Programmers who defined the tech industry: Where are they now?

Revisiting the software architects of the 1970s and 1980s for their perspective where the industry has been and is going.

The Other 14 Programmers

What about the rest of the programmers Lammers interviewed? Some seem to have disappeared entirely; I don’t know what happened to John Page, who wrote PFS:File. Others are obscure to the average programmer today, such as Jaron Lanier , who wrote Atari games and was an early proponent of virtual reality worlds, or LucasFilm SoundDroid’s Michael Hawley. For similar reasons, I didn’t try to find Peter Roizen (T/Maker), Butler Lampson (Alto PC), or Scott Kim (Inversion).

But here are short updates about the rest, based on my online research:

Toru Iwatani, author of Pac Man, is now, according to Wikipedia, a full-time lecturer at Toyko Poly-Technic.

Andy Hertzfeld (MacOS) worked at Apple until March 1984; he was interviewed in the book as author of a program called Switcher for the Macintosh and a low-cost, hi-res digitizer, ThunderScan. Since then, he co-founded three companies: Radius (1986), General Magic (1990), and Eazel (1999). In 2002, according to Wikipedia, he helped Mitch Kapor promote open source software with the Open Source Applications Foundation. He also started a site, folklore.org, to share anecdotes about the development of Apple’s original Macintosh computer, and the people who created it. Hertzfeld joined Google in 2005.

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Ray Ozzie

Ray Ozzie was interviewed for the book because of his affiliation with Lotus Symphony (which beat out Ashton-Tate Framework in the marketplace, at the time).

You might know him better because of Lotus Notes, which would have been a quiet twinkle in his eye in 1986. Now, of course, he is stepping down from his role as chief software architect at Microsoft.

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John Warnock

Also still working in the industry is John Warnock (Adobe PostScript), who is also among the few who are still affiliated with the same company (though Adobe is no longer known primarily as a printer OEM).

Warnock was president of Adobe for the company’s first two years and CEO for the next 16 years. Warnock retired as CEO in 2000 and as the company’s CTO in 2001, according to Adobe’s website. Today, he is co-chairman of the board with Charles Geschke, continuing to shape direction for the nearly $3 billion company.

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Bob Frankston

Spreadsheet guru and Bricklin’s partner Bob Frankston (VisiCalc) joined Lotus in 1985, where he created the Lotus Express product and a Fax facility for Lotus Notes.

He worked for Slate from 1990-1992 on mobile and pen-based systems, then at Microsoft (1993-1998) with particular attention to home networking. He’s still thinking about networking.

We have lost at least two:

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Jef Raskin

Apple’s Jef Raskin , instrumental in the Macintosh project, died in 2005 from pancreatic cancer.

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Gary Kildall

Digital Research’s Gary Kildall , best known for the CP/M operating system, died in an accident in 1994.

After DRI and CP/M, he worked on an early GUI environment that competed with Windows, GEM (remember the original Ventura Publisher. . .?). He sold the company to Novell in 1991 for $120 million, and started another company, KnowledgeSet, which adapted optical disk technology for computer use.

My most frustrating search was for Wayne Ratliff , best known for dBase II. According to a 2007 interview, he had retired and was working on his boat, along with computer systems for competitive sailboat racing. I found no Ratliff spoor since 2007, however. Which, given the age of some of these guys, gives me a bad feeling.

Looking back on looking forward

In these quotes I concentrated on the programmers’ ideas about programming, its intersection with the world of business, and their predictions of the future. They spoke about many other things: whether artificial intelligence was a reasonable goal, the first program they were paid for, the connection between music and programming. But topics I chose attracted me because I wanted to see how the craft-or-science changed (or didn’t), and whether these brilliant men, each of whom invented something meaningful, could also envision where our industry was headed.

In some ways, they did extremely well — particularly when it came to hardware. As WordPerfect’s Pete Petersen said in a keynote address to my Island/Reach Computer User Group in Maine, a year or two later, one should always bet on computers getting smaller, faster, quieter, cheaper, and more reliable. Notebook and mobile computing was, perhaps, an inevitability.

But they were very centered on the client PC. None of these programmers predicted the Internet, or even the long-term effect of computer networks. That wasn’t surprising (except in these sense that we expect brilliant people to be smart about everything); in 1986, there was no worldwide web, the Internet was primarily Usenet, and we relied on proprietary online services like CompuServe, available only on dial-up connections.

However, the attention only to client PCs had long-term implications. These developers were thinking about designing component software, which led to OLE (object linking and embedding) and OpenDoc. Whereupon the Web made most of those issues moot, from early uses of graphics embedded in webpages to today’s mashups. There’s a conclusion to be drawn from this, though I’m not sure exactly what it is.

I saw one trend that perhaps is a bit frivolous, but might also be a view into a hacker’s mind. Many of these programmers were attracted to flying and boating. These are expensive hobbies suited to guys who have plenty of money to spend, but I saw a strong correlation with these endeavors and the programmers who moved into management. Aha: sailboats and airplanes made sense. Both involve going fast in a powerful, complex, engineered device that takes expertise and dedication to master. Much like an early computer, in which you needed to know everything about the machine to be effective. If you can’t hack code anymore, you certainly can appreciate the beauty of hardware.

Simonyi is the best example. In his interview (which he later mused about), Simonyi had just gotten into flying helicopters. That was only the beginning of his “flight” experience, however, as Simonyi joined the small set of “space tourists” when he participated in the Soyuz TMA-10 mission in 2007 and the Soyuz TMA-14 mission in 2009 to the International Space Station. (Another computer industry based space tourist is Ubuntu’s Mark Shuttleworth.)

Most of these programmers had (and have) a programming methodology that today would be called Agile. They mostly created a prototype that worked, and kept adding functionality until it was ready to ship. They worked iteratively in small teams. And, as Bricklin’s current thoughts indicate, these developers were always cognizant that at some point you have to quit adding to the software and send it out the door. I found myself wondering how many readers imagine that “Agile” is something new.

At a personal level, there seem to be two paths for these accomplished developers. Either they grew along with the companies they started, moving into management and giving up programming. Or they went back to a small shop where they could do whatever they wanted, as both Bricklin and Sachs have done; some appear to have found corporate jobs where they could continue to research and innovate on their own terms, which is pretty cool.

All in all: This generation of computer industry pioneers — who are figuring out how to exploit the Internet, make software mobile, and keep the user interface intuitive — can be proud of the early microcomputer programmers.

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