Tom Eckman

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This is a transcript of an audio interview. This transcript may contain errors - if you're using this material for research, etc. please verify with the original recorded interview.

Source: ANTIC: The Atari 8-Bit Podcast

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Interviewer: Kevin Savetz

Tease quote: We sneered at Turbo Pascal because it was noncompliant, it has [ha, ha] there were all of these un-pure features of Turbo, he [Philippe Kahn] just looks at and goes, ìnobody gives a damn'

Kevin: This Antic, The Atari 8-bit Podcast, I'm Kevin Savetz, Tom Eckman was president and co-founder of Kyan Software. Kyan's flagship product was Kyan Pascal, an implementation of the Pascal programming language which was available for the Apple II, Atari 8-bits, and Commodore 64/128 computers. This interview took place on May 19, 2017.

Tom: went to school at University of California at Berkeley, majored in engineering got my by bachelors and maters there, and then went into consulting, and spent, oh probably 10 or 12 years working for a variety of, a couple of different consulting firms that worked in a lot of different companies in lots of different projects, mainly operations, systems and the like. And, along the way there kind of got to work for a number of startup companies in Silicon Valley and kind of got that entrepreneurial bug and started a company, to sell, there was an whole new generation of consumer electronic products being developed, and coming to market.

Kevin : mm hmm

Tom: There really wasn't a distribution channel for them. So I thought it was, it was a product that was going to require something different than a traditional retail environment to sell these, because they required a lot of consumer education.

Kevin: Can you give some examples of the kind of companies, kind of products you were looking at?

Tom: Ya, well this was one of the very early home control and communications systems, so it was actually a division of Dart and Kraft. And I got connected with them in, when I was working for Arthur D. Little in San Francisco. This was very early wireless home security it is pretty common now, but this was back in the early eighties and this was all pretty revolutionary stuff.

Kevin: Like X-10, that kind of thing

Tom: Ya right, the X-10 was out there and X-10 would communicate over the home electrical, home electricity system. These would do that, and also were doing some of the early wireless communications between sensors, actually pioneering some the very early single chip microprocessors at that point. They say it was brand new technology, it was enabling a lot of new products. So this company we first consulted with and had worked with directly was manufacturing a new line of these. Anyway there was no place, the expected place to sell these would be, you know, the consumer electronics department, of a department store when those things existed.

Kevin: mm hmm

Tom : But again, and they required a level of expertise in consumer education that just wasn't available, so I thought there was a business opportunity there., so that was the first company that I started and I always call that my PhD. In the humilities,

Kevin: [laughs]

Tom: I thought I was a pretty smart guy and that this thing was going to be fabulously successful. It just turned out we were probably about 15 years to early. So it was a first good lesson in entrepreneurship. So anyway then I ended up going to work for that company that was manufacturing those products, and a couple of years into that a couple of, well actually partner in that earlier business came to me and said, gee I'm working with a couple of guys and we've got an idea for a product, it's a language compiler, a Pascal compiler. And we would like to start up a company to take that to market. So my contribution, you know, in many of the, of done half a dozen startups on my own. It's rarely been that I was the one who came up with the idea of the technology I always tend to have been the business guy. That people would come to and say can you help ups put together a company and take these products to market. So with Kyan that was the situation there. The idea was this was going to be a true Pascal compiler that would convert from a high level Pascal language into actual machine code. What made the product kind of unique was it was actually an ISO compliant Pascal. So and that it didn't really matter as it turned out to too many people, but we were pretty proud of it.

Kevin: Nice

Tom: But the main focus was on the education market, and, so I think the first product that we rolled out, actually for the Commodore, it would run on the Commodore 64 and 128. And then we realized that gee this product could actually run on any, I think it was the 6502 Motorola processor. And ah, so that allow us to move over to the Atari as well as the Apple II, and the primary market was the education market.

Kevin: Nice

Tom: So anyway, I thought that sounded like an interesting opportunity, so we kind of put it together, developed the first iterations of the product.

