Category Archives: 1980s

Rebooting the Knowledge Navigator

The following is a guest post by David Gleason, Silicon Valley veteran and storyteller extraordinaire.

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Disrupting the Enterprise Experience by Starting with the User

After 30 years in the high-tech industry, I’ve come to believe that one of the great disruptions has been the transformation of the computer user, from someone who needed assistance, to the one who is calling the shots. No longer the passenger, the user is now in the driver’s seat and is setting the course. Successful entrepreneurs are those who, like the old joke about leadership, see a parade and run to the front of it, yelling, “follow me!”

In today’s enterprise, the user has evolved from being the source of input to the recipient of any desired output, anywhere, anytime without “directions.” This is part of what makes enterprise software so sexy at this stage – you can do almost anything with it, and you don’t need hand holding to get your work done.

When I entered this world as a technical writer in the 1980s, a knowledgeable friend, Rich Miller, told me: “The best way to create software is to start with the user manual — write what the program is supposed to do first, and then make the software conform to that.” He emphasized that this almost never happens, but it should — and the result would be a wonderfully easy-to-use product.

Today, the manuals are mostly gone, and in their place we are seeing an incredible explosion of user-centered design in areas that have long been hostile to the non-technical user. Giants like IBM, Oracle and SAP are improving the user experience on their systems, hosting content and forums on their websites,  and releasing smart phone apps that are snappy and cool and easy to use.

Small companies are carving successful businesses out of niche markets that once were the hidden domain of IT departments, like the help desk (Zendesk), travel and expenses (Concur), file sharing (Box), social collaboration (Jive) and many others.

Three decades ago, the question an entrepreneur was likely to ask was: Which markets or functions are most underserved by enterprise software?

Today those wishing to disrupt the enterprise software world are asking: which users are underserved by this same software, by the user experience, in fact, by the overall methodology used by the big enterprise software providers?

My personal experience tells me that the user has been put in control with the rise of the Internet, the browser and most recently, the smartphone with its apps, ecosystem, and “always on and at hand” availability.

Making Sense of Command-line Applications

My first job in the early 1980s was as a technical writer at ASK Computer Systems, a disruptive company in Silicon Valley that provided software for manufacturers to track costs, parts and projections. Customers included startups Compac, Sun Microsystems and Kurzweil.  The product, called ManMan (for manufacturing management), ran on HP 3000 and VAX 750 mini-computers which you accessed through terminals. Mini-computers were the disruptive hardware of their day, requiring far less expense than mainframes.

Using the ManMan system involved command-line data entry and multiple choice options, and the documentation was critical to understanding the product, how to use it and also how to track the constant software upgrades. Our pubs group cranked out thick binders of documentation, and we shipped updates to customers with individual pages containing edits that could be inserted into the binders.

In those days, the IBM PC was still a very new thing, underpowered and also command-line based. There were very few apps – unless you wrote them yourself. A big part of the tech writer’s job was to understand the user as someone who was mystified by technology. This meant explaining things in clear and simple language that most anyone could understand. Good documentation and training courses were essential to making enterprise software work.

The Rise of the GUI

The next disruption came with the rise of the graphical user interface (GUI) as a new and exciting approach to making computers both more visually rich and much easier to use. The operative word became “intuitive,” meaning you didn’t need to read the manual … at least in theory.In fact, Apple’s first Macintosh User Guide actually showed the reader how to “click and drag” with red arrows and detailed written instructions, since most users had no idea what it meant.

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“Click and drag” in the first Macintosh User Guide

Microsoft was converting command-line DOS to visually richer Windows as the computing choice for millions of enterprise workers, growing its developer platform and providing programming tools that encouraged software engineers to create thousands of powerful and useful apps that were easier to use, better at displaying information, and more timely than anything that ran on mainframes or mini-computers and required dumb terminals for display.

In 1992 — 3 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall — I attended Esther Dyson’s East-West High Tech Forum in Prague, along with hundreds of excited young entrepreneurs and engineers turned business people from Eastern European countries like Poland and Hungary.  Their world had been disrupted, state enterprises were being privatized and markets were being created in front of our eyes.

At a lunchtime presentation, Bob Epstein, VP of Sybase, showed the audience a database screen full of numbers, then converted it to a map of an oil pipeline where he clicked on a location and pulled up the information on flow and volume. He said, “we have to stop making the work look like the data, and make the data look like the work.” Now this was revolutionary! And very disruptive — you could actually make data look like something in real life.

