Algonquin dropout becomes Hollywood tech star thanks to groundbreaking editing software

Rand Peppler still remembers how, as a young man in Ottawa in the mid-1980s, he felt “inspired” after reading a newspaper article about an entrepreneur who made it big south of the border.

Little did the brain behind one of the biggest software innovations in television history know he would also wind up building a hugely successful business in the United States.

Mr. Peppler, 51, is the creator of Pilotware, a software package that allows TV producers to quickly and easily sort through thousands of hours of video footage. The product – so named because Mr. Peppler’s American friends dubbed him “Pilot” – has been used on hundreds of Hollywood productions, from reality shows such as Survivor to talk shows including Jimmy Kimmel Live.

Los Angeles is a long way from the nation’s capital, where Mr. Peppler grew up and attended Algonquin College for one year before dropping out to pursue a career as a rock star with a band called the Randypeters.

The Randypeters petered out after just two albums. But Mr. Peppler’s short time at Algonquin wasn’t a complete waste.

“I went to Algonquin really not planning on having a career,” he told OBJ during a recent visit to his hometown to celebrate his father’s 90th birthday. 

“I was playing in the rock band at the time, but we weren’t good enough (that) I could go to my parents and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to quit school and play in this band.’ They would’ve shot me. So really, I went to the cheapest school I could find because I didn’t have the money to spend a lot on it, knowing that I was gonna be dropping out once the band got going. But while I was there – I’m not going to lie – it was the computer tech class, and I really learned a few (things).”

In class and out of pure curiosity, Mr. Peppler picked up programming languages such as Fortran, Pascal and BASIC, knowledge that came in handy down the road.

“It definitely planted the seeds for how these things work and how to think,” he said.

Mr. Peppler’s short-lived music career also helped paved the way for his future business success. 

As the band’s financial manager, he used his brother’s computer to keep track of whatever income and expenses there were. Long after the Randypeters faded into obscurity, the spreadsheets and databases he built for the band eventually left a lasting – and lucrative – legacy.

“I actually think working on that Apple IIe computer gave me a lot of the skills I was going to need, because it was a little bit more user-interactive and I could program things that were good from a user’s perspective,” Mr. Peppler said.

When his then-girlfriend landed a job in Oregon in 1989, he headed south. Six months later, they ventured off to California “on kind of a whim.”

The relationship didn’t last, but Mr. Peppler’s love for the West Coast did. After landing a job at a mail order business in L.A., he developed an automated system to help the company track advertising revenue. 

“At that time, people were just beginning to put computers to work in the workplace,” he said. “Before that, if you went to work, you just had a desk and a pen and paper. People were just starting to buy computers and really didn’t know what to do with them. I was kind of in the right place at the right time.”

Soon, he had a lineup of clients who wanted him to develop similar systems for them.

“Americans, if they find something that’s good and works for them, they love to tell other people about it,” Mr. Peppler said. “People would want to refer me to just kind of help me out. When you’re good at something, you almost have like a cheering section for you and they want to see you become successful.”

Eventually, he caught the attention of Hollywood producers. In 1996, when the makers of a new game show called Debt, hosted by Wink Martindale, were looking for a better way to track questions and answers, they knew where to turn.

“That was the beginning of the beginning,” Mr. Peppler said. “When I walked into this game show, I instantly knew, ‘This is where I want to be.’”

Soon, he figured out a way to put time codes on VHS tapes, which made scouring through video footage to find highlights far easier and less labour-intensive. By then, the reality show craze, fuelled by Survivor, was starting to take off.

“We just rode that wave,” he said.

Since then, Pilotware has been used on more shows than Mr. Peppler can remember. (He stopped counting after 500.) His company, which merged with content management producer Atlas Digital in 2009, now employs more than 100 people.

Ever the entrepreneur, Mr. Peppler is even thinking of branching out to his native land. He and his business partners are mulling the possibility of opening a production facility in Vancouver fully outfitted with state-of-the-art editing products.

“Seeing as I’m a Canadian, I think that would be fantastic,” he said.