|A Fresh Beachhead on Familiar
Bob Green has punched his ticket for a fresh HP 3000
adventure. The 53-year-old founder of Robelle Solutions Technology
his first name makes up the first three letters of the
companys name is back at the helm of his 24-year-old
firm, one of the oldest in the HP 3000 market. He was ensconced on a
beach in Anguilla, an island in the British West Indies, when he and
Robelle business partner David Greer parted ways late last year.
Green had left Greer to the daily management of a company which has
14,000 products installed, sticking to product development on an
island so remote its more than one travel day away from
Robelles British Columbia headquarters. Then at the crossroads
of becoming a datacenter services and solutions provider, Robelle
pulled back to its original course. Greer left to pursue his
technology solutions interests and sold his shares to Green. The
founders second adventure began, as president and owner of a
company once again firmly devoted to creating HP 3000
At about the same time Green took over the management
of the Robelle Web site, transforming it into a place where new
information related to the HP 3000 has been posted every business day
since December. The tradition of publication is strong at Robelle, a
company whose engineers have delivered countless papers to the 3000
community over the last three decades. Green was named to the Interex
Hall of Fame in 1987, an award which was given until 1992 to one
Interex member a year who provided outstanding service to the HP user
group community. Hes one of four authors whose name is on The
IMAGE Handbook, along with Dennis Heidner, Alfredo Rego and Fred
White. Robelle published the book through Wordware, and it remains a
teaching text about the database which made the 3000 a success.
The products Green invented, Suprtool and Qedit,
remain at the head of Robelles lineup after more than 20 years
in the field. The company counts more than 6,000 HP servers around
the world running its products. Green came to HP in 1969 with a
Stanford philosophy degree and began documenting what the engineers
were doing in creating the HP 3000. In a sense he is still doing that
with the companys Web site, tracking whats developing for
the server. We asked Green why hed want to return to close
contact with a software company that serves a mature market after so
much accomplishment and achieving an engineers dream:
programming on the beach.
Your company has made a major change in management.
What made you want to step up to the daily management and increased
I realized that I could visualize going forward with Robelle
for years to come. I invented the companys products over 20
years ago and still get a thrill when someone tells me how great they
are. That is what I work for.
Robelles got a lot of technical expertise that could
be attractive in a services offering. But now the company is going to
be sticking with HP 3000 software as its main offering. Why is
services less appealing to your business model than product?
Although we decided against the push into datacenter
management and refocused on software, in many ways we are a services
business and have been for the last 10 years. If you look at the
lifetime revenue from a typical Robelle customer, only a small
fraction of it comes from the software license fees. Most of it comes
from maintenance fees. We plan to focus on retaining that service
income, and supplement it with consulting services related to our
core competencies. For example, when you buy Suprtool, your
productivity would improve much more quickly if you bought some
consulting time from us to convert your most important batch
processing tasks to take advantage of Suprtool.
My attitude was that in the past, when weve gone away
from our core business, we havent done as well as when
weve stuck with our core business. I didnt think it was a
good investment for my money.
like to please our customers. Ten years ago they came to us and asked
for Qedit and Suprtool for HP-UX. At the time it didnt seem
like that big an investment, but we had to buy a bunch of new
machines, learn a lot of new skills, expand the staff to be twice as
big as we were. What we found was the only people we could sell to
were the people who knew our product and were moving to HP-UX. A
small group, really. What I learned was the success of our marketing
in our core business was being in the right place at the right time.
We just happened to be interested in the things that people were
buying. When we tried to follow the marketplace into something we
werent personally interested in, we never made any money on it.
All we did was make the company more complicated, and spread our
When I started Robelle the goal was not to worry about sales
volume, only profitability. In the early days we would turn business
away, when someone would send us a 40-page purchase order. We would
send it back. We were going to focus on the most profitable
customers. If you required a 40-page PO to buy Qedit, gosh, you were
going to be a pain to deal with.
Is there then a move away from Unix at Robelle?
Were not writing off our Unix customers, but
were not as important to them as we are to our 3000
The elusive goal of being a star in the Unix world
were not ever going to attain that. We know enough about Unix
that its not that much extra work now to support Unix for our
products. What it takes to be a star in the Unix market is different,
and we dont have it. Thats what I thought about
Theres a pretty prominent Web presence for the 3000
out there in 3kworld. Why start posting daily at the Robelle site
when theres a clearinghouse available?
