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Doug Walker
Retiring CEO


February 2005

An Evolution From Software to Biology

Doug Walker is ready to evolve his business career from software to biology. In December Walker sold WRQ, the company whose first initial stands for his last name, to an investment group for an undisclosed amount. Walker announced his retirement from WRQ at the same time, ending a career of more than two decades creating business computer software for systems starting with the 3000.

When Walker — along with Mike Richer and Marty Quinn, the other two WRQ initials — joined forces with co-founder George Hubman, minicomputer access required hardware terminals. The advent of the personal computer had the potential to expand that access. A company which could create software to emulate a minicomputer’s terminal might succeed in capturing hundreds of thousands of sales, as companies traded in their terminals for the more versatile PCs. The purple boxes carrying a manual and floppy disks for PC2622, named after the HP 3000 terminal the product emulated, became a fixture in HP 3000 shops by the mid-1980s.

Walker developed that first commercially viable terminal emulator for the HP 3000, the first product that let the company then-called Walker, Richer & Quinn get a foot in the door to 3000 customers adopting PCs. More than 20 years later the company which was sold in December counts millions of users of its software, is approaching $100 million in sales, and sits on thousands of 3000 users’ desktops. Walker is replacing himself with a CEO bred from WRQ’s inner circle, Shaun Wolfe, before departing the HP 3000 community.

In his life’s next act Walker wants to integrate the lessons of software with the problems of biology. He’s always had outside interests that played counterpoint to his computer career, including serving on the boards of outdoor gear retailer REI (Walker is an avid rock climber at age 54) and environmental preservation agency The Nature Conservancy. We wanted to ask what the HP 3000 world taught him before he departed, as well as recall how the company overcame startup challenges with HP. We spoke just before Christmas, when he was less than two weeks from beginning the evolution of his technology career.

How did you get started working with the HP 3000?

The first project where I worked on the HP 3000 was right after starting WRQ. George Hubman and Marty Quinn had worked for HP, but I had not. We had a contract to create communication software for data aggregation for a company kind of doing work like AC Nielsen. Microcomputer devices were surveying what people watched on TVs. I had to enable the HP 3000 to communicate with those devices.

The second project was like doing a terminal emulator on the HP 3000, having a 3000 call up another device and capture an entire session. We came up with a product out of that project that George called Thief — but we didn’t succeed in selling any copies of that.

This was all just programming in SPL on the HP 3000. We started working on PC2622 in 1982. That involved Quinn getting an IBM PC and us attempting to write a terminal emulator in C, C being not so dissimilar to [the HP 3000 language] SPL. But we learned you couldn’t write the driver-level stuff in a terminal emulator in C at that time. Most of those early PCs didn’t have hard disks; they were floppy-driven. One of the problems with programming in C was that the object files were too big for floppy drives.

If we wrote the whole program in C, it was going to be too big to submit on the average-sized floppy: 128K at the time. We reprogrammed it in assembly language and didn’t ship it to any customers until 1983 — with pretty slim documentation. It was a big challenge to write it all in assembly language. But we had to be one of the earliest terminal emulators for the HP 3000.

What were the challenges of getting an HP terminal emulator accepted in the market of the early 1980s?

Version 1.1 of the product had an HP 3000 file transfer program. The problem was how to get the file transfer program onto the 3000 side. We needed to be able to upload the file transfer program from the PC. We solved it by using the logic in the HP terminals for reading a tape. You could do a binary transfer of blocks of data using FCOPY, so we’d convince the terminal to upload our file to the HP 3000 from a tape.

Now you have FTP, but in those days we had to figure out how to bootstrap the file transfer operation to get the program on the 3000. Because it certainly wasn’t the case that HP was going to distribute it for us.

Why did HP refuse to do that?

HP didn’t really have a terminal emulator, and they weren’t too sure of their attitude about us jumping in and offering one. HP had their own PC back then, the HP 150, and the 150 had a file transfer program. So HP could distribute the HP 3000 portion of that program themselves.

So HP’s 150 put you in direct competition with its terminal emulation business?

They took a not-necessarily friendly view of us doing this. They even offered to buy the company in 1985.

Could they have offered a price that would’ve made WRQ say yes at that point?

Yes, but they weren’t anywhere near it. We said it would cost millions of dollars, but they wouldn’t even think in terms of six zeroes.

When did things change between WRQ and HP?

A lot of the HP field people were real helpful to us. They wanted to see a product that helped solve customer problems. HP Cupertino was not so friendly. Then we stuck a deal with the HP Portable being introduced out of Corvallis, to do a terminal emulator in ROM on that machine. Things were very friendly with HP Corvallis. HP then took a more objection-oriented approach to us. In the 1990s they kind of threw in the towel, and they asked us to support the PC end of their NS/VT protocol in our emulator.

Ever since then, HP’s been very friendly. Of course, the 3000 is a little bit on the outs with HP these days.

That 3000 business at HP has seen its challenges over the years. What’s the greatest challenge that you’ve braved while running WRQ?

We feared that HP would try to put us out of business. We’ve had other risks, but that was a pretty considerable one at the time.

How did you figure they’d do that?