Kevin: were you familiar with Pascal before, were you a programmer, and had you any experience?

Tom: No actually, well I had some going through six years of engineering at Berkeley, I certainly had done some. It was not dealing in a language like Pascal. It was more fundamental more basic type programming. So I would say no I was not a programmer, but I understood certainly the basics of the concepts. So anyway the guys I was working with, one was a PhD in physics and a couple, one guy was a coder, then there was a guy the specialized in technical documentation. So that was kind of the basic team. So we put this together, it was kind of a different world it was in the mid-eighties and there was no internet obviously, so when you talk about marketing a product like this, it is a cost prohibitive to go out, when you are selling into the school markets its very, very expensive to go out and call directly on these schools, it's a very long sales cycle to get your product into those schools. So the primary way you promote a product was to run ads in the computer magazines at that point. I'm trying to think of some of the names, Commodore had their magazines, Atari had its' magazines. As well as Apple, so you ended up, these were monthlies, you'd buy an ad, these ads were pretty pricey, you'd spend $1000, $2000 on an ad. One ad doesn't get you there, you got to have a continuing presence over time you could get the product reviewed, and then maybe after a year or two you can start you can get to the schools where you sent out demo copies, maybe they will start to adopt some of the programming curriculum. That's kind of what happened, it grew kind of slowly, we never had any capital, so the whole company was bootstrapped, every dime in sales we got, and it wasn't an expensive product, I think it sold for $59 and we had a couple of other products that sold for a little less. So to generate any significant working capital you had to sell a fair amount of software. It was kind of a challenge. So, I guess, sales would grow a little each month, but then we started getting more closely tied in with Apple, and of course Apple is a much bigger company, well established in the education market, and they liked what we were doing, they had a version of Pascal, but they weren't really happy with it, they liked ours much more so they start to fold it into their product line. This was the Apple IIe at this point that was being sold into the schools. Then they decided that they were going to introduce the upgrade to that product, which I can't remember the designation, the two g or something like that.

Kevin: IIGS

Tom: IIGS ok, and so they said listen we'd like you to write an enhanced version of your product and that will be our primary Pascal offering. So we did that, we developed that product and they had also, and this was kind of interesting at the point the Macintosh had just been introduced at that time. People were saying wow there's a lot of interesting capabilities about that, particularly the user interface. That you were starting to use a mouse to navigate on the screen, there were drop down menus and so from a programming standpoint, what was needed was, there was just basic capabilities that were going to be needed in any kind of program you developed. And so for us, for someone who wanted to write an application in Pascal they would need, they would need a windows module, they would need a mouse module to understand where that cursor was on the screen. And rather than having each programmer have to go out and reinvent that module, Apple kind of developed these basic modules, in so what we did was license those from Apple, and repurpose those for the Atari and the Commodore. This was really the kind of the very early phases of the object oriented programming language, which is very common today, in fact I'm sure the languages more far beyond that, but what it did was it gave us a fairly robust product offering for people who wanted to program. But again it was the education market, any time you start a new company there is a huge learning curve, you go into it thinking you know a lot, after a while you get disabused of that idea pretty quickly.

Kevin: [laughs]

Tom: And in this case it was very hard to get it into the market, there were, probably the biggest competition, and it was more on the PC, which we weren't running on, but if you were looking at people who wanted to program there were a lot of people on PCs, and it was Turbo Pascal from Borland.

