The Day I Met Dan Bricklin

I just found an older post I’d saved as a draft nearly a year ago, and it seems even more relevant now than it was at the time. I have some additional comments, having more perspective now, but first let me share what I wrote last year:

Another one of the simple pleasures of my job: A few weeks ago I got to enjoy what was, for me, a huge personal milestone. As is probably extraordinarily evident, I’ve been a geek all my life. I grew up reading magazines like Compute! and its Commodore-specific spinoff, Compute!’s Gazette, along with broader industry-related magazines like Byte. In amongst the code listings (in those days, you were as likely to see a printed copy of the source code to an application as you were to see an article reviewing an application) and product announcements were a good number of personality profiles and interviews with the people who were helping create the nascent desktop and home computing industry.

So those articles shaped my view of who could be a role model. Many times, when talking to people about the business I’m in now, I’ll make parallels to bits of past computer history that I’ve just absorbed through reading about them as they happened. While we talk about the browser wars or the birth of Netscape as ancient history, I tend to see direct parallels to the desktop suite battles in the late 80s and early 90s, or the competition between individual applications before the suites were created. In general, I think the software market is one of those industries that’s better understood by monitoring the climate than by looking out at the weather.

This made my chance to meet Dan Bricklin even more exciting. Dan invented the spreadsheet, and was responsible for the creation of VisiCalc along with Bob Frankston, who programmed it. I first met Bob a few months ago and told him how I’d grown up reading their names and had honestly never considered that I’d get to meet them. As it turned out, when I met Dan he seemed to know who I was, which left me mutely geeked out for more than a few moments.

Later, we talked more about the projects Dan’s working on, like his interesting work around SMBMeta and we critiqued the Tablet PCs that a few people at the conference had. I am a believer in the Tablet PC, of course, but one of the advantages of being an elder statesman in an industry is that you can point at any new device and find its strengths and weaknesses. It’s the kind of perspective I’m hoping to have myself, some day.

In the interceding year, to my surprise, I’ve talked to Dan a few times, enough that I’ve let myself become less of an awe-struck fanboy and even had some good discussions about stuff like software licensing. For all the annoyances or frustrations of being in this business, it’s fairly amazing that people who’ve had such a profound impact on technology and culture are still so approachable. Hell, these days, they have a weblog as often as not, and I can keep tabs on what they’re working on by reading it in their own words.
For example, earlier this week at the Personal Democracy Forum, I got to very briefly meet Mitch Kapor, a man whom I hold in a similarly high esteem. I’d exchanged emails with Mitch because of posts on his OSAF weblog that I found interesting. There’s no pretense, no arrogance, just a discusion of the kind of technical stuff that geeks like.
And every indication is that both Dan and Mitch aren’t exceptions; many of the other people who helped define the work we all do are just an email away. These are people who are and have been innovators for more than two decades, who’ve created new products, thought up new business models and, yes, made mistakes along the way.
In nearly every other business, those people sequester themselves or lose touch with the latest thinking in their field. We’re lucky that so many of the people who defined the software industry are not only still actively participating, but have also worked to make themselves so approachable.
What’s the point? Well, the obvious lesson is a reminder that I love technology, and that I have a lot to learn, and that there are some amazing examples to follow in my chosen industry. But another point that seems pretty profound to me is that if you’re lucky and bust your ass working for a while, then unabashedly being a geek one’s whole life can sometimes be rewarded by getting to meet and actually talk to one’s heroes. That’s a pretty damned nice perk.