Bill Gates, Compaq Plus and some new thing called Windows

Apple Lisa MouseMicrosoft MouseVisiCorp VisiOn Mouse

Back in 1983, I worked in Digital’s UK PC Dealer Team, where I was the sole presales technical guy helping to grow Rainbow PC sales through the PC Dealer Channel. Around 120 independent dealers, many of whom had a background in selling Commodore, Apple and miscellaneous CP/M based machines to consumers and businesses. As the second largest computer manufacturer in the world, everyone (including ourselves) expected the PC market to become an IBM vs DEC battle ground.

We had seen the launch of the Apple Lisa, a machine that scared everybody. While most of the vendors saw the windowing system and thought Apple would eat us alive, consumers got equally scared of the $10,000 price tag. However, it set in train an arms race to provide an equivalent for other PC vendors.

The authors of Visicalc (the first and most popular spreadsheet) started engineering a Windowing system called “Visi-On”, another called Quarterdeck a system called “DesQ” that could work out of the box with existing applications, and there was a rumoured response on the way from Microsoft.

In May, we had a visit from Phil Sutcliffe and his US CEO, Bill Gates, who carried in a Compaq Plus (IBM compatible as large and heavy as a portable sewing machine) and set it up to give a demo to around 20 of us around a conference room table. Two of the DEC VIPs were stuck in a board meeting upstairs, so we all sat around the table like lemons, waiting for their arrival, Gates included. I couldn’t help myself, so I turned to him and said: “I notice you have two buttons on your Mouse there. The Apple Lisa has one, and the Visi-On mouse has three. I’m curious, why did Microsoft pick two?”.

With that, he spent a good ten minutes relating a thorough drains up of his thought process, which included many examples of areas that really sucked when using both the Lisa and in VisiOn. Extremely thorough, well thought through, and left an impression of “Wow”. The sort you walk away with if you ever meet someone who turns into a walking encyclopedia.

When the VIPs arrived, the first thing he said as he shook their hand was “When are you going to drop CP/M and move to DOS?”. A reference to Digitals then preferred OS, given it already ran thousands of applications and was an on-ramp to Concurrent CP/M, which allowed you to hop and skip between 5 running full-screen applications. That done, he then gave a demo of a new product called “Windows” that Microsoft were at that point building.

He left with some degree of frustration at not persuading the senior folks to switch immediately. Phil told me afterwards that when he got back to David Fraser, then Microsoft UK General Manager, he told him “There was only one guy in that room who knew what he was talking about – hire him”. At the time, there were few UK employees – about 10 or so if I recall. I was duly invited for interview, spoke to David Fraser and International VP Scott Oki, but ended up declining the move.

The one thing that’s always struck me ever since is how asking a good question often has a much bigger impact than knowing the answers. It’s usually a sign of good management if staff are aimed at audacious goals, and questioned about detail rather than having it prescribed to them.

About 4 weeks in after I was first handed DECdirect Software to start, I got invited to a chat with Peter Herke – the General Manager of the DECdirect Catalogue operation at that point. He had a reputation of chewing out senior people who didn’t know every detail of the business they are running (in fact, for junior people, he just asks a few pointed questions and asked them to come back with the answers when they were to hand – people learnt to keep the finger on the pulse very quickly).

I spent the whole evening before thoroughly remembering every statistic and every detail of the emergent business, from helicopter view to the smallest thing. When I got to his office, I sat down, he closed the door and just said “Are you enjoying it so far?”. That completely threw me. I recall saying “Well, it feels like i’m sitting in an aircraft cockpit, and I can see all the dials moving. I’m at the stage of watching them all, trying to work out which are the important ones”. I then took him through what I was doing, what the challenges were and how I was addressing them. At the end, he asked when I was expecting to launch to the outside world, and told me that it was my call, and not to do it until it felt right. To me. He just wanted me to have $35 million revenue in the bag 11 months later, and apart from that, it was my ship to pilot. And to ask him for help and advice if I needed it along the way.

Big team effort (8 telesellers I shared, 2 tech support, 1 logistics person and me), but we launched 3 months later, flew past the $35 million target well ahead of fiscal end of year, and in fact hit $100m within 18 months – at over 89% gross margin.

Just goes to show what people can achieve if given the latitude to grow, and just having good questions asked of them to help them steer themselves along the way. I’ve treated every employee i’ve had since like that – and have been proud of the results every time.

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