to Cyreenik book index

The Safeguard Computer Project

As stated above (pg. 13, 15), Dolf and Pete’s reasons for investing in Novell were strategic—high profit and migrating Safeguard Scientifics into high tech—and tactical—offering an automated successor to the manual One Write package that Safeguard Business Systems was selling.

Phil, head of Novell Software Development, was the man charged with making a terminal computer variant suitable for the Safeguard Business Systems marketplace.

Phil was a smart, blunt man who liked talking about the intricacies of the technology. “He was the kind of guy who if you asked for the time of day would preface the discussion by telling you the art of clock building,” said Reid.

He was also very conservative in his preference for technological styles, which often put him at odds with Rusty, who was designing the terminal hardware. One such conflict was over the protocol used to have the terminal board talk to the CP/M board in the terminal computer.

Some background: The terminal computer was literally a terminal board plus a computer board housed in the same casing. To make communications between the two boards happen, they had to be connected with appropriate circuitry and a cable. The choice of hardware connection was curious to start with: Given the short distance between the two boards and the fact that Novell controlled the circuitry on both ends of the link, a parallel connection would have been fast, reliable, and inexpensive. However, these boards were a product of their own histories and the link was made serial instead—a slower, more expensive linkage, but one for which the circuitry on both boards was already in place.

This expedient choice would dog the terminal computer throughout its life because it aggravated the slow-screen-display problem. Further aggravating this problem was Phil’s choice of how to handle the communications protocol—and this is where he and Rusty locked horns.

Phil said something like, “This is a serial connection, and an important one. We’ll handle communication over this link with a formal handshaking and error correction protocol.”

To which Rusty replied something like, “Using a formal protocol is going to double our overhead over an already-slow link. That formal protocol was developed for modem use, where lines are presumed to be noisy. Let’s presume this line is clean and use an abbreviated protocol that’ll double our throughput. We’ll add just enough error checking to tell if we’ve had an error. If we get an error, we’ll recover and re­transmit.”

This was the Phil and Rusty Relation in a nutshell, and dealing properly with this kind of relationship is one of the high arts of keeping a company both alive and creative. In a healthy company, such differences are called “creativity at work”, because they insure that all sides of issues, and all relevant issues, are examined. In a company that’s on the rocks, these differences are called “interdivisional communications problems” and are said to be the root of the company’s inability to face its crisis.

Both views are correct. What leads to success is making sure that such people are communicating and making decisions before, not after, the finger-pointing stage. One of the keys is establishing a good company vision.

NCC 81

The high point of Novell Data Systems was NCC 81, the summer 1981 National Computer Conference show at the McCormick Center in Chicago. Novell wasn’t planning to attend until the last moment—a couple months before the show. Once the decision was made, the company went into high gear planning how to make a memorable impact on short notice and short funds. Novell’s showing at this NCC was an example of Jack’s promoting at its finest.

The first problem was even getting a booth. The waiting list by spring was 150 companies long. If a booth couldn’t be found, Novell would have to base from a hospitality suite at one of the hotels rather than be at the convention center—which wouldn’t be nearly as effective. Thanks to Andy’s connections at Jade Computer, Novell got a 10‑by‑20 booth on the main floor when Jade decided to back out of the show. A display was designed in short order.

Then Jack came up with his coup de grace. He swung a deal with some of the shuttle buses moving convention attendees between the McCormick Center and the hotels. In return for covering their chartering costs, he ran low-key tape-recorded Novell ads through the bus intercoms.

“It’s a captive audience,” Jack chuckled.

In addition, when the attendees arrived they were greeted with a newspaper insert piece describing Novell.

NCC 81 went quite well for Novell. The printer and the terminal computer were displayed and the LAN was announced. Interest was high.

For Judy the show was also the start of her connection to Novell. For months she and Reid, her husband, had been conspiring to get her involved in Novell. Earlier Reid had proposed taking Judy on one of his business trips to Europe as his secretary. Jack had vetoed it.

As NCC approached Reid proposed bringing Judy along as part of the exhibit team. Once again, Jack was dead-set against it. “It would set a bad precedent—having a husband and wife work at the company.”

Jack’s wasn’t an uncommon feeling among businesspeople, but it had made more sense a decade earlier and in communities larger and less tightly-knit than Utah Valley, where there just aren’t that many choices of places to work. And in spite of Jack’s protests married couples were already working at Novell.

Then as the show deadline neared the booth shipping deadline was missed. Reid later related:

The only way to get it to Chicago was to load it in a rented truck and have someone drive straight through. “I’ll do it,” I volunteered, “but Chicago is 20 hours away. I should have someone go with me. How about Judy?”

Jack relented. And so it was that Judy started working for Novell. She drove, worked at setting up and tearing down the booth, and took her share of booth duty as well.

But the road wasn’t smooth for her. She was in again and out again at Novell several times after that NCC assignment. She and Reid would conspire to find a place for her during the relatively good times during 1982, then she would get cut out again at each crisis. She was part of Novell’s story in 1982, but it wasn’t until after Ray’s assumption of the presidency in 1983 that her position became permanent.

to Cyreenik book index