Treehouse: A Software (and Numbers) Story

portraitsgeorgesm by George Szakach, Founder and President of Treehouse Software

I started with mainframes in 1960, in the Army.  It wasn’t my idea but my sister’s.  She signed me up for MOS (Military Occupation Specialty) 745.1, Automatic Data Processing.  My military ID was RA13698378.  There were no books (yet) in any local library on the topic of computers or ADP.  So I had no idea what I was getting into.

After basic training in the mud in Kentucky and programming school in Fort Monmouth, NJ, I was assigned to Fort Huachuca, AZ.  We had to do something called a Locator System, whereby the computer program and data could figure out where people were located/assigned.  The only input device was a card reader.  The data could then be written onto magnetic tape.  The only other devices were a printer and card punch.   Spinning things like disks, and terminals, had not yet been invented.

Among other things, I did a set of date manipulation routines, hence my interest in dates (and in annoying people with telling them what day of the week they were born, etc.).  I stopped coding about 12 years ago, preferring to leave that to others while I concentrate on growing the business and grandchildren.

While in the Army I also developed my concept of  “EBA”, or Effective Batting Average.  This is for baseball statistics.  I’ve seen other things like slugging percentages and some newer concepts.  And there is always the plain batting average.  I thought, and still think, my system was better.  A homer should get you a few more points than a single.  A homer with base runners is better than a solo.  Failing to get a hit with the bases loaded is worse than just striking out with nobody on base.  My system took all this into account.

I did some other interesting (or bizarre) software “products” over the years, but I guess my forte was writing COBOL compilers (with tapes and only 16K of memory), assemblers, disassemblers and the like.  One clever routine I did was a cross reference listing program for COBOL programs, written in COBOL.  I remember squashing all the Procedure Division code onto as few cards as possible so that the deck would fit in my shirt pocket with all the colored markers.  I’d put my deck in front of the COBOL application program, and like magic out would print a cross reference listing.

I was offered many jobs before I left the army in 1963.  Three years of programming experience was unheard of back then, so I was in demand.  One company, Informatics of California, called me.  I remember it was Mr. Bauer and Mr. Wagner.  One was President and one was Vice President.  The idea that they both could be on the phone talking to me at the same time was a new concept for me.  They had 7 employees.  They offered me a job in Houston working on a project with the U.S. government (NASA) that had the goal of putting a man on the moon!  I thought that idea was nuts, so that I told them “No thanks”.  Six years later, 1969, working in Washington DC, I watched the landing on the moon with other programmers, thinking, “could have been…”.  A few years later, I heard that Informatics had 6,000 people.  I don’t think they existed much longer after that—but they might still be around for all I know.  It’s also interesting that several of the NASA sites became SAG customers and Treehouse customers.

The longest company stint I had before my 7 years at Software AG was at UNIVAC for almost 4 years (before it became Unisys).  After working on the 494 COBOL compiler as one of 7 programmers, I was put in charge of the 9300 COBOL compiler effort in 1966.  The 9300 effectively was an IBM 360 lookalike.   I supervised 22 different programmers, max 15 at one time, but usually a nice effective group of 9.   Dr. Grace Hopper at UNIVAC (and of Navy and nanosecond fame) seemed to like me and the way I led this group and directed me toward a future job I had.

I joined Software AG in 1975, being encouraged to interview by a friend and former employee of mine who earlier had joined SAG.  They wanted me to work on an interface to ADABAS (whatever that was – but ADABAS was selling for the astronomical amount of $120,000, so the company must have enough money to pay me).  I thought, “This is an interesting place.  Okay, I’ll work here for a while and see what they are up to.”  Five years later I told John Maguire I’ll never leave.  Two years after that, I left.  Well, I sort of had to – along with almost everybody else (28 altogether) at the so-called Seattle Development Center that new management (not Maguire’s preference) suddenly closed.  Soon after, John himself was forced to leave.  He later commented to me that he guesses he is now the “ex founder” of SAGNA.

People often ask how the name Treehouse came about.  This was because some companies that I worked for in the past, and one stood out, were all run by usually three men.  Or large boys.  They tended to have titles that made no sense to me, and they made up rules that also made little sense.  Kind of like kids in a Treehouse.  No girls allowed in – unless they bring candy.    This one particular company seemed to have a rule that the 5 lowly types, including me, should do all the work, while the President and 6 VPs and others should celebrate our success by drinking all night, smoking cigars, and showing up at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration computer center at 3:30 in the morning to give me a bonus check of $300 minus taxes.   I used to think, “If Presidents are so important, why not 6 Presidents and one VP?”

But I was happy there.  After all, they offered me stock options.  I had heard of these before – really neat things to make one rich.  After one year they mentioned they cannot afford to give me a raise, but they would give me stock options.  I asked the worth.  $50,000.  Wow.  Anything on paper?  No, not necessary.  Oh.  The next year, no raise.  Stock options instead.  This time, 5 times as many as the first time!  I asked the worth (thinking $250k) but really only $10K!  I quit 2 weeks later.

