Borlands Early Years: A Wild Ride

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2003-11-03

Borlands Early Years: A Wild Ride

As Borland Software Corp. celebrates its 20th year this week at its BorCon conference, developers and managers around the industry are recalling the companys legacy and impact on the software business.

Borland has a rich legacy in the industry, having developed development tools that helped to change the face of application development. But not only has Borland given the industry the integrated development environment (IDE), the Scotts Valley, Calif., company also has provided a host of talent throughout the industry.

Many household names in the industry got their start or spent formative years at the house that Philippe Kahn built. Kahn started the company in 1983 and instilled a philosophy of delivering high-quality, well-crafted software, along with creative marketing. And his charges followed that philosophy, built upon it and took it around the industry to new places they have landed since Borland.

Borland can boast among its alums such software industry luminaries as Anders Hejlsberg of Microsoft Corp., Adam Bosworth of BEA Systems Inc. and Brad Silverberg, formerly of Microsoft and now managing partner of Ignition Partners Inc., a Bellevue, Wash., venture capitalist firm.

Silverberg started with Borland in 1985, when Borland bought Analytica, a Silicon Valley company where he ran product development. After a stint at Borland, where he was vice president of research and development, Silverberg went to Microsoft, where he spent nine years and headed the Windows business—leading the release of Windows 95—as well as the Office division, before leaving as a senior vice president.

"Borland was a tremendously fun company," Silverberg said. "It changed the rules of the software game, both productwise and businesswise. It developed ground-breaking developer tools that were a joy to use. And through aggressive pricing and aggressive grass-roots marketing, it rewrote the book for marketing software. Developers truly loved the tools and the company. They were also fanatically loyal. It was the fanatical loyalty of Borlands customers, in fact, that kept the company alive despite its best efforts otherwise, including a misguided—and, thankfully, brief—name change. Developers loved Borland and Borland loved its customers."

Indeed, not only was the company fun, but it was educational. "Borland was fun—fun to work at, fun to be part of, fun to use its tools, fun to be the underdog and win over and over versus its competitors," Silverberg said. "We were proud to work for Borland and proud what the company stood for. I learned about the special bond that happens inside a motivated team of super talented individuals."

Of the companys illustrious leader, Silverberg added: "Philippe was larger than life. He taught me not just about the process of building software but more importantly, the emotion of software and connecting with your team and your customers."

Next page: Legacy driven by failure?

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Bosworth, currently chief architect and senior vice president of advanced development at BEA, also joined Borland when it acquired Analytica. Bosworth developed Borlands Quattro spreadsheet during his tenure there.

Bosworth spoke frankly about Borland. "Borlands legacy was driven as much by its failure as its success," he said. "Those of us who joined Borland in 85, be it Brad and I who sold our company Analytica to Borland and came with it or Anders who sold Turbo Pascal and came with it, all had big dreams. We wanted to build a powerhouse of languages and applications. We believed that we could use innovation in the language and IDE space to create value not only for building custom applications but for extending the products we were building—Quattro and Paradox, which we bought a couple of years later.

"It became clear in the end of the eighties that Borland was run by people with tactical brilliance but without strategic vision and discipline. It became clear that Borland didnt know how to leverage strength to build a winning platform as opposed to doing a brilliant job marketing individual products. So in the next five years most of us and the great engineering talent we had assembled there left to work for more strategically motivated companies, be it Microsoft where Brad and I and later Anders went, or Netscape where others went, or Oracle where still many others went. The legacy became the vision of extensible applications and truly fun-friendly interactive IDEs for the rest of us realized by all of us in our ultimate homes. The platform shifted from DOS to GUI to client server to the Internet, but the motivations stayed constant."

Many serious developers cut their software industry eyeteeth at Borland.

Hejlsberg, a Microsoft distinguished engineer, got his start at Borland. Hejlsberg, who created Turbo Pascal, led the development of Borlands Delphi IDE and Microsofts C#, and helped create the .Net Framework, said Borland "was one of [if not] the greatest experience of my life. I was just 22 years old when I got involved with Borland.

"The 13 years I spent at Borland was the most enriching adventure you could imagine. Working there was more than just a job—you were part of something special, creating software that was 10 times better than the competition at a tenth of the price." Besides, he added: "Working with Philippe was fun. You never knew what was going to happen next, but there was always some new idea to chase."

"For many of us who worked at Borland in our 20s and 30s—can it really be that long ago?—it was an exciting time of innovation and excellence," said Zack Urlocker, vice president at M7 Corp., who started as a developer at Borland and left as a vice president of marketing. "There was innovation in the products from spreadsheet notebook tabs to in-memory compilation and in marketing with direct mail promotion and competitive upgrades. As a result, Borland had a lot of impact in the industry. I think its safe to say the software industry would be quite different if Borland had never introduced these innovations. A lot of the credit goes to Philippe and the vision he had for software craftsmanship, an idea that is still needed in the industry today. Weve all gotten used to bloatware and featuritis, but as Philippe used to say to engineers who always wanted to add more to a product, Shipping is a feature, too. Despite all the additional horsepower that our hardware offers us today, I dont think you really get a faster user experience than offered by Quattro Pro for DOS on an 80386."

Marie Huwe, general manager for the Developer and Platform Evangelism Division at Microsoft, also spent some formative years at Borland. "My time at Borland was a wild ride! In the early years, Borland had a very unique culture that attracted many of the best developers in the world," she said. "Lots of big personalities, lots of creativity, incredible customer empathy and a really good time. In those days, Borland really accelerated the pace of change in software development, but stumbled when the executive team seemed to take its eye off the ball and lost sight of its roots. Now, years later, that appears to be changing again."

Bob Kohn, Borlands former general counsel, who fought epic legal battles with Lotus and encouraged oversight of Microsoft during his tenure at Borland, echoed those sentiments: "Borland has proven that excellence endures. While Philippe Kahn established the tradition of software craftsmanship—a tradition of writing great software for developers without compromise—a new generation of managers is extending that tradition into the enterprise. Borlands commitment to craftsmanship is now paying off in a big way, as software developers who learned their craft with Borlands software are now senior managers making decisions for large enterprises. Companies like Wordstar, Ashton-Tate, WordPerfect and Lotus are all gone, but the excellence endures at Borland, a company that has matured with its customers."

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