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The Data Domain, or Folie à Deux

Dr. Dobb's turned 30 this year, and as my involvement with computers started about the same time the Doctor's did, I find myself leafing through my mental scrapbook of the early days of personal computing. Here's one snapshot, colored and distorted by the passage of time. It was 1979. We were in a revolution, but only a few crazies had noticed it.

In sleepy Evansville, Indiana, that year, Bootz Manufacturing was expanding its offerings from steel products to porcelain-on-steel plumbing fixtures. This was a classic rust-belt company, with rows of "girls" doing data processing and men in the vintage depression-era factory sweating over manly machines bending hot metal. Howard Bootz, the tough company patriarch, struck me like someone out of Dickens, but he was ahead of his time in one way. Bootz was fascinated with these new microcomputers and wanted to put together a multiuser microcomputer system to handle all the company's books.

I say this with some trepidation because I'm still intimidated by the man nearly three decades later, but that was crazy. Entrusting your company's books to the microcomputer software of 1979 running on a multiuser microsystem maintained by a bunch of hackers three hours away was totally bad-guano crazy.

We were the hackers.

We got a lot of jobs like that. We were one of the first computer stores in the country, and in those days the staff at a computer store did more configuring and programming and troubleshooting than selling.

At least, that's how it was at the Data Domain. And Ray couldn't have been happier. He accepted jobs on the basis of their intellectual challenge. He was in it for the problem solving.

Ray Borrill brought to computer retailing the business style of a small-town general-merchandise store proprietor in some 1950s Midwestern small town in a Ray Bradbury short story. He was a crackerbarrel entrepreneur. But that's a little misleading. Like Richard Feynman and alcoholic iced tea, Ray was a product of Long Island, and to us, he was everything you could want in a boss and then some. Brilliant, sarcastic, nerdy, sophisticated, laid-back, audacious, sentimental, and narcoleptic. We never had company meetings, because Ray wouldn't have been able to stay awake through them.

I'd met him while he was maintaining the minicomputers in the psychology department at Indiana University where I was a grad student. I lost track of Ray over the next couple of years as I stumbled out of psychology and into computer science. In the meantime, seeing the potential in microcomputers, Ray had opened a computer store. He'd also bought one of the first Apple 1s directly from Steve Jobs, gone into business briefly with Ted Nelson, built and lost a six-store midwest franchise, and was back to operating one store, barely kept afloat by a new investor. And he'd pulled together a crew of crazies necessarily less eccentric than himself, although we had our quirks. I can see the guys clearly:

Milt: Poring over the books and growing increasingly nervous, a teacher from Tennessee who thought he'd found a safe place to invest his inheritance.

Roy: Huddled over the bench on a high stool, feet on top rung so his knees are up near his chest, glasses down on the tip of his nose, which is dangerously close to the soldering iron.

Roger: Arriving barefoot at noon because he didn't believe in alarm clocks, schedules, or rules, he seemed to solve technical problems by intuition.

Thom: Deciding that he was the store manager when he found that he was managing the store, turning his notes on CP/M into a best-selling book.

Me? I was in charge of that multiuser system for Bootz Manufacturing.

I remember many of our customers, as we liked to call them, like the kid who was there every day playing games on the demo machines, the Las Vegas gambler who had us build a card-counting machine for him, the client we wrote billing software for who insisted that we allow her to type lowercase Ls for 1s. All those crazy people who wanted to do huge outrageous jobs on tiny underpowered machines, who believed the promise of those early microcomputers and trusted that we could make the machines do things that no sensible person would expect of them. Once in a while, we succeeded; but whether we did or not, we loved those customers and they loved us, because we fed each others' technological fantasies.

We were all crazy, but since we were crazy in the same way, it worked.

Michael Swaine


[email protected]

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