Programmers who defined the technology industry: Where are they now?

The future of the computer... circa 1986.

By , ITworld |  Development, Bill Gates, Charles Simonyi

Robert Carr, Framework

Robert Carr
Image credit: KeepandShare

Then: In the mid-1980s, the computing world was yearning for an integrated software suite, or at least all the magazines told us so. The two major choices were Ashton-Tate's Framework and Lotus Symphony. Robert Carr co-founded Forefront and developed Framework, which had a spreadsheet, word processing, database, telecommunications, and outlining, all on a floppy disk. Ashton-Tate bought Forefront in 1985, where Carr became chief scientist -- his role when he was interviewed for the Programmers at Work book. Borland acquired Ashton-Tate in 1991.

On programming in teams: "I've tried to surround myself with people who are better than I am. A lot of the people I've hired for Forefront are better programmers than I am, and I've learned a lot from them. [Xerox] ASD also showed me that great software development is largely composed of good initial design and, thereafter, a lot of very solid engineering."

On software design: "One piece of advice I had been given was to hold off programming for as long as possible. Once you get a corpus of code building up, it's hard to change direction. It sets like concrete. So I held off for as long as I could, but I couldn't hold the design in my head forever."

On managing developers: "My role is one of facilitator, drawing out the design ideas and helping the group towards a conclusion. Not my conclusion, but one evolved by the group. ...Occasionally, there will be a situation where we just can't get a consensus, so we step back and examine the time constraints, money constraints, or space constraints, and then decide from there. The original Framework process was a very iterative and evolutionary one."

On user interfaces: "Users should be able to forget that there is a program between them and their information. In fact, as they get used to the software, their minds should be filled only with the task at hand; they shouldn't have to stop and think about what command they need."

On the future of computing: "I hope we can move toward component software. Then the user will be able to replace a piece of a program with a plug-in module from a software house that knows how to do floating-point arithmetic or word processing better. This will be a trend over the next ten years. But it's a tough goal because we're talking about the interfaces between separate modules of software, one of the least understood areas in software design."

Today: Carr has wandered in and out of the computer industry. He took breaks to participate in Ironman triathlons and, between Xerox and Context MBA and starting Forefront, to explore Mexico.

However, he's never gotten very far from the innovations we later took for granted. In 1987, Carr co-founded the high-profile mobile communications startup GO Corporation, where he led all software development, including the ground-breaking PenPoint operating system, earning two patents on pen-based computing and object-oriented operating systems. He was vice president of the AutoCAD Market Group at Autodesk. And he spent a few years as managing director at Sofinnova Ventures, where he invested and co-managed $550 million in early stage high-tech venture capital funds (though 1998-99 didn't turn out to be a good time to do that).

These days, he's CEO of KeepandShare which aims "to support your busy life by making group information sharing easy, secure and instantaneous." And he's back programming for the first time in 20 years.

Next page: Bill Gates, BASIC on the Altair

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