I am a supporter of 3kworld and have donated my own time to
help them make it better. My biggest suggestion was that someone who
knows the 3000 has to edit the home page and decide what to highlight
on it. 3kworld listened and now has Chris Gauthier sifting through
the postings and highlighting the most interesting. And we repost our
material on the 3kworld clearinghouse after we publish it on our own
The purpose of our Robelle web site is to do the best
possible job for users of Qedit and Suprtool by bringing to their
attention information that will help and entertain them, regardless
of whether we wrote the material or not. Daily updates are something
that I tried in the Caribbean with my Anguilla news and I found that
people loved them. If someone sends you a tip on using Suprtool and
you post it on your home page the same day, they are amazed and very
pleased. If I post their tip on 3kworld, buried three clicks down
from the home page, I am not having the same impact on my customer.
What we are doing is building a community of Robelle users
that help each other with their problems. I see this as a subset of
the larger 3kworld universe, which covers people who have never heard
of Qedit and Suprtool.
Your own personal Web pages show the potential for the
Internet in its purest sense: Home page really means knowing
something about your home. Did retreating to the Caribbean help you
recharge, and would you recommend such a retreat for others
whove been in this business as long as you?
First, I didnt see it as a retreat, I saw it as an
adventure. Could I function as a programmer and remain part of the
Robelle/3000 community even though I now live on a tropical island?
On the one hand, the answer is no, I couldnt. I didnt
have anyone in Anguilla to help me solve the problems of getting set
up. I couldnt even boot up my HP-UX and MPE server by myself
because I had delegated those jobs years earlier. It was very
the other hand, the answer is yes. As soon as I admitted I needed
help and built a local support system around myself, I could be
almost as productive as I was in Canada, using the power of the
Internet to keep in touch.
I spent two of the last six years in Anguilla working half
for Robelle and half on local projects: a computer club, Web pages,
Internet news, an encrypted money project, construction, lots more.
When I left Canada I was emotionally involved with all the staff.
Sometimes I was too wrapped up in it. Having been away for six years
I could have a more grown-up attitude. Theyre still my friends
and I like them, but I made new friends, too. Maybe I was a little
burned out when I moved to Anguilla, but I had a lot of hours off.
Plenty of time to get recharged. When I looked at the possibility of
five years from now, still being the guy maintaining Qedit and
answering questions on Suprtool, it actually felt real good. This is
something I could do right into retirement.
When the time came to decide whether I wanted to sell my
share in Robelle and relax, or buy my partners share and put
all my energy into revitalizing it, I found I came back to the 3000
world and Robelle with a new perspective. I could appreciate the
uniqueness and value of it in a way that I had lost after being
immersed in it for 20 years.
I have now visited other computer communities like the Linux
world and the encryption world and the MS Windows world. I can see
that there is something wonderful about a computer community where we
take reliability for granted as in the encryption world; where
we share information freely as in the Linux world; and where
we are doing productive work that pays well as in the MS
Youve got one of the longest histories connected to
the HP 3000, a history pre-dating the systems first release.
What kind of advantages and unreasonable expectations do you
encounter in your relationships with 3000 customers new and old?
If you work on the same topic long enough and do a few good
things year after year on a consistent basis, you will become
well-known. When I started working at Hewlett-Packard I was only 19
years old. My entire working career has been spent with HP, with HP
users, and as an HP vendor. Mostly this is an advantage. The only
downside is that old time compatriots sometimes look to me for
solutions to impossible problems (how do I stop my boss from
converting to Windows NT?). I dont have all the answers
I am just a person who documents and communicates the few answers
that I do learn, mostly learned from other people, by the way.
One of the things I enjoy about your background is your
ancient Greek philosophy degree. How did that schooling help you in
the world of technical accomplishments?
When I went to work for HP the computer division was in
Palo Alto, and they were working on the 4Kb Fortran compiler for the
2116. They had about seven programmers, and I was just the go-fer for
them. Then they gave me a project to covert an Algol program from the
Burroughs 5000. HP offered me a full time job when I graduated with
my philosophy degree, so they made me into a technical writer.