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David at the 1992 East West Conference

Soon, all the big database companies including Oracle, Sybase, IBM and others, were moving to a rich GUI for easier use but also to be able to display more data.

The World-Wide Web

By 1995, we had shed the terminals, command lines and binders. It was all about the PC, shrink-wrapped applications and paperback books as Windows 95 took center-stage. Tim Berners-Lee had created the HTTP protocol and the World Wide Web;  the Internet is poised to become the next engine of disruption.

What I find most interesting is the way so many pieces came together and coincided with key turning points in hardware, software, business and even the fall of empires and the rise of new nations and markets. A new generation of users was accustomed to computing technology from their earliest years, so software developers could  keep adding features and functionality. As the Web expanded, the skills learned on the PC were transferred to the browser and the desktop computer was the single device for most users most of the time.

Everything at Your Fingertips

Today, the shrink-wrapped boxes of application software are largely a thing of the past. PC sales are flat and smart phones and tablets are growing at many multiples faster rate. Users are demanding much more than easy-to-use apps; they want massive amounts of dynamic, meaningful data at their fingertips — data that is relevant to whatever they are doing, and where ever they are, right now.

The enterprise services that power these apps have become quite amazing in their scope and power, but once again, we are seeing the best and most successful services are those that provide the easiest, most intuitive experience to users.  A great new service like Box.com is much more than file sharing — it’s an easy-to-learn experience because it builds on what most users already understand — the Web model of file access integrated with Tasks, Message, Chat and Group Collaboration — and lets you do things that you otherwise couldn’t do, and you can do them on any device or platform.

This time around the focus isn’t so much on teaching the user, but more on catching up with what the user has been wanting now for a while. So while the User Experience is still central, it’s a much more experienced, mature and sophisticated user that is demanding these new accommodations.

What does the future hold?

Twenty five years ago, Apple created a model of what the user experience could be like when data was abundant and accessible. It was called the Knowledge Navigator and the user simply told the computer what he wanted, and the system figured out where to find what was needed.

If you look at the trajectory of the past 3 decades, it’s hard not to conclude that the power of the user will grow, perhaps exponentially. I can see a future where the user no longer has to navigate applications or websites. Rather, we could be entering an age where the user simply tells a system or network of systems what she wants to do and the smart system finds the right tool for the job. It’s the realization of the Knowledge Navigator vision, an extension of making the data look like the work – and in an age of rich, dynamic, smart data, what could be more logical and useful than a system that can take your command and execute your wishes?

What are your thoughts on where the user experience is going?

 About David
David is a writer and senior content manager specializing in developer marketing and technical content creation for platforms, APIs and mobile. He has a life-long interest in the dynamics of change. His greatest thrill was meeting Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov in Moscow in 1988 with Apple executives on the 20th anniversary of the publication of Sakharov’s unauthorized book, Progress,  Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom. Sakharov’s book was a starting point for the social, political and economic upheaval that led to the fall of the Soviet Union, certainly a major disruption in world history.

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Bill Wesemann: Sexy Has Come Full Circle

Silicon Valley veteran Bill Wesemann knows sexy. With over 30 years experience, Bill has done it all, from selling computing services in the pre-PC era, through running worldwide sales working for Steve Jobs at NeXT and an IPO at Genesys, to angel investing and advising today. Below, Bill shares his insights on how delivering and selling enterprise software has come full circle, as well as a surprising story about the darker days at NeXT.

How did you get started in technology?
“In 1981, I was a pitcher in the San Diego Padres organization in need of surgery.  (By the way, the lifestyle of a minor league baseball player is similar to working for a startup.  You sleep when and where you can, and if you win that night’s poker game, you upgrade to the buses’ spacious overhead luggage bin.) Waiting in the doctor’s office for my surgical consult, l picked up a copy of Forbes with an article that changed the course of my life. It featured the Top 20 information services companies, among which were several big players selling computing capability directly to end users, including Tymshare.  I decided on the spot that was my next step and before too long I’d landed the job I wanted in sales.”

What has changed since the sexy pre-PC era?
“What I find really interesting is what was sexy at the start of my career in the early 80s has come full circle.  What made Tymshare and its competitors so revolutionary was that the buyer was the end-user and didn’t have to be hardcore programmers to use our service.

