Randall Howard: New UniForum Director

Software company's president started as researcher, became entrepreneur

Randall Howard well remembers the first time he succeeded in getting a number of computers to work with each other in his university computer lab in the early 1970s. It was a high that stayed with him and helped propel him into his career in open systems.

"I built up some systems that allowed things like printer sharing and job sharing," Howard says. "Some of the things that were extremely thrilling back then seem commonplace now."

Howard, the 40-year-old president of Mortice Kern Systems in Waterloo, Ontario, followed an early interest in mathematics into computer science classes as a student at the University of Waterloo. "I never really looked back," he says. "What attracted me was that this is an industry based purely on knowledge. It was based on people and their thinking and their ideas. It was a world created wholly by the minds of human beings."

A Lifelong Interest

Three events in Howard's undergraduate life moved him toward open systems by solidifying his interest in UNIX. The first was his introduction to the operating system in 1973. One of the UNIX insiders from Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, Steve Johnson, came to the university for a sabbatical. "He brought himself, but he also brought a lot of concepts with him and without that, UNIX would probably have been five or six years later coming to the university," Howard says.

In those days, obtaining a copy of UNIX was a more personal procedure. And that event had a strong impact on the young computer science student. "It wasn't distributed as a commercial product," Howard remembers. "Ken Thompson [the co-developer of UNIX] would go down and cut a tape for you. Seeing the early UNIX was a major milestone in my life. I was really struck by how powerful a system it was and yet how simple it was. Even as UNIX has grown up and matured, that philosophy has remained."

Howard also gives credit to the university's policy of giving students computer access time, for sustaining his enthusiasm. "I was at a university where there was a tremendous amount of hands-on experience given to students with computers," he says. "Nowadays it's not such a big deal, but back then it was a critical element in turning out a generation of people who became the leaders of the industry of today."

A third event that cemented Howard's interest in UNIX was a decision at the university to use UNIX as the base for a distributed medical database project he was working on. "I was the lucky recipient of the benefit of working with this experimental system in the early days," he remembers. "[The product] never reached the commercial light of day but it was an interesting project."

After graduating in 1975, Howard built on his open systems experience in the area of interoperability by joining a University of Waterloo research organization called the Computer Communications Network Group. It was a collaborative effort to do research that generated industrial spin-offs.

Learning What Sells

Then in 1980, Howard made the decision that eventually led to his future as an entrepreneur. He moved to Chicago and joined a startup, the Mark Williams Co., building a UNIX clone. Joining the commercial world for the first time and living in the United States had its effect. "It was a tremendous opportunity to do exactly the kind of work that I was interested in doing," Howard says. "It was at that company that I really made the transition from being research-oriented and perhaps a little bit ivory towerish and idealistic into someone who really saw the business potential and the entrepreneurial side of the computer industry." Aside from writing operating systems at the startup, he had the chance to work on sales, marketing and business strategy development.

While moving to a big U.S. city was his greatest hurdle in taking the new job, it turned out to be an important life experience. "I'm extremely glad that I spent time in the United States, because it enlarged my world view," he says. "There were a lot of bright young Canadians 15 years ago, but they weren't as entrepreneurial as Americans. That has changed. I think Canadians have learned that they have to be extremely entrepreneurial in the world and there's no better place than the United States to learn entrepreneurial business concepts. I came back to Canada with that."

The change in Howard had to do with a specific cultural tendency in Canadians, Howard believes. "Canadians are this unique blend of being a little bit like Americans and a little bit European. There's a little bit of the British reserve in the Canadian psyche. At the same time, like everybody else in the world, we've learned to survive. Canada is a pretty small country, economically, and for us to really succeed on the world stage, we have to sell products across the entire world. I think that's a reflection of what's happening in the rest of the world. A single country is too small to be really self-sufficient anymore. And this whole world economy has been created by the computer and technology industry."

Howard moved back to Canada in 1984 and helped found Mortice Kern Systems in Waterloo. "I thought there would be some great opportunities there," he says. "I realized that in order to do the kind of work I wanted to do-really interesting, challenging work-it wasn't going to come to me. I was going to have to create it. I found a number of people who were of high quality and said, "Let's sit down and found a company." And that's exactly what we did." Howard served as vice president of research and development until 1989, when he was named president.

Bringing in Cash

The original plan for MKS was to create and market desktop publishing software-hence the use of the typesetting terms mortice and kern. But that project never came to pass. Instead, the company decided to start bringing in cash by doing a variety of consulting jobs for clients, including the development of a three-dimensional spreadsheet for Imperial Oil, the Canadian subsidiary of Exxon. The consulting brought in the money and the experience to develop MKS's first product. That was MKS Toolkit, a suite of UNIX-compatible development tools for working on DOS or OS/2. "I could see the trend where a lot of software development was going to happen on PCs. At that time, and still to this day, UNIX systems remain ahead in software development tools. To be able to put some of those UNIX development tools down on PCs seemed to me to be a real market need." Today, MKS Toolkit has about 125,000 paid users. "That product gained a good reputation in the developer community and the sales just kept growing," Howard says. "Really, that was the basis for building a sustainable company."

He attributes the success of the product partially to the practical experience the company gained while consulting. "Consulting led to ideas to create products that people would really use, and I think that's a lesson that one can never forget," Howard says. "For us as a company, starting out in consulting was a really good way to understand what people were really going to need out there, not just what we thought they would need."

MKS Toolkit is still being sold, but the company has since branched out with its InterOpen series of systems-level products and services such as the InterOpen/POSIX Shell and Utilities source code product. More recently, MKS has released Internet access software.

Although it was never written down that MKS would dedicate itself to open systems, open systems principles were "in our blood," Howard believes. "I think that those philosophies that were imbedded in UNIX-which really are the roots of today's open systems movement-can never leave you once you have them. MKS makes products that cross boundaries, that put different kinds of cultures together. It marries DOS-which was viewed as the antithesis of open systems, with open systems. So really, MKS has always been very pragmatic in its application of being an open systems company. Basically I think MKS's long-term mission is to continue to work toward being the leading software development tools and open systems vendor in the marketplace."

Starting with POSIX

Howard's involvement with standards began in 1987, when he started to work seriously in the effort to develop POSIX. After four years in that project, he handed the responsibility to other MKS employees. MKS became a member of the X/Open Independent Software Vendor Council in 1991. Howard chose X/Open for his next standards effort because he felt it was vendor-neutral compared to other consortia, and because he felt it could also employ marketing. "Believe me, this whole open systems standards concept needs a lot of marketing," Howard says. "It's very easy for a simple message to get lost amid both the hype that comes from the Microsoft camp and some of which comes from individual vendors in the open systems area." He also attended working group meetings of the International Standards Organization, where he gained an insight into internationalization issues.

As a director of UniForum, Howard is most concerned that open systems organizations such as UniForum and USENIX cooperate in their programs and not duplicate their efforts. "If open systems is going to move to the next level of success, it very much has to focus its efforts-because resources are limited, and in order not to confuse the public. I like to see organizations cooperating with each other because everybody will gain. I think everybody realizes that this is a key factor to the success of the whole open systems industry."

The problem of confusing messages from vendors also has to be addressed, Howard says. "Vendors have to learn to cooperate and at the same time to compete. That's challenging because companies by their very nature are competitive right down to the bone. So it's very difficult for companies to see mutual shared interests, and more importantly to fund activities that are based on those mutually shared interests. I feel that from my own history and track record, I'm in a fairly strong position of neutrality when I speak about this. I'm in a kind of third-party, objective position, so maybe I can make a difference. I think that I have a role to play here, but only time will tell how that will actually play out."