George Parker: of Leonardo Da Vinci, Philippe Kahn and various other Silicon Valley types

Two Parkers for the price of one this week (holidays and all that, normal schedule returns w/c August 5). George continues his tour of the wilder personalities of the computer revolution.

Last week, I dealt with douchenozzle number one, Nolan Bushnell, inventor of Pong, and founder of Atari. Let’s move on to Douchenozzle number two: Philippe Kahn (left), a Silicon Valley legend in his own time.

I worked with Philippe, also in my California Dreamin’ period of the eighties, when he was founder, Chairman and CEO of Borland International, which at the time was the world’s third largest software company, has since shrunk to a sad reflection of its former glory, and is based in Bumfuck, Texas. In common with far too many of the CEOs I’ve worked with in high tech companies, Philippe considered himself to be some kind of twentieth century, reincarnation of Leonardo Da Vinci.

‘Cos, this was a guy capable of everything from software development, to music creation and performance, to “Master & Commander” sailing ability, to spinning twelve dinner plates on a stick while solving Fermat’s Last Theorem on his etch-a-sketch. In other words, the guy was a classic Silicon Valley Egotard.

First… A little history. Philippe (left) arrived in the US on a tourist visa in 1982 (remember the date… This is important… There will be a test later!) Somehow, he conned his way into a job at Hewlett-Packard, which only lasted a few months until they found out he didn’t have a Green Card. However, he persevered in his endeavor to conquer the new world and rented a room over a garage in Scotts Valley, which is up in the redwoods above San Jose, an area well known as the reputed hang out for axe murderers and drug barons… And, I should know, I lived there for eight years!

This was the starting point for his initially very innovative and successful company. His first breakthrough product was Turbo Pascal, quickly followed by other programming languages and PC development tools, plus the enormously successful desktop organizer, SideKick. However, as is common with these guys, their ambitions are only matched by the size of their fucking egos, and Philippe decided he could go head to head with Microsoft and Lotus/IBM by offering alternatives to their data base and office productivity offerings.

To say this was one of the world’s dumbest business decisions would be the understatement of the year. What was once a very profitable operation started to bleed dollars through the eyeballs. To the point that after twelve losing quarters, and the ever increasing performance bonuses Philippe kept awarding to himself, the board finally told him to get lost… Obviously, in common with all CEO’s who screw up monumentally, he was awarded the obligatory enormous golden parachute. However, when I first started to suck off the Borland teat, all this was a couple of years in the future.

What you have to understand is that when Borland was first founded above the Scotts Valley garage, not only was Philippe illegal, he was broke. So, when he did the first tiny ads for Turbo Pascal in such esoteric publications as Dr. Dobbs, The Software Bugle, and Programming Development for Dickwads, he had to do them himself, as he couldn’t afford an ad agency.

Consequently, when he sold a shitload of Turbo Pascal, he quickly realized he was an ad genius and didn’t need no stinkin’ ad agency. This is why Borland’s developed an in-house advertising agency capable of producing some of the most mind-numbingly horrendous advertising you have ever seen… But, they paid really well, and I only lived about a mile away. So, being an AdHo… It was, for me, a marvelous arrangement.

As I have written ad nauseum in books, articles and blogs, an in-house agency is the best way to guarantee that the advertising you get as an end result will be really fucking awful. No creative person in their right mind would think of taking a full time position in such an organization, (freelancing for one is a different proposition, ‘cos as another well known AdHo once said… Show me the money!)

After all, the guy who signs off on the ads is also the guy who signs your pay check. So, the last thing you want to do is piss him off. And in the case of Philippe, as I said, he is the fucking reincarnation of Leonard Da Vinci. Proof of this was when I first met with him in his office. This was a huge area occupying half of the top floor of the huge Borland campus.

Apart from his giant desk, various accoutrements scattered around confirmed his catholic interests. In one corner was a Steinway grand piano, music stand, guitar, flute and drum kit. In another corner was a complete 35mm film kit, with tripods, cameras, and sound recorders. Across the way was an easel with a half finished canvas on it. I had a sneaky feeling there was an immense block of Carrara marble and a semi-completed, and obviously, better version of Rodin’s “Kiss” in the bathroom, but I never got a chance to find out.

Meetings with Philippe took place in the giant conference room adjacent to his office. Present would be myself and a couple of people from the in-house agency. There would also be about a dozen of Philippe’s henchmen, who did exactly what, I have no fucking idea, except perhaps to reinforce Philippe’s conviction that he could walk on water!

