I was the first software evangelist

April 2nd, 2014

I saw something today that made me chuckle. An article I was reading mentioned that some fellow’s official title was “Senior Technical Evangelist”. It struck me as funny that something I started now had gone so far as to become part of an official job title.

It started back in the fall of 1980. I was a software engineer at Atari, working on games. Now, at that time, Atari was treating as proprietary all technical information about its computers. The belief back then was that Atari would sell the computers at a loss (“razors”) and make its profits on the software (“razor blades”). Given the fact that Atari was the biggest seller of consumer software at the time (with its games for the VCS), this seemed like an entirely reasonable strategy. 

Meanwhile, though, the Atari sales people were struggling. Out there in the real world, they were getting clobbered by Apple. Everywhere they went, they came up against the same objections: the Apple II has tons of software; Atari has only a small amount. The Atari doesn’t seem any better than the Apple; why should retailers stock a me-too machine? The Atari sales people were pretty discouraged.

Somebody in marketing asked me to give a technical talk to the sales people who had gathered at Atari headquarters. The night before, I had read some article in a computer magazine extolling the power of the Apple II. I was really irritated by that article; I knew full well that the Atari computer was much more powerful than the Apple II, and this magazine article was highly misleading. So the next morning at the sales meeting, I was gunning for Apple.

I walked into that room and gave those people the pep talk of their lives. I went over the two machines point by point, showing how the Atari left the Apple in the dust at every turn. When I was done, they were practically jumping up and down shouting “Halleluiah!” They went back into the field breathing fire. 

Many of the people purchasing Atari computers were hobbyists who wanted to write software for the machines. I had come to Atari from that background, and I had a number of hobbyist friends who begged me for technical tips, which of course I had to refuse. Meanwhile, though, the knowledgeable people at Atari were trying to convince management that the “razor blade” strategy was all wrong because the hobbyists would write far more software than Atari could afford to make. Combined with the input from the sales people screaming for more software for the Atari, the pressure built higher and higher.

The dam broke in the fall of 1980. I don’t remember exactly when, but we got a memo from the CEO himself, Ray Kassar, informing us that as of that moment, all technical information about the Atari computers was no longer considered proprietary; we were welcome to disseminate it.

John Powers, the manager of the software department, realized the importance of this change and asked me if I’d like to set up a group to provide technical support for the hobbyists. Thus, the basic idea of providing technical support for outsiders was John Powers’. I eagerly agreed and set to work hiring people, putting together packages of documentation, and reaching out to developers. 

I had thought that providing documentation packages would be sufficient; I was wrong. I kept getting phone calls from people asking detailed questions; I spent more and more of my time on the telephone. By the spring of 1981, I knew that I had to take the initiative. I needed to do something like the talk I gave to the sales people. I set up a series of developer seminars at cities all around the country. Each one was two days long, and I think that there was no charge. We provided developers with more technical documentation and plenty of sample software. But the most important part was the lecture.

I’ve always loved lecturing, and I think I’m pretty good at it. Atari was at that time locked in intense competition with Apple. The Apple II had a larger software base, but it was older technology and the Atari hardware ran rings around the Apple hardware. Nevertheless, there was a lot of loyalty to Apple, and my job was to break through that loyalty and get those folks to start writing software on the Atari. 

To do that, I needed more then technical information: I had to generate excitement. I had to communicate to the programmers out there just how wonderful the Atari was, just how many glorious things they could do with it. I had to sell the Atari system to the developers.

That’s what I did. These were not dull, dry technical lectures; they were extravaganzas. I swear, if I could have figured out how to bring in dancing girls, I would have done it. Over and over I would show off something that the Atari could do and conclude by saying, “Try doing THAT on your Apple II!” To demonstrate the fact that Ataris were built for the mass market, not the hobbyist market, I showed how well-built they were, how readily they withstood physical abuse. My best stunt was swinging an Atari joystick by its cord and smashing it into a table top, then calmly plugging it in and showing that it worked perfectly. That stunt really impressed people. 

Somebody from an important computer magazine, I don’t recall which, attended one of my seminars and came away duly impressed. He wrote up a story about it in which he described the atmosphere at the seminar as like that of an old-time revival meeting, with me playing the role of the born-again evangelist. That’s where the term was first used. I didn’t coin it, the magazine guy did. But it stuck.

A few years later, Apple introduced the Macintosh, and they assigned two people to the task of drumming up developer support. One, Scott Knaster, was a quiet, amiable, and extremely competent programmer. When I got badly stuck on something, he invited me over to Apple and spent an hour or two with me helping straighten out my confusion.

The other fellow was Guy Kawasaki. I’m not sure if he started immediately, and I don’t know why he started using the term “software evangelist” to describe himself. Perhaps he coined it himself; perhaps somebody else at Apple did. But my hunch is that the term had slowly seeped into the community from the original magazine article, and the Apple folks had picked up on it.