RobWiddowson

Author of Heaven's Tale

Texas Medical Systems

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After I stopped drinking and entered University of Texas at Austin, life became a string of successes, some of which were in fields far from my Ph.D topic — photosynthesis.

Texas Medical Systems

One morning, Mabel called my desk at the Nursing School and asked if I would come to her office.  Jackie Waters wanted to talk to me.  She had worked her way to the top nursing position at Hermann Hospital in downtown Houston; it was one of the top hospitals in the country, known for its excellent nursing service.  Hermann had also been selected as a Magnet Hospital.  After we greeted each other, she said she wanted some advice about computers; Mabel had told her that I might be able to help

After my experience on St. Croix, I had continued my interest in digital machines.  I had taken a class in Data Structures in Pascal for computer science majors, and I was way over my head.  But I worked hard and after failing the first test, I reeled off only ‘A’’s for the rest of the semester. We used punch cards and a huge CDC 6400 mainframe.  All programs carried out in PASCAL.  A great class.  Towards the end of the semester, I went to see the professor, who did a few things that afternoon that changed my life.  He gave me some really hard programming problems.  I finished them all, and he gave me an A. He also handed me a book called Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstader, a mind-blowing tome about recursion, consciousness, art, math, and so much else. He said, you’ve got a crazy mind; maybe you’ll appreciate this.

The last thing he did was give me an account number and password so I could use the machine – a CDC 6400, one of the workhorse mainframes of that era — anytime.  He showed me 2 things:

  • How to find HELP files
  • How to find the Adventure Game.

In the meantime, I was writing programs in Pascal to control a very expensive spectrophotometer in my photosynthesis lab.  The Apple II was the popular machine of the day.  Someone had just created a version of Pascal that would run on a desktop Apple.  The package I was putting together for the Lab was very sophisticated even though the computer was so tiny.

I had also helped to hook up one of the first telephone modem connections on campus.  The nursing school stood far from the main campus where the computer center lay.  So during the RN Satisfaction study, we rigged up a phone line that would give us a terminal on the main campus.  So I had some good practical experience to bring to the discussion with Jackie.

We sat in Mabel’s office and she told me the story.  Over the years in managing the nursing service, she had developed some techniques and tricks to help her administer the nurses.  She thought that her system was amenable to programming.  She thought it should be on the computer system, so she went to the information technology/data processing (IT/DP) center at the hospital.  They told her that her ideas were sound, that they could program them, that a mini-frame like DEC would be inexpensive at $300,000.  Of course, it would need its own air-conditioned room and security.  IT/DP would sign an agreement with the nurses to let them use the program anywhere else they wanted. “We could schedule the work for about two years from now; it’ll take you that long to arrange the funding.”  She thanked them and came to see me.

I told her about Pascal and about the Apple which ran about $2,000 each — affordable, portable, and controllable.  Nurses didn’t need the IT boys to take care of the “technical stuff”.  They could power-up and operate their own machines, run their own programs.  Working with the Apple II was very liberating.  She said she’d get back to me soon.

The following week she called. She’d spoken to several advisors – business men, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists.  They had all advised her to quit her job and develop the software as a business. I was key to the new plan.  Could I deliver a copy of the software to prove that it could run on the Apple?  I’d been doing a lot of programming, so I agreed to the following deal:

  • one all-expense paid trip to Houston to work with Jackie for 2 full days to completely understand the system she wanted to implement.
  • $500 up-front as good faith to start the project and $500 when she had the software working on an Apple in her office.

When I went to meet with Jackie, she put me up at her condominium.  I had the spare bedroom.  No spark of passion ever slipped between us even though she was a hot looking redhead with great legs. I liked her because she was good – relentless and focused, capable of doing whatever had to be done.  We developed a lot of respect for one another that weekend.  I felt that we could have worked well together. Jackie spoke all the time of making me vice-president of this or that.  I had to constantly remind her that I was in graduate school, studying how cells use solar energy.  We finally agreed that she wouldn’t talk about hiring me until she had the company set up.  Once she had a working model of the program, she could go around and raise the money to start Texas Medical Systems (TMS).  We deferred our negotiations until we’d gotten that far.

I went to work.  I had most of it complete in about two weeks, but the assignment engine wouldn’t work.  I was using recursion, a powerful technique of Pascal.  It took me two weeks to realize that the project didn’t fit the theoretical definition of recursion.  I shifted to a more linear approach and in two more weeks, I had a model that would work, although it was like a draft of what the final product would look like.  Jackie came to Austin for my presentation; she flew in with Rick, a burly Texas lawyer who had apparently helped her find some money for the business.  He also helped her put her hands on his other tools of power. They were delighted with the product.  They passed me the check for $500, took the disks, and left.

