Getting into the Biz
"All right, now that at least sounds interesting."
Siduri: So how'd you get into SETI?
Seth: It was just for the money.
Siduri: Just for the money and the babes?
Seth shows us SETI gang signs
Seth: Yeah, that was it. Still waiting on two of those. No, I was a radio
astronomer for many years—that's what I studied. And I was working at a
university in Europe. I was always sort of interested in SETI, because when I
was doing my thesis I was reading this book that Sagan and this guy Shklovskii
had written [Direct Contact Among Galactic Civilizations], and I was
sitting there at 3:00 in the morning with the radio sort of turned back behind
the Sierra Nevadas, thinking, "This instrument can be used not just to
study galaxies, but it can be used to communicate between the stars." And I
thought that was very romantic, in a way. Didn't do anything about it.
But when I was working at this university, Jill Tarter came to the university
for three months, doing some sort of sabbatical leave. So I got ahold of her
and I said, "Well Jill, maybe we could do an experiment together using the
radio telescope here in the Netherlands." Which we did. So I knew her, I had
done some SETI, given a few talks on it, and when I moved to Mountain View for
completely different reasons having to do with the software business—I was
in a startup with my brother, and that went ventral-side up—I happened to
by chance get a phone call from the SETI Institute. They said, "Are you
interested in a job here?" They found out I was in town because I ran into
Jill Tarter at a party over in Berkeley.
Siduri: All connections.
Seth: Yeah, in a way. It is connections, but on the other hand, I was a radio
astronomer, you know. I had done some SETI, and they were ramping up. So it
was the right place at the right time. But you're right, if I hadn't run into
her at that party...
Siduri: What were you doing in the software business?
Seth: I have a couple of brothers, and my middle brother, after he got his
degree, took a job at SRI in Menlo Park. And this was about the time when the
personal computers were coming out. I remember he was calling me up: I was
living, as I say, in Holland. He sent me one of these microcomputers. I said,
"What the heck for? I use a computer all day long at work, this DEC machine,
you know. I don't need a computer at home—what am I going to use it for?"
He said, "Well, I'm not sure what we can use it for." He said, "But maybe we
can use it to run model trains." And I thought, "All right, now that at least
sounds interesting." He said, "Well, how about if I send you a kit." Because
that's all it was. And I said, "Is this going to cost me money?" And he said,
"Well, yeah, it's gonna cost you six hundred dollars." "That's a lot of
money!" Which it was in those days, still is actually.
But he sent it anyway. I remember he labeled the box "miscellaneous electronic
parts—value $5," to get it past Dutch customs. I didn't think that would
work but it did. And I spent weeks soldering this thing together. It was an
IMSAI 8080; it was made over here in [unintelligible]. At the time the box
arrived in Holland the company was already out of business. Anyhow, so I put
this thing together. My brother still has one; he had one too. Built like a
tank, great things. 8080 processor. 1 megahertz clock speed. 1 byte of memory,
which was in the CPU. And I didn't know what to do. I could make it flash
lights on the front panel, but there was no I/O, no disk, no keyboard: I had
to build my own terminal. I did that so I could at least type into it instead
of using paddles. And then I typed in an assembler, which was in the back of
one of the books. I was writing in assembly code, which was a high-level
language in those days. My brother had built a memory board for it and all
And in fact, if you look at the literature about the development of the PC in
Holland, it's widely reputed that the first PC to be owned by anybody in the
Netherlands was owned by this astronomer, Seth Shostak. That's not true. I
know a Canadian guy who owned one before me. I know I wasn't the first one. I
get the credit, unjustifiably, for this. And I had that thing the whole time I
Ultimately, what happened was that my brother decided that—he saw that
there were these people down in LA who managed to commercialize, essentially,
a government database. VisiCalc. Oh no, it wasn't—it was a spreadsheet,
they had the first spreadsheet, VisiCalc. And then he thought that making
databases had a future. He knew about databases. So he and a buddy of his at
SRI decided they would write a real database and try and sell it from the back
of magazines, computer magazines. There were already computer magazines,
So they wrote this thing, and they were saying, "Well, instead of selling in
the back of magazines maybe we could get some of these new, burgeoning
software companies to pick it up." They went and talked with Ashton Tate down
in LA. Then they want to talk to Lotus Development Corp. in Boston, but
couldn't come to a deal. At that point some venture capitalists here said,
"We'll back you." And they did. So they quit their jobs at SRI and formed
something called Ansa Software, and they called the product Paradox. They were
located up here in Belmont. Let's see, where was I? Oh, right, I was still in
Holland. He would come over, and would give me free copies of this stuff. I
was using it for my stamp collection. Still do.
He told me that one day, he told me on the phone, he said, "Well, a funny
thing, yesterday in the elevator that went up in my office." Turns out that
Borland had an office in the same building. And of course everybody in the
building sort of knew one another, and it's "So Rob, so how's it going?" And
Rob said "Oh, well, okay, we're sort of ramping up, we've got more employees,
we're going to make this into a product." And he said, "Well, that's good,
because we'd like to buy you." So they did, they gave $28 million, I think,
for the company. My brother didn't get very much of that, but they got a lot
of change on the side.
Siduri: Well, fabulous.
Seth: Yes, my brother lives in a much bigger house than I do. And see, he's on
his fourth start-up now. One of those was what brought me here. Not that I
knew anything about PC software—I didn't know anything about it. Everybody
Seth: Yeah, It wasn't going to be Windows, it was going to be OS/2. Back when
Bill Gates and IBM were still getting along. And he brought me in mostly to
get me out of Europe, because he was afraid my mom was going to be unhappy if
I stayed there. And beyond that, I had started a little company on the side of
the astronomy, a company that made computer animation; we wrote all of the
software, we made all this stuff. It was very interesting.
So we were doing that. We weren't making any money, we were getting along, but
we thought, Well, all that expertise will be useful in this product that was
going to need graphics. The product needed 2D graphics, very simple stuff;
[mutter mutter] was all 3D stuff, had no bearing on the product. And then the
engineers all got into fights, and the VCs pulled the plug.