September 9, 2012

The Founding of The Omni Group.

Today Omni Group published a blog entry entitled "Twenty Years of Being Omni," with their perspective on the first days of my old company. I was a little sad to find out the only mention of me was the phrase "the five of us."[*] I can understand that companies don't like to dwell on past employees, but when things are written on the internet they survive a long time, and I don't like the idea of being expunged from my history. So here's my story.

Around 1989, while at the University of Washington, I met a guy named Dan Flye who was working on a game he called "Omni," which would have been the first MORPG if it had ever shipped. He was writing it for the VAX minicomputer, I thought it'd be cooler on the new NeXT machines that I had become completely enamored with. I co-opted the game design from him (sorry, Dan), and gathered a group of people at irregular intervals to talk about it with me and try to create some technology demos. The group I found were the smartest programmers I could find at the University of Washington, and among them were Tim Wood and Ken Case and Len Case.

In 1991 I became a "Campus Consultant" for NeXT, which I discovered was basically a glorified campus salesman, which is something I'm not good at. But, fortuitously, in October of 1991 I got into trouble at my university computer-lab job (which I sucked at) because of a flame-war between me and a more senior consultant. I've always felt a debt of gratitude to my supervisor's supervisor Danny Raphael, who started my career when I objected to being let go over private e-mail. He said (paraphrased), "Wil, you're bored here. You hate this job. You're meant for bigger things. Go do them. If you really want this job, come back in three months and let's talk."

That same day I drove across the bridge to the NeXT headquarters and talked to Jerry Goode, a "Systems Engineer" or some such (forgotten the title) to whom I owe my career. I said, "Hey, I've been fired, I need a lot more hours and I suck at selling machines." Jerry said that coincidentally NeXT was firing the original team they'd contracted to do a huge custom application for their first big client, the William Morris Agency. Would I like to become the programmer? Oh and PS: the old guys spent all the money and we're throwing away all their code and designs.

Meanwhile, I started filing a billion bug reports with Lighthouse Design, a company that was making software exclusively for NeXTs. If you've run Apple's "Keynote" you've seen their work – it's written by the same people who wrote "Concurrence," Lighthouse's flagship product. Jonathan Schwartz (the guy who later ran Sun) was impressed with all my bug reports and in 1992 asked if I'd do some contract work on Concurrence for them, breaking the PowerPoint file format. They bought me a PC and I worked out of my lonely little loft. I asked Ken Case to come and help code sometimes, since we were close friends.

Somewhere in there Jerry got more funding for the William Morris project, and hired another programmer (for a LOT more money than I was making – but I was a college kid). After two weeks Jerry fired that guy and gave me a raise, and said, "Hey, you know any more guys like you?" I said, heck yes, as it happens I've been collecting smart people for a year or so now: my Omni group.

NeXT signed up Len Case and Tim Wood and Ken Case from that group, who joined me on the William Morris project. We worked out of NeXT's offices for a while, but eventually were asked to go find our own place. And so we had our "I have a barn, we could use old sheets as curtains and put on a show!" moment when we realized we had William Morris and we had Lighthouse, and maybe we were actually becoming a company.

We moved into our own tiny office above a fancy hair salon, which stank like hell but we flirted with the salon girls. We picked up McCaw Cellular as a client, who funded most of our craziness for the next eight or so years. We hired our first official employee. Ken knew everything about UNIX and Tim worked harder than anyone I'd ever met, and I was… a kind of depressed dreamer? I was the Steve Jobs from his first reign at Apple, except without the work ethic. The three of us incorporated, and at my request I got slightly more stock. I was the president of Omni Group for roughly ten years after that.

That's the story of the founding of Omni Group as I remember it, bolstered by e-mails from the time.

[*Update, same day: the original blog entry has been enhanced with extra information, including my name. Yay!]

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