About 2 weeks later, Jackie called me late one night.  She wanted to discuss the terms of reference for the Vice-President that was me.  I told her again that I happened to be studying microbes.  She insisted – everyone has a price. I laughed, but the next day I sat with a pencil and made some calculations.  Assume that I want $1 million.  I can’t ask a brand-new startup for $250,000 per year for four years as salary.  Instead, I devised a complex, sliding scale with low baseline salary and an increasing percentage of profits: 1% till the company earned $100,000, 10% of profits from $100 – 250K, 30% of profits from $250-500K,  50% of profits from 500 to 1 M, and 75% above 1 million.  When my account reached $1 million, our contract would terminate, and I’d go back to school.

I called Jackie, and she paid for a trip to Houston to present my proposal.  I took a cab from the airport to the address on Industrial Boulevard outside Houston.  The taxi swung to the parking lot, and there was Texas Medical Systems.  Jackie had found her investors; the company was up and running. I went in and spoke to the secretary who said I should wait just a minute.  Thirty minutes later, I was still sitting.  I had started to fume when I had a vision of the scene I was in.  This was Houston business now – hard-edged.  Jackie was actually trying to make me uncomfortable by making me wait; it feels demeaning.  Eventually, the woman at the desk received a call and said that I could go in.  Jackie had a nice office – good sized, dark paneling, paintings on the walls.  At one end a big desk ranged nearly all the way across the room.  Rick sat in the chair, and there was Jackie off to the side on a folding chair.

They told me to sit, but I told them I preferred to stand.  I made my pitch, and the minute I said “million”, Rick started shaking his head and muttering under his breath.  It took some concentration, but even as I spoke I made out what he said.  “Nobody gets a deal like that.  Nobody gets a deal like that….” Over and over.  I finished my presentation staring hard into her face.  But she had made her choice.  The following week, I received a letter from Rick saying that as chair of the board, he regretted etc, etc.  It was a relief. I was overwhelmed at school, and now I worked 30 hours a week at the nursing school, advising graduate students. I jumped back into my life at the University.

 

A year went by, and I hadn’t heard a thing.  Then one night, the phone rang about midnight; it was Jackie.  She sounded terrible.  Her voice whispered.  She was afraid that somebody had lied. Could I help?   She was supposed to present the software to the venture capital people that had helped her start up.  They would then move hard into sales, and TMS might finally start to make some money.  But she was afraid that the lead programmer – hired on Rick’s advice – had lied about his ability to use Pascal.  It turned out that he knew nothing about it, had never used Pascal.  He had not written a line of code.  For a full year, he’d collected his big salary and made up stories about his progress in writing the programs.  He had absolutely nothing.

So TMS had nothing after a full year’s work and $250,000 startup funding.  The money folks expected something in two weeks.  I said What can I do?  She said you understand the technical side.  You can tell me if there’s anything in Pascal to work with.  Go through his computer.  At least we still have that. Then she said we’ll pay $500 per day.  I told her I’d leave that afternoon, and by 3PM my cab pulled up to the same TMS industrial storefront.

Jackie was understandably stressed out.  She showed me where to find Dickhead’s office.  Jackie had a meeting elsewhere, so we agreed to meet in the morning.  I’d scan his hard drive and give her a status report with recommendations on what to do.  Her hands trembled so much that the car keys jangled as we stood at the door. I went straight to work.  It didn’t take much.  The guy had one Pascal tutorial on his machine; he hadn’t even completed the first lesson.  Terrible news for Jackie; she couldn’t conjure up a year’s worth of programming in two weeks.

In those days the drug war was much more low-key, so I’d carried an ounce of weed with me.  After looking at all these empty directory listings on Dickhead’s machine, I needed something more uplifting.  When I went back to the front door, I found a young, geeky-looking guy sitting at the secretary’s desk; it was 6 PM.  I felt only good vibes from him, so I asked, Where’s a good place to smoke a joint around here?  He looked me over for a second, then he said, Let me show you. We walked around the front of the building to a maintenance shed.  The breeze blew into the woods, we could see the front door, but nobody could see us.  It was the perfect spot.

He pulled out a pipe; I pulled out the weed.  The connection was instantaneous.  His name was Dennis; he had fallen in love with Pascal when he first saw it – used to keep the manual under his pillow at night just in case.  Now he was a programmer.  He worked half-time with a gaming house, and he worked occasionally for Dickhead — writing small pieces of code that was supposed to plug into Dickhead’s big, overall program, the core program which I now knew did not exist.