Just prior to corporate adoption of the PC, Tymshare offered “fourth-generation” software that allowed analysts to quickly develop applications and empower the end user.  In addition to owning the X.25 packet network called Tymnet, Tymshare also had early versions of email for which we charged $0.25 for every 1K characters.  Can you imagine that cost structure today? Needless to say, with an uncapped pay-as-you-use model, the bills got very big, very fast. As companies struggled to contain costs and set standards, a new regime run by the freshly-created Director of MIS, emerged.  With increased PC adoption, early versions of fixed-price packaged software, and solutions moved in-house, the model unraveled. In 1984, Tymshare was sold to aerospace manufacturer, McDonnell Douglas.

Fast-forward 30 years, and with the advent of SaaS, cloud technologies, social, and mobile, and the end users are once again discovering their own solutions. With today’s multi-tenant SaaS architecture, the ability to deliver cloud services anywhere to any device, and cost-effective per seat or pay as you go pricing has taken the enterprise software industry by storm. As vendors like Salesforce.com have shown, it is more cost-effective, scalable, and flexible to use on-demand could-based software.  So we have come full circle, only this time the economics favor cloud-based applications.”

What’s sexy today?
“I think the rise of angel investors in the past decade has been very good for enterprise all around. Early stage investors can not only participate in advance of seed rounds, but can contribute more than money. Not only can I share domain expertise, but I am also a partner and true fan of the business and the founders.  While the interests of traditional VC models and what is best for the business can sometimes be at odds, angels can be more patient and understanding of the ups and downs inherent to an early-stage company. Because we can become personally involved with the business, I believe this trend will continue to have a huge impact on the success of a startup.”

You know this post wouldn’t be complete without a Steve Jobs story, right?
“Well, I figured.  Let me quickly back up to the time just before I went to work for NeXT and set the stage for a classic Steve story.

When Windows 3.0 put a GUI on enterprise applications, people could actually use them – talk about sexy for the enterprise!  Before applications were natively built with a GUI (think PeopleSoft in the late 80s), we sold tools to augment mainframe applications with a Windows or OS/2 GUI. I sold one of those companies, Viewpoint Systems, to KnowledgeWare, a computer-aided software engineering (CASE) company whose CEO was none other than hall of fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton.  When I joined NeXT, I went from working with a CEO who knew everything about sports and nothing about software to a CEO who knew everything about software and could care less about sports. Talk about 180-degree change!

I mention CASE because it sets the stage for a classic Steve Jobs sales call story.  You see, NeXT sold enterprise application development software, so he actually had to go on sales calls.  This particular meeting was a big one with the US Postmaster General. There we are in a room in Washington DC, 20 guys in suits and the two of us (Steve clad in his classic uniform, of course).  Their very first question was, “Steve, can you tell me what you think of CASE?”  I cringed, and a full 30 seconds of silence passed.  Steve then pretends he’s going to sneeze and says into his hand as loud as he can, “It’s bull shit”. I cannot describe the stunned looked on their faces. Another 30 seconds of awkward silence passes and I say, “Next question?”  I’ve got so many of these great stories, but we’ll save them for a future post.”

What did you learn working for Steve Jobs that applies to entrepreneurs today?
“I will say the time I worked with Steve at NeXT were tough times for him. Some had started to write him off and he was struggling to find himself.   Even through the darkest days, the only time I ever saw him really down was when he briefly decided to give up the user experience and adopt the Windows GUI over the beautiful object-oriented interface we’d developed at NeXT.  Obviously he ultimately didn’t have to do it, but he almost conceded.  It was his spirit and relentless drive that never allowed him to give up.

I believe that those that were fortunate enough to work for Steve at any point in time are the better for it. I have had the privilege of working for many great companies, but I look back at those days as the best of my career.  We worked every day with a singular goal of doing something unique and contributing to something special.  It may sound trite, but that type of culture and unwavering dedication makes financial rewards secondary.   We got up everyday to hit a grand slam.  We weren’t satisfied with a base hit and we never gave up.   I think this is an important lesson for any entrepreneur that faces the fire, you’ve got to double down on faith and push forward.”

About Bill 

Bill Wesemann is a Silicon Valley veteran with over three decades of experience in enterprise software. He began his career in technology in the early 80s selling computing services in the pre-PC era with several successful exits. In the 90s, he ran worldwide sales for NeXT, led sales at Genesys, which went public 1997, and was then CEO of NextPage.  For the past decade, he been an angel investor, advisor, and on the Board of Directors LivePerson (LPSN).