Swartzendruber pioneered early global intranet for Lilly

January 12th, 2015


John Swartzendruber '79 was the matermind behind one of the first intranets deployed in a major global corporation. (Photo by Matt Kiefer)

John Swartzendruber ’79 was the mastermind behind one of the first intranets deployed in a major global corporation. (Photo by Matt Kiefer)

Soon after graduating with a degree in chemistry, John Swartzendruber ’79 landed a job in the scientific research group of Eli Lilly and Company, one of the top pharmaceutical companies in the world. That’s where Swartzendruber says he got interested in computing, writing software for the Lilly X-Ray crystallography group.

He also began working with high-end scientific workstations and a Cray-2 Supercomputer as part of a broader Lilly computational chemistry initiative, carried out in conjunction with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois.

Through this partnership Swartzendruber became familiar with a software project named “Mosaic” – the very first graphical web browser – and with Marc Andreessen, co-author of the software.

In 1993, Swartzendruber traveled to the NCSA to talk with Andreessen (who now serves on the boards of Hewlett-Packard and Facebook). Over a pizza dinner, Swartzendruber talked with Andreessen about the idea of an intranet within Lilly. “All he said was ‘cool,’ although in fairness he was busy eating at the time,” recalls Swartzendruber.

Back at Lilly, Swartzendruber worked for the next year to build web prototypes and to sell IT management on the concept. This ultimately led to the deployment of one of the first intranets at a major corporation. Within 12 months of its release in 1995, ELVIS (or the “Eli Lilly Virtual Information Service”) extended across the global Lilly computer network, linking together 35,000 employees across 120 countries. Swartzendruber’s pioneering work was highlighted in Business Week, Information Week, and the Chicago Tribune, among other major media outlets.

“It was gratifying,” he says, “watching ELVIS grow the way it did. It was interesting and energizing to walk into a Lilly affiliate in Europe or Asia and see what they were doing with ELVIS.”

Swartzendruber, who holds a master’s degree in computer science from Purdue University, retired from Lilly in 2009, but continues to work in the IT field, focusing on ubiquitous computing, system design and IT architecture.

He is currently an IT consultant with Apparatus, an Indianapolis-based IT consulting firm. One of his first responsibilities in 2009 was to help rebuild the computing infrastructure for post-bankruptcy Lehman Brothers so that regulators could dismantle the assets of the investment bank in as orderly and as fair a manner as possible.