Joseph W. Alsop has an electrical engineering degree; he graduated in 1967. At the time, there was no separate course in computers; his EE program included significant software and computer training. After graduation, he began to take a master's course at the Sloan School, but left to start his first company (with other MIT cofounders)--a computer hardware firm. Annual sales rose to $1 million and he sold the company, becoming a computer consultant in Texas. He tired of writing business software in COBOL and BASIC and decided to build a company around tools for developers of business software. He teamed up with other MIT graduates (people he had met after leaving the Institute) to form Progress Software. The company was located in Massachusetts because the others lived there.
Progress was founded in 1981 from the savings and sweat equity of its founders, who worked for two years in low-rent quarters without salary. Today, the firm has 1,000 employees and sales of $140 million--over half of them overseas. His summary of what it takes to win in his business--good vision (foreseeing such developments as the shift from mainframes and minis to PCs and the shift from DOS to Windows and JAVA), timing, and product excellence.
Alsop has much to say about the difference between Silicon Valley and Massachusetts. Silicon Valley, he believes, is the center of the computer-software-semiconductor-electronics industry; most of the important recent developments (such as graphic user interface and the Intel microprocessor) are West Coast developments. Boston and Silicon Valley, especially the latter, are on a plane above all other technology centers. Nonetheless, he worries about the long-term viability of Massachusetts companies because people on the East Coast are not the risk takers found in Silicon Valley. This is of particular concern because the difficulty of doing multi-site software development rules out a major Silicon Valley development staff for Progress.
He believes there are risks as well as advantages to a Silicon Valley location; turnover there is high, with job changes every 18 months or so the norm. On the other hand, he says good Massachusetts programmers and managers can be recruited to California, while it is practically impossible to move West Coast programmers to greater Boston. After one winter, most who do come East want to go back.
Because risk-taking is essential to success in the software business, he feels there is no long-term threat in this area from Japanese or European competitors.
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