Kevin: Sure

Tom: Right about the time. I always used to, in fact I remember sitting at a, this was the pretty early days of the computer developers in silicon valley in so I remember being part of that, I think it was the Palo Alto software club or something. You go to a dingy motel in East Palo Alto, an old banquet room and there are 30-40 guys that are starting up companies, some a little bigger some smaller. I remember sitting at a table one day with Phillipe Kahn the founder of Borland, that did the Turbo Pascal, and of course, We sneered at Turbo Pascal cause it was noncompliant, it has [ha, ha] there were all of these un-pure features of Turbo, so I'm extoling the virtues of Kyan and how we are ISO compliant and all of that he looks at me, and I can't begin to replicate his French language, he just looks at me and he goes, ìnobody gives a damnî. He was quite, and he was quite right. People wanted to get a job done, they weren't that concerned with the purity of the language and the fact that if ours ran 10- 15% faster that's fine, but theirs was easier to use and got the job done. So anyways it was an interesting few years, we spent a lot of money in advertising, and learned another lesson that frequently happens if you start a company, which is you wake up one morning and you look around and you say well I got employees and they are getting paid, and I got vendors and they are getting paid, and everybody was happy, the customers were generally happy, but the only people who weren't happy were the founders, cause we weren't getting paid.

Kevin: hmm

Tom: There really wasn't a good prospect for ramping the sales up unless we could really get an infusion of capital and really start to develop the sales end of it. And at that point there really wasn't much in the way of capital available, you know the venture capital industry as we know it today just didn't exist, it was very few people out there, and of those very, very few invested in software, particularly in little startups like ours, in little niche market. So it was a bit of a struggle, and I guess it was about that time Apple said gee, we developed a new version for their latest Apple II platform and they said listen we'd just like to buy this and make this our product, and so they basically bought the company at that point. And of course they weren't interested in the Commodore or the Atari versions of it

Kevin: Sure

Tom: so we sold that off to a fellow who would do that, but he wasn't in a development mode at that point he would just sell the product and answer support calls. That went on for a couple of years for there, but it was an interesting experience. A lot of lessons learned, I guess one of my favorites I site often is, that we had uh, I'll go back to the fact that we were ISO compliant, to ensure that we went to Europe and bought a test suite that was actually designed to run on a much larger mainframe computers. And we were able to reduce that and put it on one of the very early hard drives and use that as our testing platform. So Every time we went in and enhanced the product we would run it through the suite, not only would it tell us if it was ISO compliant but identify any bugs that we would have introduced, so we were pretty proud of that. But despite all of that testing and good that work we were doing I noticed we were getting more and more support calls. And I would hire college students to come in and work the phones for support calls, you know it's funny these guys would come in and these guys were hackers, they were guys who loved to program, and they were just so excited the fact for something they would otherwise do for free I would actually pay them to do.

Kevin: [laughs]

Tom: So they enjoyed doing that, but I notice again the calls keep coming up, that we're getting more and more calls, they were lasting longer, and so one day I said I got to get on the phones and to figure out what's going on, and to make a long story short it was, again our market was students, a lot of high school students. Well they would get a homework assignment and they would do their coding and they would run it and it wouldn't work, and of course their first reaction was well obviously there is a bug in the compiler.

Kevin: [laughs]

Tom: so they would call our numbers, and then my guys were so oriented toward helping them that they would sit there and do their homework for them, basically debug their program and I realized this was not a saleable model. So at that point we decided listen we are going to have them mail in their code and put a little time lag between the time they get answers to their questions and when they call.

Kevin: wow

Tom: so that was kind of, in a nutshell the Kyan Story and as they say it was fun while it lasted but it was, and I find it just fascinating that people are still using it today.

Kevin: Yes there are. Yeah, so what year did you sell off to Apple?

Tom: I think that was in '86, so we started it very late in '83 I think we got it stared, so '84 and '85 we were getting it ramped up and then '86 we were doing a lot of work, Apple just dominated everything, which was fine because we were able to take a lot of stuff that they were doing and license it and make it available on the Commodore and Atari.

Kevin: mm hmm

Tom: And then Apple was very, I mean they just bent over backwards, they really made a lot of early developers able to exist at all, because they would just rain down on us equipment at virtually no cost all the latest software they would license to us, the stuff that was still in the lab, they hosted us at, I think it was the consumer electronics show at that point, and later at COMDEX, where they would have a huge booth and they would put little kiosks and allow the small developers who otherwise couldn't afford to go to those shows a chance to get in and show our products. It was, it was again, we became very apple focused at that point.

Kevin: So was, before they bought you, was of the Atari, the Commodore the Apple, was the Apple II the majority of your education sales?

