In 1980 I graduated from Kearney High School in Kearney, Nebraska [map].
About 20 years later (8 Dec 2000), President Clinton happened to visit Kearney. He arrived on Air Force One [photo] [photo] [photo] at the municipal airport, mesmerizing the Kearneyites. Why is it that the trappings of the United States Presidency, including its motorcades [photo], White House staff, and the United States Secret Service seem to capture our imagination more than the President himself?
[Footnotes added 19 October 2002] I'm told that "Air Force One" is automatically the name of any plane carrying the current US President. That might explain why this smallish jet doesn't look suitably Presidential. Maybe a 747 is too big to land at the Kearney airport?
In 1985 I graduated from the University of Nebraska [website] at Lincoln (UNL), in Lincoln, Nebraska. I majored in Mathematics after toying with Computer Science and German a bit.
I left Nebraska in 1985, probably never to return except on visits. But like all Nebraskans, I'll never forget this little jingle.
In 1990 I graduated with a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Stanford University [website], where I had an office in Margaret Jacks Hall [photo 1] [photo 2]. My advisor was Jeff Ullman [photo], who is apparently the most cited computer scientist in the world.
I don't recommend my Ph.D. thesis research as a subject for further contemplation by anyone. Somehow my busy Stanford schedule [transcript] permitted me to to find plenty of time to post "news" articles [archive] on the su.roger-or-andy Computer Science department electronic bulletin board.
Many of these musings were not exactly related to my thesis.
Job Hunting (1990)
So I had a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Stanford. Surely it was time, therefore, to look for an academic job?
I sent off some academic job applications, maybe thirty. I came close to getting an appointment at a couple of places, I think. On the other hand, maybe people were just being extremely nice.
I've always enjoyed the Schadenfreude that comes from reading about other people's failures. Here are a few rejection letters for your reading pleasure:
Here's an apparent near miss (I didn't get the job):
Maybe a research-oriented industry post-doctoral position instead?
I know I had a big box full of rejection letters. Now I can't find it, just when I really want to scan them in and put them up on this web site. I must have hurled them all out sometime in a pique of frustration.
The moral—never throw anything away.
You may wish to draw other lessons.
First Job (1991)
In January 1991 I was offered a job as a "Senior Software Engineer" at Teknekron Software Systems (now Tibco [website]). The Teknekron offices were literally across the street from the apartment I was living in at the time on Lytton Avenue in downtown Palo Alto.
Putting aside my main objection, namely, that I didn't really know how to develop software, I accepted the job. My ride through the Silicon Valley startup culture of the 1990s was about to begin.
Teknekron Software Systems
Reading my Teknekron job offer letter dated 30 January 1991 [page 1] [page 2], you'll note that it was signed by JoMei ("JoMei the Money") Chang [article], and calls for me to report to her husband, Dale Skeen [Bio] [Photo]. These two got sick of Teknekron also (but several years after I did). They started Vitria [website], which had a typically volatile up and downhill ride in the late-1990s tech stock market [chart]. You'll see, for example, that a big chunk of Dale Skeen's Vitria shares fell from being worth more than $1 billion to a mere $163 million in a few months [table]. And by February 2003, with most of the tech crash completed, the whole company would be valued at less than half of that ($72 million). Ten years earlier (early 1991), these millions had not yet been realized, and Dale and JoMei were instead shuffling my Teknekron interview schedule [image].
I hated this job, and worked at Teknekron only 16 weeks. As an example of life's little ironies, I've been basically doing the same thing (getting involved in software startups) ever since. For the most part, I've enjoyed it.
And why do I bring up these people, Dale and JoMei? For me, they represent archetypes of the Silicon Valley software start up lifestyle as is was led in the decade of the 1990s. This lifecycle ran through my (and many other) peoples careers in the 1990s. The basic form seems to be
1. Join a software company.
2. Realize that you don't like it, or don't like something about it.
3. Meet some smart new people.
4. Start a new software company with the new people.
5. Piss some of the old people off, but also make some new friends.
6. Sell the new company, either in the public markets, or to another technology company.
7. You have now joined a software company again. You're about to realize that you don't like it, or don't like something about it.
You get the idea. We've already covered steps 1, 2, and 3. Around step six is where you hope to get really rich [cartoon].
PostModern Computing Technologies, Inc. (1991-1995)
Step 4: After leaving Teknekron in mid-1991 I co-founded an (ultimately successful) computer networking software company that we called PostModern Computing Technologies, Inc [logo, ca 1994]. Today (early 2001) the products we originally developed at PostModern are still being marketed and sold by Inprise (Borland) via a chain of software company acquisitions.
