SCHENECTADY — When you stow away on a freight train to sneak out of a communist country in the dead of night, life might get a lot worse very quickly or it might get much better, someday.
It got a lot better for Tush Nikollaj, an information technology entrepreneur of four decades’ standing in the Capital Region. He’s also been an underage janitor, developed a bookkeeping system for his parents, became a master pizza pie maker and earned a college degree in a field that he soon set aside to focus on computers.
There’s no way Zef and Gete Nikollaj could have envisioned that particular sequence of events when they herded their six young sons onto the train a half century ago in Yugoslavia. But they did hope for that sort of progression. The United States would offer more opportunity and better quality of life, they believed. After several years of double shifts at menial jobs, they began to realize their American dream, owning an apartment building and then a pizzeria.
Each of the Nikollaj boys has made his way in life, all but one of them in the restaurant industry in Florida.
Tush Nikollaj today is 56 and has been making his living from computers for a third of a century, the last 26 years with LogicalNet, the Schenectady firm where he is president and CEO.
“I had this passion for computers,” he recalls of his start. “It was actually a hobby the way I started. I’d spend a lot of time at home just tinkering with computers.”
It soon grew beyond a hobby. In the following decades Nikollaj kept up with the rapid growth of computer technology and prospered to a point far removed from his impoverished beginnings.
The Nikollaj family is ethnic Albanian, like most Kosovars, and followed a path many Albanians had traveled before them — through Italy and into the United States of America.
“We snuck into Italy,” he recalls. “It was the middle of the night, I still remember it. It was like, ‘Everybody get up.’ In Yugoslavia they don’t tell the kids what they’re doing.”
The bid for freedom seemed to the 7-year-old boy to take forever.
“Once you got into Italy, you’re free. It’s a matter of getting out,” Nikollaj said.
His father had to climb out at one point to secure final passage, speaking to the guards in a language his family couldn’t understand.
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“Whatever deals he was making, or paying people, who knows. I’m sure he had his ways. I didn’t understand Serbo-Croatian.”
It worked, and the Nikollajs crossed into Italy.
After nearly a year there, the family secured permission to enter the United states. In 1971, they landed where so many other immigrants before and since made their first stop — New York City.
And like so many before and since, the family started by working hard and living in the rough, off Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.
“We were superintendents,” Nikollaj said. “We lived in the basement. I guess that was in lieu of rent.
“I clearly remember it. In today’s standards it would be uninhabitable. We had to clean it out and we made it livable, but to us, the basement we had here was like a castle compared to what we came from.”
The older children were expected to pitch in as the two parents worked a combined three full-time jobs.
“We never really saw them because they were always working. We had grandma to take care of us.”
By 1975 the couple had saved enough to make a down payment on their own apartment building, on Fordham Road. But it was a bad time for the Bronx. (Sportscaster Howard Cosell famously declared “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning” as a massive blaze consumed an abandoned school near Yankee Stadium during a World Series game in 1977.
“In 1980 my parents decided to move out of the city because it was getting really rough,” Nikollaj recalled. “He moved the family to New City in Rockland County. He bought a pizza shop in Blauvelt with a partner. I worked there with my brothers.
“I can make a pizza in less than a minute — perfect pie with the sauce evenly distributed, the cheese evenly distributed, in the oven in less than a minute.”
Nikollaj’s five brothers eventually went south and now run a restaurant/pizzeria chain in the Orlando area. Nikollaj went north, to Syracuse University in 1981.
Nikollaj’s studies centered on biology and chemistry, with only a few classes in a budding interest of his, computers. But when he scored an internship with a nationally renowned researcher working on an enzyme project at Upstate Medical Center, his biggest learning experience came with computers, rather than chemistry or biology. Nikollaj was drafted to set up the first computer that came into the lab.
“One day they decided to get a computer because it was a very manual process to get the readings. I was the only one in the lab who knew anything about computers.
“I remember seeing the price tag on this thing. I was never really motivated by money, BUT, I saw the price tag on this thing and I think it was like $12,000 or some crazy amount. I don’t remember the exact number but it was up there.”
Nikollaj knew the IBM PC with the glowing green screen ran about $2,000.
“So I said, ‘Maybe I should sell computers.’”
But you must walk before you can run. Nikollaj took a job at a retail software store in Syracuse.
