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One-on-One with Mark Johnson of Descartes Labs

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Mark Johnson wanted to be a pope. He also wanted to be an orchestra conductor. Plus, he yearned to have the highest grade point average ever at North Tonawanda High School in Buffalo, N.Y.

Mark Johnson is CEO and co-founder of Descartes Labs in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Johnson did manage to achieve the latter, but he skipped the pope and conductor gigs and is instead heading Descartes Labs in Santa Fe in what turned out to be his “dream job.”

It seemed like destiny when Johnson first came to New Mexico in 2014, following his time in the Silicon Valley and the sale of his startup Zite, a news aggregating app, to CNN. A friend had contacted him about some Los Alamos Laboratory scientists who wanted a CEO to spin off some of their data-mapping technology into a private company.

“I’d actually written my college essay on J. Robert Oppenheimer, so I’m like ‘heck, yeah. I’m coming out to New Mexico,'” Johnson said.

He was wowed by the landscape, and then he met the scientists. “My thinking was basically, ‘oh, wow again. These people are really, really smart. Why hasn’t Google found them? Oh, wait. I found them first. We’re going to start a company.’ And that’s how we started.”

Growing up, Mark Johnson wanted to be a pope – or an orchestra conductor. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Descartes Labs, which got off the ground in 2015, recently expanded from its office in Los Alamos to a much larger space in Santa Fe. It has 90 employees and expects to double that number within two years due to expected commercial growth and a recently announced $7.2 million deal with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Johnson describes himself as a “quirky guy” and admits to some rather odd hobbies. Take his taxidermy collection. It started in 1999, he says, when someone gave him a set of wildebeest horns. “I have a lot of really interesting pieces now,” he says. “I have a really awesome piranha, and I have a taxidermied bat. I have so many copies of this book – “Craft Taxidermy.”

His other collections include “bar ware” and 100 bottles of “really good bourbon and scotch,” enough liquor that a friend decided he needed his own bar.

“So I ended up getting this crazy mid-century kind of turquoise blue leather 12-foot bar with a cash register on the back,” he said.

Johnson has outdoor hobbies, too, including hiking, but he has had moments of worrying that he isn’t corporate enough. The topic came up during a hike with his longtime friend and co-worker Fritz Schlereth.

“I said, ‘Fritz, do we need to learn golf at some point? You know, we’re becoming executives.'” And Fritz looked at me and he said, “Mark, this is our golf.”

So I don’t have to learn golf! We hike. We talk about work, we talk about life (and) sometimes we just breathe heavily because it’s a really steep hill.”

You have a philosophy degree from Stanford. Does this ever have application to your work in the tech field?

To me, a lot of philosophical thinking and the tools that it gives you are around how you put concepts together. How you decompose one of these problems and try to think about it logically. And to me, those are the tools that are really, really valuable these days … I don’t think when we first created P.C.s or when we first created social networks that we thought some of the things that have now happened would happen, right? Like, the idea of massive data breaches, the idea of, you know, gaming Facebook for political gain. And now that those sort of things have happened, we’re starting to look forward and project what things could happen. As the scope of technology grows, they (ethics) are going to be more and more part of the conversation. I’m glad I studied philosophy. I never thought it would be relevant, and here we go, talking about ethics.

What were you like as a kid?

I was really nerdy, which is probably not surprising. I read a lot. My mother and I, a typical Saturday was we would come to the library with a stack of books, wait for the doors to open, spend a bunch of time there … and come out with another stack of books. I think especially in middle school, I was sort of like the band kid. I played clarinet. It influenced my life a lot.

Do you still play?

I do. I’m on the board of the symphony here, which is really cool.

You mentioned that you once wanted to be pope, so you were a practicing Catholic?

Oddly enough, much more so than my mother. I was really into the structure of the church. For me, it was amazing to me that this institution had lasted so long, and there were all these rules to follow. We weren’t teaching Latin anymore (in high school), so I found the old Latin teacher and I used to make him teach me Latin during lunch. But I was just a weird kid. I don’t know if I can really explain this in any logical way.

So you were into rules and structure?

Oddly enough. I feel much more of a rule-breaker now, but a lot of high school was about following rules. Like I only wore jeans on Fridays, and I wore a tie to school, even though I didn’t have to. I’ve always had this fantasy that the world used to be better. “Oh, remember when people use to wear ties and go to church on Sundays and have these rules?”

Did you go to a parochial school?

No, but I created it around me. Like I didn’t let my friends swear until I was 12. Until I discovered Two Live Crew and that swearing could be a form of poetry.

What are your favorite foods?

I just love to eat. My favorite food group is probably Mexican, generally. There is a burrito place in Mountain View (Calif.) – especially when I was super poor. Their price per calorie was really low. I’ve eaten there, I would say, in the high hundreds (of times), but I think it might be a thousand times. And I would eat there in a heartbeat again. The best burrito on the planet.

Tell me something about you that most people don’t know.

I used to really love dance parties. I loved house music and techno. I still love that scene. I love that community. PLUR. Peace, Love, Unity and Respect – from the old rave days.

Pet peeves?

Who and whom is a huge one. It’s like I have this reflex in my head. The objective case still exists in English, I’m sorry, you can’t just wish it out of the world. I believe in the Oxford comma. I try not to get annoyed at things generally.

What keeps you up at night?

I spend a lot of time worrying about the company. It’s one of the things we’ve instilled here is that we never rest on our laurels, and we constantly fear that we’re not doing things good enough, even though from an objective outside view we’re doing spectacularly well.

What makes you laugh?

Life just makes me laugh. I try to remind myself, you wake up every day and there’s neat stuff happening all around you.

What was it today?

I’ve been walking to work every day this week, and it’s been so nice. Always new things to see. I wore my cowboy boots today.

What’s on your bucket list?

I don’t think of the world like that. I live very much in the present. I love what I’m doing so much. We’ve got a group of scientists doing amazing things on a mesa in New Mexico. Every kid dreams – they watch shows about crazy scientists and the secret lab, and that’s what we’ve got here. How cool is that?

Do you have any regrets?

I try to live without regrets. I think reflections are important, but people make all sorts of choices, and I am who I am because of all those choices – even the things you’d go back and do differently. So, I worry if I change anything significantly, I wouldn’t be here, and I really like being here.