I made up the company name. A lot of people thought it was cool. Others didn't, or were understandably neutral about it while pronouncing it "Postmortem." In any case, the earliest PostModern documents that I'm aware of date from May 1991 and are in a notebook I still possess. Page 1 had some general thoughts on the company naming problem [image], but not until page 2 [image] did "PostModern" appear. Page 3 [image] anticipates some company and product names that wouldn't be created until the Internet explosion in 1995, before getting a bit silly at the end.
My PostModern Computing co-founder was Jens Christensen [Bio] [Photo] whom I knew from the Stanford Computer Science PhD program. He also had worked at Teknekron. Our first "place of business" was Jens's house on Church street in Mountain View [business card]. We recruited Prasad Mokkapati, rented a 500 square foot office at 1032 Elwell Court in Palo Alto, and printed up a brochure [front] [back]. Later we would need a larger office at 1897 Landings Drive in Mountain View [business card], one town south of Palo Alto on the Silicon Valley peninsula.
From a PostModern business plan dated 28 October 1994:
"PostModern has developed a suite of three products addressing the needs of companies developing complex distributed applications to be deployed on large networks. All three products are currently shipping and have an existing customer base..."
It wasn't apparent to us at that time that the most important of these "large networks" would be the Internet itself. Anyway: what were these products?
The first commercial C++ class library toolkit for TCP/IP networking that I'm aware of, which we called NetClasses:
A complete and high quality C++ implementation of the Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA) which we (regretably) called Orbeline:
and finally, the first Java CORBA ORB, Black Widow:
PostModern was a non-venture-backed high tech start up. Its "rounds of investment" were realized from the time and effort of the founders and employees, not from the cash that someone else happened to throw our way. We did put a small amount of money (probably less than $15,000 apiece) into the business ourselves to buy computers and pay rent.
I think it may be that role that venture capital (VC) plays in creating successful technology companies is overrated. If you're thinking about starting a high tech company, and particularly if you've never done it before, my advice is to just do it. In particular, forget about trying to persuade VC that you have a good idea, and just dive in. You'll learn a lot more by just trying and may end up being forced to create a successful (ie profitable) company!
Here's what the Profit & Loss picture looked like for PostModern Computing in 1993 [image].
Step 5 (pissing people off): Dale and JoMei reappear briefly, while they were still at Teknekron, threatening to serve a trade secret theft lawsuit on PostModern and its founders [meeting notes]. In fact, it emerged near the end of this meeting that their main desire was to block our efforts to sell our products to one of Teknekron's prospective customers (Micron Technology). We were (sadly) intimidated by these threats. We decided to call Micron and tell them we wanted to stop negotiating with them. Micron found out about the Teknekron strong-arm tactics and dropped Teknekron as a potential vendor too. We (PostModern) never heard from Teknekron again.
I left PostModern in early 1995. The company went on just as well (better?) without me to the next step, ie, Step 6 (sell the company). The acquisition [10-K filing extract] of PostModern by Visigenic Software took place in 1997. Visigenic is now part of Inprise (which was Borland). I've copied over an Inprise SEC 10-K filing if you really want to read about these events and technologies in detail [filing].
In retrospect, this star probably burned brightest in 1996 and 1997, when many people thought that the "next generation" of Internet applications would be based on a CORBA-like RPC model and Java. Technical books teaching developers how to use the PostModern (then Visigenic) products came out about this time, selling the vision [book 1] [book 2].
Things haven't quite worked out that way. Today, many web applications being deployed perfectly well without relying on a client- or server-side CORBA runtime. However, these C++ and Java products, which originated at PostModern, are still being moved forward and marketed today (early 2001) by Inprise under the name Visibroker:
Inprise Visibroker brochure, January 2001
None of the original PostModern company founders were with Inprise one year after the acquisition of Visigenic by Inprise. They all went on to start other companies, although not always successfully.
That's right—we've arrived at Step 7.
If you've liked reading this stuff about wrenching transitions from graduate school to software startups, PostModern Computing, Teknekron, trade secret lawsuits, and investor returns, here [article (pdf)] is another amusing article I wrote about these experiences. It stars Ann Winblad [photo] [website] as the Doubting Venture Capitalist, Norm Siegler as the Corporate Hitman, and Jens Christensen's wife Neguine Navab [photo] in the role of Lady Macbeth.
Consulting Gigs (1995-1997)
After leaving PostModern, I became a software consultant.
Consulting is not a bad job in Silicon Valley. You appear, work a bit, then vanish—sometimes to reappear again. Or, if you like the work, the client may try to persuade you to take a job as a full-time employee. I tried to avoid that.
There was always plenty of work. Here are two stops along the way.
Talarian had its offices in Mt. View not far from PostModern, and was in basically in the same business as PostModern. So I was a natural fit there. Their phone list from 1995 [image] gives an idea of how a small Silicon Valley software company was organized just prior to the Internet explosion. No "web developers" here.