A year later, Albany became his home, a midpoint between New City and Mayfield, hometown of Eleanor Zimmerman, the young woman he had met at Syracuse University.
Both came to Albany with ideas of graduate school. Zimmerman earned a masters and then a law degree but Nikollaj continued instead in software retail sales, tinkered with computers at home as a side business and opened a 400-square-foot retail store on Central Avenue. Thus was born Logical Micros.
“I think we hit like $2 million in sales. For a small shop, that was decent. This was in 1986. By 1990, I started hearing about this internet thing.”
“I didn’t get it though, I didn’t know what this internet was,” Nikollaj said. “I was more in the hardware space.”
The employee who kept pitching the internet to him eventually demonstrated an online conversation with a friend in England.
“It just blew my mind. This was a whole different business on its own,” Nikollaj said.
The long drive home to Mayfield where he and Zimmerman had moved provided time twice a day to think things through. The next morning he decided to go into the internet business.
LogicalNet was born in 1994 and Logical Micros was sold to a competitor.
Initially, LogicalNet was intended to serve his business clients with quicker access to information and downloads.
But residential service soon followed. “We launched CapitalNet. That went from zero to like 32,000 users. … Back then they still had localization — you want internet, you go to your local [internet service provider] so you don’t incur long-distance [charges],” Nikollaj said. “So we had at least 15 ISPs.”
The ISP business went into decline in the early 2000s, as telephone and cable TV providers began to provide internet access on their lines.
As it was fading, Nikollaj moved the company into VOIP (voice over internet protocol) in 2001 and into cloud services (the remote hosting of data, websites and applications for clients) in 2006.
“From 2006 to 2014, this whole idea of moving the server in your backroom to a data center was quite foreign,” Nikollaj said. “And the networks were not quite built out. But we were doing it for a lot of companies here that understood they needed to park their data in a data center and be managed. We got really good at the data center side.”
(LogicalNet today owns a data center in Latham and has partial ownership of two others in Florida and California.)
In 2010, the company moved into managed computer services for clients.
“So essentially, we’re like the IT department for small businesses. We manage every aspect of their computers, their networks, their wireless, their 24-7 support. We don’t necessarily sell them computers, but we spec them out. We protect those networks.”
The continually growing threat from computer hackers is one more change in the technology landscape that LogicalNet is adapting to.
Logicalnet became a victim in late 2019 as a Christmas-morning ransomware attack penetrated one of its servers, affecting a handful of clients.
In the past month it has rolled out services including security awareness training, Dark Web monitoring, network scans, simulated phishing attacks and two-factor authentication for its clients.
“These were all in the pipeline but we accelerated the implementation,” Nikollaj said.
Nikollaj and Zimmerman have three daughters and a son ages 26 to 18, and are expecting to become grandparents this summer.
Nikollaj has been involved in the community in multiple ways beyond his business, including as a member of the Mayfield Board of Education and as a Mayfield fire commissioner. He’s been an advisor to startup and established businesses, a guest lecturer at RPI, a committee member with the Center for Economic Growth and a board member for the Albany Medical Center Foundation.
He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1986 and has returned to his homeland only three times.
The former Yugoslavia is a land of many ethnic identities. Nikollaj calls himself an Albanian and says he’s from Kosovo, for example, though it was all Yugoslavia when he lived there. It’s also a place of generations-old grudges and hatred that exploded into massacres and mass expulsions in the 1990s. The Albanian-vs.-Serb hatred was something he had never felt, or been taught.
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“I grew up with Serbs. Even my parents never hated them. It was mostly political,” he said. “When the Kosovo War happened, all of the sudden, you’ve got neighbors killing neighbors for no reason, which is crazy. And a lot of that probably was initiated by propaganda.”
The war eventually touched the family in America, as the wife of one of Nikollaj’s brothers got awful news one day. “Her brother, his wife and their children were slaughtered in their own house. They just came in and slaughtered the whole family.”
When Nikollaj returned to Kosovo in 2006, everything was damaged or destroyed. “Some of the horror stories they would tell you, it’s unreal. One guy took us down this road and he said when it was raining sometimes, it was just a river of blood.”
Some Albanian-Americans have been involved in business ventures in Kosovo as it rebuilds, but Nikollaj doesn’t expect to be among them.
“I don’t ever see myself going back.”
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