During one memorable meeting we were discussing the launch of a series of videotapes (remember those?) that would demonstrate for developers the various product benefits of the language products. Some wanker in the in-house agency had come up with a graphic on the opening screen shot that was a human eye. Don’t ask me why; just assume that it makes as much sense as anything else in the most fucked up business in the world.

Anyway, after looking at this for a couple of minutes, Philippe silenced the chatter with a wave of his Gallic hand and announced in his best Maurice Chevalier accent… “I have an idea!” The room fell silent and all the henchmen leaned forward in expectation. After a suitable pregnant beat, he said, “Why don’t we make the eye wink?” There was a pause, and then the henchmen whooped, jumped up and down, and started high fiveing each other.

Believe me; I swear to God I am not making this shit up. I looked at one of the in-house agency guys; he gave a faint smile and shrugged his shoulders. Apparently this was par for the course when meeting with Philippe and his band of merry men.

So, obviously, we made the eye wink.

As you can guess from the contents of his office, Philippe was an accomplished musician. To the point where every year, he would lock himself away in a Los Angeles recording studio for a month with a bunch of very high priced professional jazz players to record stuff he had composed in the previous year. This would then be taped and mailed out to thousands of customers, distributors and retailers as a personal Christmas present from Philippe. Obviously, it wasn’t personal enough for Philippe to consider that the tens of thousands of dollars this exercise in egomania cost should actually come out of his own pocket. That’s what shareholders are for.

Borland was also notorious for its Comdex “Toga Parties.” Readers long enough in the tooth will remember that Comdex was the huge, once a year, computer trade show held in Las Vegas, where tens of thousands of people connected with computer manufacturing, reselling, retailing, servicing, buying etc., would descend on Sin City to drink, smoke and screw their brains out with high priced hookers while hopefully doing some business out of the sight of their Significant Others.

Exhibitors would spend fortunes trying to outdo each other by building bigger stands hosted by bigger-busted “hostesses,” putting on bigger shows, and throwing the most extravagant parties for existing and potential customers. Yet, even in the city of excess, Philippe’s parties were famous for their profligacy, if not debauchery!

The all time benchmark for Comdex parties would have to be the Borland 1984 Toga Party An occasion, destined to live in infamy, as two thousand people crashed the event for a chance to get drunk on free booze while watching Philippe swanning around in a bed sheet. No wonder Borland International was more familiarly known as the “Animal House” of the computer business. Although, in fairness, I have to add that 1984 was the same year Larry Ellison, the Obersturmbahnfuehrer of Oracle, treated himself to a vintage Russian MiG 15 fighter… ‘Cos, as one of the world’s richest douchenozzles… His shareholders could afford it!

Same applies to Google co-founders, Sergey and Larry with their private Boeing 767, which came with matching hammocks and space for six full-sized cargo containers. Holy shit, you have to love the audacity of these guys. Am I jealous? Yes, off course I am.

But, moving on… In the years since he got bounced from Borland, Philippe has gone on to found numerous other high tech companies, but not yet as many as Nolan, who is currently up to twenty two, most of which, have unfailingly lost money. Philippe’s subsequent companies have included, LightSurf Technologies, which is credited with the invention of the camera phone in 1997, and Fullpower Technologies, creators of the MotionX platform, a core element in fitness applications featured in the Blob-like, constantly expanding, Apple Apps Store.

OK. So, here’s the test I mentioned at the beginning of this rant. According to his bio, Philippe was barely twenty years of age when he arrived in the US, yet he had already achieved a bachelor’s degree in math at the Swiss Polytechnic, followed by a Masters in math at the University of Nice. He also majored in musicology at the Zurich Music Conservatory. Am I missing something here, chronologically speaking? Or, perhaps the guy is not merely a Leonardo reincarnation, but also a Mozart clone?

OK. That’s the Douchenozzles. Next week, the Prince. If you can’t wait to find out who that is, you could always buy the bloody book.

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About George Parker

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George Parker has spent 40 years on Madison Avenue. He’s won Lions, CLIOs, EFFIES, and the David Ogilvy Award. His blog is adscam.typepad.com, which is required reading for those looking for a gnarly view of the world’s second oldest profession.” His latest book, Confessions of a Mad Man, makes the TV show Mad Men look like Sesame Street.