I hesitated then asked about Dave.  Dave? Definitely a Dickhead.  Did Dennis think it was possible that Dave had scammed Jackie for an entire year?  Absolutely, he was certain Dave had lied and cheated. Dennis could tell from the first minute that Dave knew nothing about Pascal.  “And he definitely couldn’t give me any code to test my pieces of the product.  For a long time, I had to work in the dark about the core, just guess about the inputs, variable definitions, and all the other stuff that programs need to know so they could work together well.

Something made me probe further.  So what did you do?  My heart started to pound.

“I wrote my own core.  I found a working model of the overall package on the computer at the front desk.  It was amateurish, but it gave me a skeleton to work with.  Now I can work with my own core; it gives me the inputs to the pieces that I wrote for Dave.”

I stared at him.  He’d taken my model and built it into the core just so that he could have correct inputs. He did it all for fun, because he loved to program.  He was the one I needed. I quickly filled him in on Jackie’s position.  Then I asked if he thought we could deliver the full program in two weeks.  Nope, he said, it’ll take a month.

I lit the pipe for the 20th time.  I said, you’ll have to do all the programming.  I’ll do everything else.  Bring food, roll joints, ask questions, etc. He said, sounds like paradise.  We worked out our deal.  Next morning I met with Jackie and gave her a report.  If she agreed to his terms, Dennis and I would work 24/7 to produce the program.  She’d have to beg two more weeks from the capitalists.  With that postponement, Dennis might have time to finish.  It was still a mammoth task.

We began. I moved into the office, sleeping occasionally on the floor.  Dennis still had a wife and son, so he had to go home sometimes. We made a chart of all the modules which were done and which were not, etc.  Jackie had hired a technical writer who had laid out a draft of the instruction manual.  I met with her, and we marked out the changes. Jackie also realized she would have to learn something about the program, so I went over the design diagrams with her several times. The first few days rocked.  It’s always fun setting off on a crazy mission.  But after 5 days, things were starting to deteriorate.  For one thing, I needed a bath.

But we pressed on.   By now we had confined ourselves to the two offices way in the back.  The reams of computer printout paper and stack of pizza boxes made it look like every programming project ever undertaken. For the first few days, we had design issues to clear up, so we needed Jackie frequently.  After that, it was slogging through.  She had talked the money boys into the postponement but only by telling them that that she had an enormously improved product.  She spent a lot of time setting up the space and practicing her presentation.  Dennis would be there with her, and he was looking a little ragged around the edges.  The days counted down.  We zoomed ahead of schedule and finally took a two-day break.  I spent overnight at Dennis’s house.  His wife and boy were cool, cool.  They lived in a nice townhouse.  He had two rooms dedicated to computers and programming.

We finished one day ahead of schedule.  Jackie spent the day practicing with the program; Dennis got some sleep.  The capitalists loved the product.  Investment poured in; stocks were sold. The meeting was an overwhelming success for TMS.  I didn’t attend.  I had to fly back to Austin and explain to my Ph D. advisor where I’d been, and why I was so far behind in my work.  I had the perfect explanation: a check for $14,000, 28 days at $500 per day.  I was set for the rest of the year.

Postscript:

Dennis and I stayed in touch for a while.  He visited me a few times, driving down from Houston.  At UT, Apple made a special arrangement for students to buy the new Macintosh line at very cheap prices.  You could even buy the LISA, a very advanced machine for its day.  I bought one for Dennis through UT and he came down to pick it up.  He was so excited.  He said, I never thought that I’d ever have so much computing power on my desk. But after that, we slowly drifted apart.

About 2 ½ years after the 22-day push, Jackie called me.  Could I come to Houston?  She’d pay $500 per day to solve her new problem. TMS was still in the same industrial park.  The years had gone well for Jackie and the company.  She had just hired an old friend of hers from nursing days to run the Sales Division.  She wanted to re-structure the company so that Dennis was under Marjorie; he would have to report to her.

When I spoke to him, he was livid.  Marjorie knew nothing about programming or even about software products and packaging. There was no need for the re-structuring.  Dennis had worked well as technical director.  My meetings with Jackie were frustrating; her reasoning remained circular.  I hired Marjorie to run sales.  Programs are the products we sell, so Dennis should be under Marjorie. She stuck to it with a stubbornness that surprised me.  I never got to the bottom of it.  After 4 days, I recommended that TMS keep Dennis where he was and returned to Austin. I stayed in touch for a few weeks, but they weren’t making any progress.  I heard Dennis had started doing contract work for a games company.  A few months later, Mabel called me into her office. She had received a notice in the mail.  Coopers & Lybrands (one of the Big Five Accounting firms back then) had purchased Texas Medical Systems for $3 million.  Jackie and Dennis owned most of the stock.

 

 

 

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