Quality, Not Quantity


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Mar 29, 2010 GMT
Jon maddog Hall

Many years ago I was working for Digital Equipment Corporation as a software engineer in New Hampshire.

The marketing people and product managers liked taking me to customer presentations because I could often take very technical subjects and explain them in terms the customers (and the marketing people and the product managers) could understand. I was gifted.

One particular time Digital's sales people on the west coast had put together an “event”, and we were told that there would be “over 300 Unix customers” to listen to the presentation.

So three people (one marketeer, one product manager and I) got on an airplane and flew across the continent to present Digital's Unix story.

Unfortunately, in a room set with 300 chairs, there were only two customers, and one of them (a young software developer) had heard the same presentation the week before on the east coast. That left only a relatively old man with white hair who was sitting in the front row.

The marketing person and the product manager were really upset, and “to teach the local salespeople a lesson” they did not want to present at all.

I told them, “No, we are here, and I am going to make just as good a presentation to that ONE CUSTOMER as if the room was filled with people”, and I proceeded to present with my slides, taking as much time as I would normally take. I did not rush, and from time to time I stopped and asked him if he had any questions. I could see the marketing person and the product manager tapping their feet, anxious to get to the local bar, but I took my time.

After the talk was over, I asked the customer if there was anything more I could do for him or any more questions that I could answer, and he said “No”. I asked him what he did, and he told me that he was a software person, and he had written some CAD software at one time, and he was interested in this “Unix thing”. He said that I had given him a lot to think about.

I did not see him again for an entire year, but the next time I saw him was at a trade show, and he was in Digital's Unix booth. He had a workstation on a display pod, and he was staffing it. I went up and said “Hello” and asked him what he was doing there.

He told me that he was indeed a software developer, but the software that he created was the only software in the world (at that time) that could lay out a twelve layer printed circuit board, and that his software usually sold for 500,000 dollars a copy. Unfortunately it also needed an IBM mainframe to run it, so the “Total Cost of Ownership” (TCO) of the software was about 2.5 million dollars, 2 million of that going towards the purchase of the mainframe. We will overlook the staff, electricity and air conditioning necessary to run the mainframes of the day.

He had ported his software to Digital's Unix system, and now the workstation hardware only cost 50,000 to run it, so the TCO had been reduced from 2.5 million dollars to 550,000 dollars, and was really only taking twice as long to run on the workstation than it had been running on the mainframe, but at one-fifth the cost. He was selling a lot more copies of his software, and of course he was also selling quite a few of our workstations. That was why Digital had invited him to our booth.

At that point I knew that our MIPS-based workstations would be out a few months later, so I told him that he should “keep tuned” and that when we released our newer workstations he probably would only have to recompile his application and it would run “a lot faster”.

I lost track of him again, and five more years had passed. Digital was bringing out their Alpha processors running OSF/1, later to be called “Digital Unix”. A major company in the CAD space, Mentor Graphics, refused to port their products to Digital Unix.

As a last ditch effort, several marketing people, including myself, went to present to the Board of Directors for Mentor Graphics in California to try and get them to change their minds. By this time the flight across country was very familiar, and we arrived at Mentor's offices, set up our talk and presented to their board.

At the end, the verdict was the same, no port. As we packed our gear one person stood up in the back of the room. It was my white-haired friend, who had sold his company to Mentor and was on their Board of Directors. He said “I do not know what you have against Digital, but ten years ago I listened to that man,” pointing straight at me, “and he was exactly right about everything he said. I think you should think about what they had to say today before you make up your minds.”

In the end, Mentor still did not port their software to our platform, but I never regretted taking the time to patiently present to that one white-haired customer in the almost empty auditorium, and while I welcome huge numbers of customers, I will trade one quality, thinking customer for a room full of tire-kickers any day.

Carpe Diem!

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