How it all began (30 years ago)

Thirty years ago this week I started Escape Technology. Well, I mean I actually sat down at a desk and began to figure out what work I might do, and how I would get it. A lot of people have asked me over the years how we got started, and this seems like a good time and place to discuss it. The story begins in 1980 and I have completed my studies at Sacramento State, in the business school. I was required to take a couple of computer classes and did so, including BASIC, FORTRAN and COBOL. In those days, you punched your program onto cards, put them in a slot in a reception area, then came back the next day to retrieve your printout. What fun! I didn't intend to go into computers, but I really did enjoy the classes and did well in them.

The computing world was really in its infancy. No PC's or Internet of course. Just mainframes and these new machines called "mini-computers."

By virtue of incredible luck, I landed a job with one of Sacramento's two technology companies. (Ironically the other company, CableData, would go through several morph's and become the company that Ramona, Stephanie, Tom and others now at Escape worked for.) System Integrators was building it's own mini-computers and dumb terminals, and had some luck selling this system and publishing software to the newspaper industry.

The job I landed is what we now call a Project Manager. It was explained to me as "you are gonna be the meat in the sandwich between us and the customer." Basically what I did (for the first 2 1/2 years) was the last 5-10% customization/configuration as the customer required it, and then train system managers and end users.

ImageMy second project, Norwich, Connecticut (I'm on the left). That's our "System 22" behind us, and an 80 megabyte disk drive in front. Those drives cost $30,000 at that time.

I did well at this (8 or so all over the country) and was promoted to work on the "new system" which was based on some fantastic hardware at that time, called Tandem Computers. We were now building our own intelligent terminals running on the Motorola 68000 (like Apple's Lisa). The system was called "System 55" and over a couple of years would enable the company to quadruple in size.

ImageEscape's original computer and printer!

About this time the original IBM PC came on the market and for whatever reason I really felt this would be big. I borrowed some money from a relative and became the owner of one of the true originals - 16k of memory on the motherboard, a single 160k floppy disk. There weren't really any application programs yet but I began doing some programming with BASIC.

Over a period of time I hatched a plan where I would leave System Integrators and become a Personal Computer consultant. We had a few small accounting programs available by then (remember Peachtree, ACC-PAC, that kind of thing) and I had an uncle who was a CPA in the Bay Area with a large practice. Many of his clients wanted to begin doing their own accounting with these newfangled PC's.

At the ripe old age of 25 I had completed the implementations of eight System 22's and two of the three System 55's that had gone live (others were underway too). I felt that the time was right to make my move. I had been living a very frugal lifestyle in order to fund my startup. Basically, my plan was to create something like System Integrators, but using PC technology. Find a vertical market and serve it well.

Then my boss dropped a bombshell on me. The opportunity to move to Sydney, Australia, and install the world's largest publishing system outside of the USA. I decided this was too good to pass up and put my own plans on hold. I moved out of my apartment, sold my car. I wanted to live as cheaply as possible to build up my warchest. The only possession of value and importance I now owned was my PC. Which by now had 640k of memory (remember AST Research?) and a 10mb hard drive (wheee!).

I loaned the PC to my best friend at System Integrators, none other than Chad Guest (Escape's VP of R&D and my co-owner). I asked him to play with it, learn some programming on it, and maybe if things worked out once I got back we would have a chance to work together again.

My time in Australia was nothing short of amazing. Remember, no Internet. We communicated mainly via Telex, which meant sitting down at this huge machine and typing out your message. I was warmly welcomed and I met people there that were more qualified than any customers I had previously worked with. Being "on an island in another hemisphere," they had to be much more self sufficient. I became a changed person in many ways. I can't imagine my life without having taken that opportunity. Although I have to say, life today is a bit easier. In order for me to get new software, it was put on a magnetic tape, flown on an airline down to Sydney, where someone from the paper would go walk it through customs.

ImageMe (third from right) and the team at John Fairfax and Sons (publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald and about 10 other papers of the day). I'm still friends with several of them.

This was a large and complex project, with over a thousand users. There were "a lot of moving parts" as we say today. Our system had to interface with their phototypesetter which was a one-off beast, made by a German company, about the size of a mini-van. In charge of that piece of code was none other than Chad Guest.

ImageBob & Chad, somewhere in "the Australian bush," circa 1984.

Chad ended up needing to make a visit to fine tune his code, and we used that opportunity to do some touring on weekends. I can't say I recall our conversations, but I'm pretty sure we bounced around ideas of what Escape Technology eventually would become. And we are still "best mates" today!

Tomorrow, Escape Technology actually begins operations...