Tom: Yup, Ya it started to dominate, because, again they were so dominate in the schools and so the fact they were recommending the product certainly encouraged people to sell where there weren't as many Atari's and Commodores in the schools. So it was more the student hobbyist market.

Kevin: Right, What were the names of the other guys you started the company with?

Tom: Well you know I was trying to think of that before your call and Tom Slade, was my partner from previous business, he was probably the main technical guru behind it, and then Ted and uh, uh god I can't even remember his name, as often happen you just kind of loose touch with people over the years and this was 30 some odd years ago now.

Kevin: sure.

Tom: So uh, but I know, I'm sure they have gone on to have great careers but we don't talk anymore and we all have gone our separate ways.

Kevin: ya, uh alright so you had the Pascal product for at least those three platforms that we talked about, also I know on the Atari side you had something called the Graphics, Advanced Graphics toolkit which really doesn't seem to have, can you tell me about that, it really doesn't seem to exist out there anymore.

Tom: Ya, Well these again are modules, and those were actually developed, the core modules were developed by Apple, but we took those and just repurposed them, we licensed and repurposed them and put them out for the Atari, and the Commodore. But these were again these modules so that people wouldn't have to, they could embed those in their package in their applications, and not have to reinvent that code.

Kevin: Nice, Do you remember any other modules or just any other product that you guys had?

Tom: ya we did, late in the company, and we kind of set it aside, it was basically, you know looking at the success that the McIntosh was starting see, we wanted to, put a more of a graphical user interface. I was thinking we develop, try to replicate that McIntosh user interface on an Apple, Apple II, but then ultimately transport it to the other computers. We got that we marketed it a bit, but it really never took off. It was just a product, you know it was there because it was intriguing it was a product we developed because it was very intriguing to us, but pretty early and never really got any traction.

Kevin: mm hmm

Tom: by that time the founders and the prime movers were losing steam. Because you only work so long for nothing and if you don't see a bright light at the end of the tunnel, then kind of interest flags.

Kevin: so you said these idea was brought to you by your co-founders they came to you with Pascal, but I'm curious, do you know why Pascal was the language of choice and not BASIC or C or something else.

Tom: Well that's a good question and I don't really know the answer, you know at the time I think they had, one of the fellows had just a real interest in Pascal and being able, and I'm not sure it was a passion Pascal as much as passion for higher level language to implement on these small microprocessors. So I don't know specifically why he choose Pascal. And I'm try to think, I don't think C, I think C was in it's very, in its infancy at that point. So Pascal was a little more mainstream.

Kevin: mm hmm, um

Tom: and I think C, and I'm very divorced from this now, I believe C was actually the language that started, actually in the language itself, incorporate some of these modules that we were selling as add-ons.

Kevin: Right

Tom: They weren't actually part of the compilers yet.

Kevin: Does the name Kyan have any particular meaning?

Tom: No, no not at all, I can't even remember how, where it came from, other than it was pretty unusual. I don't even have the excuse we were able to get the URL for it.

Kevin: [laughs]

Tom: that's what usually drives company name today.

Kevin: sure

Tom: I bet it's still available actually. Ya so obviously one of the guys came up with it, I didn't, at the point it didn't really matter too much to me what we called it. Just get it to market.

Kevin: sure, did you think that, did you feel that being at the trade shows was important, you said that Apple got you into some of the shows, was, did that end up a big important thing for your sales and just getting noticed out there.

Tom: Ya, I mean I think it may have helped a little you know the fact that we could, it gave us bragging rights. The reality is that these shows were so enormous, back then you get a hundred thousand, a hundred and twenty thousand people showing up. We were such a minute part of it that if anybody, the chances were better they would find us because the fact that we were part of that Apple enclave, people would check us out, as opposed to trying to buy a booth you'd be away in some, three buildings out of the main center.

Kevin: Right, in the sub-basement, right [laughs]

Tom: Ya, exactly, which when I would go to those shows, wearing other hats I would always go to those places first, that where I found the most interesting companies. People were really doing some break through work but we did get some traction, but I don't know that it really converted into much in the way of sales.