If you’re trying to connect up to somebody’s computer systems, and they don’t want you to, they could do things to stop you. Initially, when TCP started taking off, HP would not give us the specifications for the NS/VT protocol. Not being able to do a LAN-based protocol when HP had that key element was pretty scary. We did reverse-engineer it, but if we hadn’t, that would have been a pretty big threat.

What does the HP 3000 community count upon that seems unique?

It’s still amazing to me how strong the HP community is, especially in the face of the kinds of challenges that are upon it these days. The 3000 was a super-reliable, very workable machine — and it’s hard to kill something like that. The architecture was so basically appealing that it attracted a strong cadre of people that really were and still are enamored with this architecture.

The 3000 came out in the era of the minicomputer. The basic workability and the strengths of those HP and Digital designs were pretty appealing. It’s pretty hard to see those 3000 and Digital architectures go away. I’m not even sure in what timeframe they will go away.

Well, HP is retiring from the 3000 market. Why are you retiring from WRQ now?

It had not been my plan to retire now. We had not been thinking about this transition. It was an opportunity that came up. It seemed like a good opportunity both for myself and for the company. I had to make a transition at some point.

There might have been a better point later, but the company is having a really terrific year. I think if you’re going to step away, it’s a lot more fun to do it when you’re having a great year. If WRQ was having difficulties, I would feel irresponsible to step away.

Because of our performance this year, WRQ may pay one of its biggest bonuses to employees we’ve ever paid. Because we’ve had good years, we’ve grown up a good management team within WRQ, the best we’ve ever had. That certainly starts with Shaun Wolfe, who will be CEO after I leave. That goes through our whole team.

How will you remain active in the computing industry?

I have a lot of conversations going on, and I’d like to remain active in technology. Technology had a tough time in 2000, and it’s been kind of a tough run for the start up companies. I think things are looking up, and there are a lot of new technologies that I’m interested in.

I’m especially interested in the interplay between computing and biotech. We’ve cracked the genome and people are talking about a lot of sci-fi stuff with respect to biotech, but it’s really a compute-bound problem.

So you believe solutions will flow from an increase in compute horsepower?

Horsepower and software. Using computing more effectively in biotech is going to be the gating factor for these advances people are talking about in biotech.

Sounds like you’re leaning toward staying in the software business. How do you believe investing in software and owning hardware differs?

The investment required to get the intellectual property, the IP that software represents, is more profound than we think. Let me give a biology example. You can think of biological systems as computer programs, because they have a code in DNA, like technology in a software program. Those systems have taken a long time to devise. I know a MacArthur Fellow in the University of Washington biology department who’s reverse engineering the software driving a fly’s eye. The computer imaging systems we’re using today have better hardware than the fly does. But the software is not as sophisticated. The fly is simpler than a lot of animals. But the software driving the fly’s eye is better than what we have. It’s taken a long time to develop that IP for a fly. They may seem simple, but they have been around for awhile.

Speaking of evolution, what legacy do you hope HP’s remaining market can retain from the HP 3000’s history and experience?

The HP 3000 was such a high quality system in people’s IT infrastructure that it resonated. Because the 3000 evolved off of its original processor, it was the software that was the enduring system. That reiterates that quality was the important thing. The software object that the 3000 represented was what was truly of value. If we can’t have the 3000 again from HP, we want things that bring forth that value. That’s the quality that I’ve learned myself from the 3000.

What did the HP marketplace teach you and your company?

A commitment to quality, a reliability that far exceeds what you’d normally find in the software marketplace. We were originally attracted to the HP 3000 because it had that quality.

Quality takes time — yet you seem to have enough time to build such products and still have a life outside of work. What’s your advice about balancing work and personal passions?

It’s a delicate balance. You can become too involved in outside things, and I’ve certainly walked that line. But it’s important to have those outside activities, because it broadens the way you think about things. For me, serving on REI’s board or the Nature Conservancy has given me both contacts that were useful from a business standpoint, and ideas that have been useful to me about the problems those organizations face.

I joined the REI board in 1996. When I joined they didn’t have e-mail or a Web page. I certainly put emphasis on REI in a big way with the Web, where they do a quarter of their business. REI trying to integrate Web front ends with a back end was educational for WRQ. It was relevant for our strategic thinking here.

I still bike to work. I still try to mountaineer every weekend. I’ve picked up on my rock climbing, doing more of it.

What’s been the most significant HP invention during your WRQ career?

HP’s had a lot of success with printers. HP hasn’t wanted to think of themselves as a printer company, but in terms of their biggest impact on the industry, quite a few of us have an HP printer.

What role do you see for specialized computer environments in the years to come? Must it all become Windows and Linux-based?

Single integrated monolithic systems are not the way of the future. The only way is to have differentiation, but it has to be based on some very common interfaces. In that sense, there is a role for things like MPE or VMS. Lots of forms of life have differentiation, but they all seem to have a cell structure. A common programming system, like DNA. You can have differentiation so long as you have integration.

You seem to have a biology example ready for lots of these points.

Biological programming has been going on a few million years longer than software programming. I’m just impressed by how much there is to learn there.

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