Treehouse was more or less started in late 1982 with a consulting assignment I decided to take in Saudi Arabia (I recall that they wanted their country to be known as “The Kingdom of…”, not just “Saudi Arabia”), doing performance and tuning and teaching the customer how to use ADAMINT (which I get credit for developing from July 1975 through May 1979 – or blame, take your pick).  I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the Kingdom, and I almost overdosed on pistachio nuts.  I came home after 10 weeks with a bundle of money in one pocket and 18-carat jewelry in the other. Amazingly, thirty years later, this Saudi site is currently a Treehouse customer.

Treehouse was more officially initiated on February 4, 1983 when I registered it as a DBA (doing business as) in Houston, TX.  Finally, it was incorporated in mid-1984 in Sewickley, PA.

By the way, Sewickley is a small town near Pittsburgh (with adjoining boroughs it has 10,000 people) where the oil, steel, coal barons of the 1800s and early 1900s had their summer homes up the hill from the river.  The 100-year old horse-and-wagon trails and stone walls around the estates can still be seen.  It is common to see friends here like Franco Harris and Lynn Swann, and just down the street live Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby, a nice young man I was talking to the other day.

Treehouse received $5k of financing (the only financing we’ve ever taken) – initiated by a friend who was, with me, co-coach of the 10-12-year-old girls’ softball team in Houston.  His business was oil pipes.  Most important to him was playing with the dumbbells he carried in his Mercedes, and coaching the girls softball team.  He resembled Popeye!

As I’ve noted elsewhere, I like numbers. Here is another interesting number, ZERO, as in the number of pay periods we could not pay our people.  Almost every other company I worked for could not say that.

We’ve had probably 40 products we built for ourselves or marketed for others over the years.  Half have been reasonably successful.

I don’t get involved in the code anymore.  I mainly run the March Madness Basketball Pool (we have a normal one and a not-so-normal one).  I get involved in technical stuff when I see blatant ugliness. For instance, one developer we had insisted that the question mark that appeared in the middle of the screen for the product he was developing could easily be ignored by any smart user of the product.  The screen is fixed and he left us 21 years ago.

One other programmer thought the comments were the code.  I mean, if the code said, “load register 6 with a 7” and the comment said, “store register 8 into location 9,” he was confused as to which would take precedence, the code or the comment.  He’s gone too.  We hired him in the first place because he could spell ADABAS without an ending it with E.

Another prospective employee misspelled the name of his high school on his resume.  He didn’t get hired. We interviewed him because he was a good waiter and would take everybody’s order without writing anything down, and he’d get it all correct.

One year we got audited by the IRS.  They wanted to know what trips were made by which employees over the past 2-3 years.  I recited every trip, by whom, dates, and purpose.  They wanted to know where I had this written.  I didn’t have any notes.  They insisted I must not have so much information in my head but must have employees write it all down.  That started the concept of “status reports”.  Employees objected to this rule.   I told them it’s an IRS rule, not a George rule.

Over 100 employees have gone through the Treehouse turnstiles, including about 30 that worked at one time or another for Software AG!  While that count surprised even me, you’d be most surprised at which SAG (North American and German) employees we decided NOT to employ, despite their request.

We have had about 800 customers over the years.  For the ones that have left us, 99% of the time it was because they left Software AG, or left the mainframe, or went out of business.  We’ve had some ask, “can you put TRIM and your neat NATURAL-based real-time monitor and clever user-exit-4 on Oracle?”  Uhhh, no, I don’t think so.

Through our history, we’ve had some 30 or so “affiliates” as we once called them, or marketing rep companies that market our products in other countries.  The most we ever had at one time is 14.  That was back when SAG seemed to be at their peak with 5,000 customers worldwide.  Most of these reps found us due to our reputation.  We did not go out searching for reps. The same goes for companies that want us to rep their products.  We impressed them with our knowledge – including knowledge of their customer base.  One such company thought they had 20 users in North America per their rep.  We told them we know of 61, and they were losing a lot of money with a rep that is withholding this info.  They switched to us (and now they have some CPU license key logic built into their products).

That peak, around 1991, led to SAG having an annual (which turned out to be one time only) Partnering Conference in Reston.  75 people attended.  We seemed to be singled out as the most influential partner, along with USAIR (USAirlines today) with their Maxi Merlin Maintenance System, sold to some 60 airlines at that time (probably more later).  That meant 60 additional ADABAS sales, good for Software AG (and us).

It should be noted we also had a one-and-only partners’ (and consultants’) conference, in April 1995.  We had Franco Harris as a guest speaker.  I reminded him about this recently and we had a chuckle.

We taught a lot of classes in the 1980s and into the 1990s, until 1991.  In 1991 alone we taught 41 classes.  Most of these were ADABAS Concepts, Internals, DBA Skills, Performance and Tuning, Natural Programming, etc., all related to Software AG’s base products.  In 1992 we taught none (and not by choice).  Since that time we’ve only taught classes about our own products, mainly N2O.

At MY Treehouse, I can make my own rules: I will not smoke anything, I will give meaningful bonuses and give them often, allow girls in, and not fake anybody out with stock options.

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