Kevin: mm, Sounds like the magazine advertising was the, was where it was at.

Tom: That was the primary driver, then trying to get distribution, and get into some of the, again there weren't that many software stores, but to get on the shelf, up in Seattle, I'm trying to think, uh, I can't remember the name of the retail chain, but it was, oh it was Egg Head Software, It was one of the very early software retail chains we were able to get in, you know get some distribution, but, even that was tough, unless, it's one thing to get on the shelf in a retail environment, but that's rarely enough, you need people come in and really give them a reason to find you, in these large stores that have all this software on the shelves, you need something to create the pull. And again, that was kind of, one of the frustrating things, we just didn't have the capital to do that.

Kevin: Ya, how many employees did you have at your maximum?

Tom: I think we were, I want to say we seven or eight, we had four founders so it was actually more than that, I think we had about five or six employees, plus four founders who were not working full time in the business at that point, I was working full time, but the others had day jobs. So, but uh, and I think only one of those employees was full time, other than me and they were, but were hiring mainly college kids, out of the University of San Francisco.

Kevin: Right

Tom: That were majoring in computer science. And you know, they'd come in work afternoons or evenings. And we were operating this all out of my, the top floor of my Victorian in San Francisco.

Kevin: [laughs] Nice

Tom: It was pretty funky, I remember the time when we started getting really close with Apple, they sent out one of their, and Apple has always been big on secrecy as I'm sure you know, that they sent out their security people, to kind of tour our premises to make sure they were safe enough for them to give us unreleased hardware and software that they were developing. And they pull up to this house and they can't quite make any sense out of this, and I escort them up to the third floor of the Victorian, and they are kin of, this was unusual back then, today, nobody would think twice about it.

Kevin: Sure, Do you still have any old hardware? An Apple or Atari or anything?

Tom: No, No, No all that stuff kind of got sold off when we did those transactions

Kevin: Sure

Tom: When I've actually went back and looked, I don't even have any of the source code.

Kevin: That was my next question.

Tom: Ya I know, I know, I wish I could say I did, but I don't, and I don't think, I say if I had it I wonder if we could find any hardware to access it.

Kevin: oh, no, I'm sure we could find a way to get at the data if we had the data, but that's the easy part

Tom: ok, I'll keep looking, I've got a lot of stuff stashed away, but uh, I've done a little looking but I'm not optimistic that there's any there.

Kevin: Sure, alright, so tell me a story about those days that we haven't struck on yet, maybe there was some interaction with some customer that sticks in your mind or a, I'm just fishing now. Tell me a story

Tom: Ya, uh, I'm trying to think, I kind of told you a few of the kind of key ones, they were uh, you know, again I guess back in those days, you know having, number one just working out of your home with a, was unusual, you had to kind of hide it, because the phone company, they didn't even want you to have, they wanted you have business lines which cost dramatically more residential lines. So you want to get phones run in and it's a, and they are wondering why in this residence, why do you have five residential lines coming in. And you couldn't have UPS come and pick up and deliver to the house because then you were a business in a residential neighborhood. So you had to go through all these little subterfuges, to get a, not even a P.O. Box but one of the rental boxes to a, as your official address. Disk duplication was a real hassle, because everybody was, I mean the major disk duplication companies, and there were these whole companies that's all they did was produce software disks.

Kevin: mm hmm

Tom: but unless you wanted to do a couple of thousand in a run, they were very expensive. And so we went out, I found, sourced a company that made, it ran off an Apple II, but it would actually allow you to duplicate, with some speed, the five and quarter inch floppies that we were shipping the floppies at that point. And these were just big clunky machines, they probably weighed 40 or 50 pounds each and you set them up and while the guys are handling support calls they be slipping disks into the, we'd by raw disks put labels on them, put them into this machine, it'd take two or three minutes them to create a disk. It's kind of funny to watch the guys bounce between phone calls and disk duplication and stuffing envelopes and shrink wrapping these things, as I say it's kind of a little different world. Today I teach actually about the last ten years I taught innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of Washington at the business school.