In one letter [image] to the person who introduced me to Talarian, I fell naturally into the conspiratorial tone of the consultant in suggesting potential strategies.
Talarian did an IPO in July 2000 but got beaten up along with everyone else in the unforgiving stock market later that year [chart].
Talarian was acquired by Tibco in early 2002.
International Risk Control & C*ATS Software
International Risk Control [MerX product ad] and C*ATS Software [Catalyst product manual cover] were Palo Alto software companies that developed software for financial derivatives.
On one sheet of paper [image] I grappled inconclusively with the fair price in US dollars for a forward contract on German currency.
Structured Arts (1997-1999)
In the summer of 1997, Anil Gangolli—one of my officemates from the Stanford Computer Science department—told me that he had incorporated himself as a (one man) Internet security consulting company. He named the corporation Structured Arts [web page (1997)].
Greg Whitehead and I invested $10,000 apiece in this corporation in October 1997, joining Anil in the original Structured Arts office at 20111 Stevens Creek Blvd, Suite 145, in Cupertino, California. We set out to develop Internet security software products. We did some consulting to pay the bills.
In a small, consulting-funded start-up, it's sometimes useful to have multiple business cards. Depending upon whether you want to seem important [card 1] or get some consulting work [card 2], you pick the appropriate card.
This proved to be a very successful investment of time and money. Structured Arts was acquired [web site archive] by Signio [office photos], an Internet payments company, about two years later.
We packed up the Structured Arts stuff, took it over to the (much nicer) Signio offices in Redwood Shores, and started working there. It was early September 1999.
[Structured Arts business plan draft (1998), PDF] (This may be a useful document to plagiarize if you're writing your own technology company business plan. It's incomplete but has the right general structure).
[Final Structured Arts web site (1999)]
We had hardly settled into our cubicles at Signio when VeriSign acquired Signio [article] [press release] at a valuation [tombstone] well in line with the absurdly high Internet valuations of the time.
VeriSign's purchase of Signio was announced on 21 December 1999. Although no one knew it at the time—at least I didn't know it, and no one around me seemed to know it—the Internet stock bubble was about to pop. Still, on 21 December 1999, the VeriSign stock price was "only" $150 per share. It would go up another $100 in the next 10 weeks. And I couldn't sell any shares because the transaction hadn't yet "closed."
I was very lucky to receive (and sell!) VeriSign shares on the exact day VeriSign achieved its all-time high stock price, in early March 2000 [chart]. The great tech stock crash would start only ten days later, on 10 March 2000.
Exactly three years later (10 March 2003), here's what the San Jose Mercury News had to say [article, "The Fall from Hype's Peak," by Chris O'Brien and David A. Sylvester (PDF)].
But in early March 2000, I remember wondering whether it wasn't a huge mistake to be selling VeriSign stock. I had heard an influential stock analyst say "VeriSign—that's a four hundred dollar stock" when it closed up at $240/share only a few days earlier. VeriSign closed at $7.43 on 10 March 2003.
Note added 25 February 2006: And I should have bought some—now VeriSign is at $24.59.
Michael Graves, the Signio CTO [photo (on left), with Greg Whitehead (on right)], deserves a lot of the credit both for bringing together Signio and Structured Arts, and for helping Philippe Courtot, the Signio CEO, sell Signio to VeriSign. He was later nearly killed in the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center [his story, PDF].
These acquisitions left me as an employee and shareholder of VeriSign [business card]. I worked there for two more years [office building photo] before "quasi-retiring" on 10 August 2001. I still consult for technology companies and venture capitalists from time to time.
Here [Photo 1] I'm giving a talk about VeriSign technology in Tokyo, and later [Photo 2] I'm answering a question. These photos were taken just a few weeks before I left VeriSign, in July 2001. The cord dangling from my ear is connected to a simultaneous translation earpiece. I had spent a few moments trying to attach it to my tie (I thought it was a microphone) while my Japanese audience waited patiently. Quentin Gallivan (the Vice President of VeriSign sales) came to my rescue and told me "it goes in your ear."
[Note added 19 Feb 2003] The tech stock crash of 2000-2002 led to some huge accounting writedowns. VeriSign is number 6 on this list.
Brush with Greatness
On a 20 September 2000 business trip while working for VeriSign, I arrived at the Westin Fairfax (previously the Ritz Carlton) hotel in Washington DC. I went to the bar for a drink. There were only about 4 people in the bar until lots of famous people started showing up. Here are the notes I kept at the bar as people arrived [image]. Later, someone in their party told me they were there after having given performances at the Kennedy Center (something for Human Rights).
In 2001, Gloria and I established a Foundation in honor of my parents' service to the University of Nebraska at Kearney [UNK web archive].
[Note added Dec 2001]: I've been working on the "klarner project," putting some of the mathematics papers of David A Klarner (who died in 1999) online.