Thats when I learned that I didnt know how to write. It
was the worst manual ever written and we have testimonials to
Succeeding at school builds skills that you can use at
succeeding at other tasks. I dont, however, feel that school is
the only way you can achieve those skills. Any structured environment
where you are moved ahead in an organized way to tackle ever more
complex topics will do it. The advantage of university is that it
prepares you to tackle intellectual challenges, even if they have
nothing to do with your degree topic. However, university does not
necessarily prepare you for any practical skills (see my comments on
writing skills), so it is not a cure-all.
Your work on the 3000 began at HP before the system was
even released. Was there any expectation the product would last 30
years, or was the goal just to build something that worked reliably?
They started designing the new machines in 1971. As the
software went on, they needed people to work on the documentation, so
I got drafted. I was like a documentation coordinator, but I did get
to see all the different parts of the system that way. The only other
person who got to see all the parts was the product manager.
They had brought in a really strong team [of designers] and
compiler writers, and I wasnt in their category at all. I was
just a guy one year out of college. But luckily, none of them could
write. Isnt that always the case? So there was plenty of
the time we did this the computer division was still a very small
part of HP. I dont think anyone at HP in the 1970s ever
considered how long the product would last. They were just building
another voltmeter. It should be better than the last one and should
come in under budget. Remember, the computer industry was new. The
creators of the 3000 went into it with a spirit of adventure: Can we
put the best ideas of mainframes and big multiprogramming systems
into a little minicomputer and blow peoples minds? Not, do we
have a business plan for 30 years of computing reliability?
And speaking of reliability, that was not the number one
priority in the beginning. In fact the original 3000s were extremely
unreliable, because the MPE software ran on underpowered hardware. I
think the trauma of the original crashes and customer rejections was
what created the drive for reliability that was attained a couple of
years later with the Series II.
What is ironic is that HP had to go through the same
lesson again ten years later with the release of the RISC versions of
One of your keenest interests seems to be in writing, from
the SMUG books and IMAGE Handbook to the Web pages youre
maintaining daily now for Robelle. How has writing about the 3000
changed for you over the years?
always wanted to be a writer, but believe it or not, I was originally
a very bad writer. I learned to write at university, where everything
had to be convoluted and in the passive voice: The new program
was written, on the main, with an eye toward the possible reduction
of unacceptable inventory levels instead of The new
program reduces inventory levels. It was while I was a
technical writer at HP that a professional technical editor whipped
me into shape and taught me to write clean, concise prose.
The main difference now is the Internet. Writing for the
Internet means being even more concise. You need to make your point
in three sentences, then you can link to an expanded description,
which is optional from the readers point of few. So you need to
write small, but with the ability to link; you can expand an article
into something much larger and deeper than is possible with print
(i.e. lots more examples, links to background resources, etc.)
How do you want to change the way 3000 customers interact
with a programming editor? How does such a product find a wider
audience than those technically adept enough to cut and maintain
One of the reasons we wrote Qedit for Windows was to
broaden our customer base. Only a small subset of people in an e3000
installation are interested in learning a large set of commands in
order to edit a few files. But most of the people know how to use
Windows editors. So what we did was put a standard windows front end
on our Qedit server editor. We now have many at user sites editing
Suprtool scripts with Qedit for Windows, plus data extract files,
configuration files, and more. So Qedit isnt just for cutting
HP believes theres two audiences in its customer
base, those super-informed and cutting-edge, and those still unaware
of the 3000s advances. CSY is searching for a way to connect
directly with the second group. What would you recommend?
The only way to reach them is through their primary
interests: their business community and their application software.
Specific manufacturer platforms are not as important to people as
they used to be it is the software that builds on top to solve
the problems of their industry that is important.
Robelle has stretched its abilities in working with
platforms other than the 3000. CSY now says that it succeeds even
when something else is sold other than a 3000, so long as its
an HP solution. How does that strategy sit with you?
I agree with CSY. The solution to the customer is the most
important value. So our goal is to solve as many problems as possible
with the products that we sell, then communicate that information to
as many people as possible. If we get our little slice of the giant
IT world, I am happy.
What made you realize happiness could lie in returning to
something you had done for years?
Looking back on things like the products I wrote that never
went anywhere, and the diversification efforts that werent
profitable, I realize that I was very lucky. Why should I fight it?
This is something that I am good at which I now feel I have the
energy to do again. Theres nothing else in my life thats
as likely to be as rewarding. Its kind of surprising.