Kevin: mm hmm

Tom: One of the things I comment on is how much easier it is today to start a company. Because you got the internet, you got all of these online services that are available you don't have to go out and buy a phone switch, you don't have to spend the thousands and tens of thousands of dollars that you did back then to start a business, you know to get out of the garage. Back then everything was a whole lot harder and comparatively more expensive, then it is today.

Kevin: mm hmm, is that your main thing now, the teaching;

Tom: Ya, ya, I started between Kyan and my last company which I exited in 2008, a very memorable time, that's a whole another story, un-software related, but I decided I had done enough startups, but by then I had started doing some part time teaching, and so the university asked me to join the faculty, to mainly kind of bring the real life side of what applies, there's the academic side and then there's the real life side of starting a company so, through that we've, the university has a twenty year program, in fact this is the twentieth year of business plan competition, and so a lot of what I did was taught classes focused on developing a business plan, entering these competitions and then mentoring the student teams. And it's actually turned into a big deal, we give away about a $125,000 in prizes, in fact next week is the finals for this year. I think 12,000 or 13,000 companies, or student teams have gone through the process out of that I think there are 80 or 90 companies that were formed as a result of this and still exist.

Kevin: Nice

Tom: In lieu of me starting up another company which I decided is way too much work and it kind of keeps those entrepreneurial juices and excitements going and I enjoy it.

Kevin: Sure, you say it's too much work but you also say it's so much easier than it used to be [laughs]

Tom: Well that's true, [laughs], but I don't want anyone to think it is easy to start a company. [laughs] all you've done is move the bar a little lower on one end, but it's higher on the back end, now there is so much, particularly in software it's all apps. And I talked, worked with a lot of student teams who think well I just got the app done, I just got it into the Apple store, so I'm done I'm just gonna wait for the phone to ring, and the dollars to start flowing.

Kevin: Right

Tom: Well ok, now you are one of, I don't know the number is now, a million or more

Kevin: Right

Tom: how do you get attention? Now you have to get out there and figure out how do you make money doing this, and don't talk to me about banner ads, 95% of the business plans are going to fund themselves from banner ads.

Kevin: [laughs]

Tom: but, what problem are you solving how are you going to find customers, how are you going to get them to pay you something to make it worthwhile, so you don't go through my experience, which is you wake up one day you are making a little money but not enough to make it worthwhile. Opportunity cost just becomes greater than anything you are doing.

Kevin: Sure, I mean back when you were making Pascal, I mean fine if someone wanted to learn Pascal or program with Pascal there were maybe three or four choices total for them and they picked one of them, based on the merits and now, I mean you put an app and there might be literally 500 or a thousand things that do almost exactly the same thing and how do you complete with that?

Tom: Ya how do you compete, how do you get noticed and most importantly how do you get paid, [laughs]

Kevin: Right, Ya

Tom: so, it's interesting times. What I have found is that, and again I am in semi-retirement at this point, but so much of the technology has just moved beyond, maybe the people, and I'm not talking apps now, where I'm the heir B&B for this, or I'm the uber for that, but people really doing substantive technology, the technology is so complex, I used to pride myself for keeping up in a number of different fields you just can't do it anymore there's too much going on and its very sophisticated stuff people are doing

Kevin: Yes indeed, alright if you could send a message to the Atari, and Commodore and Apple users who used your software and they still exist and they are listening to this interview right now what would you tell them?

Tom: Well, God bless you for hanging in there, it's really actually very gratifying to know that work we did way back then, that wasn't, that perhaps wasn't all that financially successful for the founders has found good use and provided value to people. And there is nice gratification there and I appreciate you reaching out and giving me the opportunity to talk about it, because it's, a lot that I haven't thought about in a whole long time, thirty plus years.

Kevin: Nice, Well this is great, thank you so much Tom

Tom: Ok Kevin, Thank you