Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 2: “The First Wave of Characters”

A guest blog, by Chuck Ritley

TV gigs like “60 Minutes” show life in The Valley today. Everyone chuckles at bearded Google programmers with bicycles by their desks, environmentally correct sandals, and the engineering gang drinking macrobiotic smoothies.

But these are kids! Newcomers! Freshmen! Squatters writing game code for adolescents in an arena whose history they don’t comprehend. The Valley is an arena, an arena built on blood and grit, by a bunch of tough, smart, future-seeing characters, not afraid to get their hands dirty. They took apricot orchards and turned them into the electronics industry.

Valley_machineThe 70s: I was a mainframe systems engineer turned journalist, covering the computer industry for a publishing house. New companies sprung up: DEC, General Automation, Microdata, Qantel, Basic Four, Four/Phase, Nixdorf, Lockheed, NCR – and more. I wrote about them, and I was welcomed in their offices. And most were in The Valley.

I had a great opportunity to meet some of these characters who shaped the industry. Were they my pals? A couple of them became that. But mostly I’m just pleased to say I met them.

Regis McKenna – You never heard of him? But you know Apple, Intel, Compaq, Microsoft, Intel, and Lotus. Regis is a marketing and advertising genius. Neat inventions need a market. Regis made Apple and Microsoft household words. (Bill G and the 2 Steves had ideas – Regis sold them.) I met him at his office in Palo Alto, trying to sell ads in our magazines. We didn’t. But I had a chance to interview the man who knew where the computer industry could go and HOW to get it there. He was generous about sharing his vision. I doubt he remembers me – but it I’ll remember him.

Gary Kildall – he never bought an ad from us. But Dr. Kildall did two critical things that made the whole industry possible: he invented the BIOS – Basic Input Output System. (It boots up your PC.) Then, he invented the Operating System.   The first was CP/M, the forerunner of DOS. Companies as big as IBM used CP/M. And Dr. Kildall invented it in his garage.

Dick Pick – CP/M and DOS were ground-breakers, but only geeks like me understood them. Dick created a full operating system called PICK (still in use today) that looked like – well, English. No weird codes, and programmers could use: add, subtract, write, compare, input, and print. We never did sell an ad to Microdata, but I’ll remember Dick Pick.

Jim Fensel – Jim knew everyone in The Valley. He ran a small marketing firm, but put together big deals. Software guy needs a hardware guy? Jim made the intro. Someone had a good idea, but couldn’t afford Regis McKenna? Jim knew who to see and get it done. A great find for a writer, and any time I needed a story, Jim knew of one. I came to rely on his tips and we became pals. In fact, every few years, we’d get together on something. We even put together a product deal about 20 years after I had met him. Sadly, I’ve lost touch. Life works like that. But somewhere in The Valley, Jim is putting together a deal.

Doug Baker – a Canadian hockey player who moved South, Doug was a true visionary. He knew computers were useless without programs, and that business programs needed to be so generic that any company could use one. He worked as CEO of a little company called Basic/Four (now the giant MAI Basic Four) in Orange County, took small Z80-based systems, added an OS, and directed development of a set of universal business functions, written in BASIC, that most companies need. And – Wow! – up to 4 users could work simultaneously. Result: the “turnkey” system. A rush of competitors started doing it too – and this was the way the industry went. I was fortunate to work for Doug in later years and I learned this – if Douglas K. Baker said “here’s where it’s going”, that IS where it went.

There were so many more: engineers, programmers, marketing guys, promo guys – all builders. Guys like: Al Cosentino at MAI, Harry LeClair at Tab Products, Adam Osborne, Don Schnitter, Gene Sylvester, Jerry Cullen, Bo Frederickson, Noel Kyle, Mike Dakis, Dallas Talley, Jim LeBuff, – my memory is over-flowing. I’m the richer for having met them. They built the foundation, they made it happen, they were the first. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the other kids – they owe these pioneers a debt they can never pay.


This guest blog was submitted by Chuck Ritley, an adjunct professor of computer science with several major universities in the San Antonio area.  

Here are the links to the other blogs in this series:

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 1: “The Way It Was”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 2: “First Wave of Characters”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 3: “Evolution of the Geek”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 4: “When Giant Sold Pork Chops”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 5: “Mr. Yee and the Albrae Street – Taiwan Connection”