[Note added Dec 2002]: My goodness, I've added a lot this year to my journal (ie, blog).
[Note added Jan 2003]: I've been working on misère octal games. In December 2002, my work was mentioned in the American Mathematical Society's "New In Math" section (see page 4, in the section "Solving Nim"). Too bad they didn't put my picture on the front page with von Neumann, Nash, and Conway. If only I were just another "John"...
[Note added March 2003]: Recently the foundation bought an English horn that was played in a 4 March 2003 concert in the refurbished Central Elementary School auditorium in Kearney, Nebraska. Back in 1967, I was a first grader in the same building. I remember thinking the auditorium was dark and scary. About the same year, I noticed a time capsule that had been recently buried on the Central Elementary school grounds. Someone had written the date it was to be opened by writing in the cement that covered it. I remember thinking, "that date is so far in the future that that thing will never be opened." The date was sometime in 1976. To my youthful perspective it might as well have said, "to be opened in the year 203,566."
[Note added September 2003]: I wrote a huge paper on misère games, Pretending in Misère Combinatorial Games (PDF). The responsible thing to do would be to publish it somewhere, but I'm too lazy. People who are interested in the subject matter seem to find it easily enough via web searches, anyway. And by not publishing, I can always add to it later.
[Note added January 2004]: I've put the misere games aside for awhile. Now I'm trying to learn Physics. As usual, I've produced big, quite possibly useless documents as a side effect.
[Note added December 2004]: On 15 August 2004, standing in our kitchen cleaning carrots, I suddenly realized how to solve the misere game problem that was troubling me in 2002 and 2003. So I wrote a paper about it and sent it a journal called INTEGERS. I'm glad I didn't submit the "Pretending" paper that I wrote in 2003. It looks dumb in retrospect, now that I've arrived in the promised land.
[Note added December 2006]: There have been many new developments in the misere game theory, which is working out to be even more fascinating than it appeared in 2004. Over in Berkeley, people have even been writing plays inspired by combinatorial game theory. And I've found a most excellent collaborator in Aaron Siegel, a student of Elwyn Berlekamp who is now doing a postdoc at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. Most of the recent developments are described at miseregames.org. I still feel the vague need to find something new to work on—maybe I'll go back to learning physics?
[Note added 15 March 2011]: Michael Sammons asked why I haven't updated this page recently: "Maybe your significant other hasn't let you on the computer since December of 2006? Or you sprained your wrist in November of 06? Or your dog ate it?"
Well, it's just my usual lassitude, I guess:
Tiberius has no history during those years, for he had nothing to do. He walked and talked with his astrologer, Thrasyllus, and with other guests, servants, and clients of his estate. He read Greek poetry, Egyptian pornography, histories of warfare, and treatises on science. He bathed, dined, and grew older.(Encyclopedia Britannica, "Tiberius").
But since someone's reading this page (or at least Michael has, even today), let's have a look over the last few years and its assorted Egyptian pornography:
In 2007 I joined up with Aaron Siegel and my long-time business partner Greg Whitehead to form yet another little California S-corporation. We named it counterwave. In 2008 we counterwavers collaborated with Elwyn Berlekamp and Eddie Raha to start a hedge fund named Berkeley Quantitative. In 2009 Greg and I withdrew from the hedge fund and threw back in with Counterwave full-time, where we do some consulting and have recently been writing applications for the iPhone and iPad, for example doceri and notakto.
I've also been involved quite a bit with the Gathering 4 Gardner, a non-profit organization whose mission statement and overview page I ghostwrote with help from Tom Rodgers and Scott Hudson:
The Gathering for Gardner Foundation (G4G) is a non-profit corporation that works to honor the achievements of Martin Gardner by promoting the lucid exposition of new and accessible ideas in recreational mathematics, magic, puzzles, and philosophy.My involvement with this organization has put me in touch with lots of magicians, mathematicians, and puzzle people. You know who you are. The card is up your sleeve. I know.
What else can I think of? I got to know my next door neighbor, the Stanford physicist and string-theorist Leonard Susskind, a bit better. We carpooled to his evening Continuing Studies lectures on Physics at Stanford University. My older son, Cole, became an All-American springboard and platform diver as a Freshman at Palo Alto high school. My younger son Owen got thirty five hits and played catcher on Old Pro, the 2010 Palo Alto Little League champion team, managed by Kevin Cool.
This is beginning to sound like a Christmas letter. And I'm just about falling asleep as I type it, it's so boring. But thanks for reading it.
Note added 3 Dec 2012:
My mother, Marlene L. Plambeck, was an avid amateur genealogist. She died in 2003, leaving behind a lot of unpublished genealogical research. I've begun gradually scanning in this material and have been putting it up at plambeckgenealogy.org.
At Flickr, I wrote an even more uninformative page about myself. Perhaps you'd like to take a look at that.