like the live fire weather situation I loved so much in the Air Force,” he noted.
“Working at Jewelry Television has allowed me the time to do some other things,” Neel added.
Two of those “other things” are an initiative called CodeStock and a place called the Technology Cooperative. We’ll discuss them and other activities in the second article in this series.