Ray Noorda: A friend to network managers

* Ray Noorda was obsessive about customers

A friend of mine died the other day. A friend of mine, and a friend of yours, too. You may never have met Ray Noorda, never have seen him speak or read anything he wrote. Heck, you may never have been in the same state as him at any time. But if you've used NetWare, then Ray Noorda was your friend.

He came to Novell (oddly enough at the behest of his friend Jack Messman) in 1983. It was his job to turn around this 17-strong employee "enterprise" that was making computer terminals and printers. He did it by contracting with four bright Brigham Young University graduates, who later became known as "SuperSet", to create the resource-sharing system that became NetWare. By the time he left Novell in 1995, the company employed 12,000 employees.

In the obituary published in the Salt Lake Tribune, it was reported that Ray's son Brent Noorda, said: "In my memory, Dad was always president of one company or another. As a kid, I didn't know what this meant, so I asked, 'What does a president do?' Dad said, 'A president is the guy who sticks around to empty the trash after everyone else has gone home.'''

And that was how I first came across the man many of us called "Uncle Ray."

It was 1986 and I was a relatively new network manager. I'd just installed a new server (Advanced NetWare 1.0), was attaching new diskless terminals (from Santa Clara Systems, a company later acquired by Novell) and ran into a problem - the terminals couldn't find the server. So I called the NetWare help line in Provo. It must have been around 7 p.m. in Utah, and the man who answered the phone didn't sound like a first line help desk tech. I explained the problem and he, well sympathetic, told me he didn't know enough to help but that, if I'd stay on the line a minute or two, he would find someone to help me.

The next voice I heard was that of Kyle Powell, the SuperSet guy who, along with Drew Major and Dale Neibauer, created NetWare. Kyle knew the client part and was able to quickly talk me through the proper set-up. Later that year, at the annual Developers' Conference, the precursor to BrainShare, I learned who Powell was and sought him out to thank him for taking the time to help me. That's when he told me who had answered the phone. As he put it, when the guy who signs your paycheck says, "Take this call," you just do it.

Ray always could find time to talk to NetWare users. He was instrumental in starting the peer-to-peer support group that ran NetWire on CompuServe, which became the Novell Support Forums.

Roger White, who was in Novell customer support in the early 1980s has written an unpublished book "Surfing the High Tech Wave", about those years. In it, he characterizes Ray Noorda: "He is the sort of manager who is well-suited to running entrepreneurial enterprises: bright, perceptive, hard-working, able to motivate people one-on-one, obsessive about making sales and controlling costs, [and] 'married' to his business. From his managerial strengths flow his weaknesses: irascibility when confronted with fools, quickness to judge (sometimes leading him to the wrong conclusions), an inability to delegate appropriately and a tendency to work himself beyond the limits of his effectiveness."

Ray was obsessive about customers, told the same stories over and over again, and made the mistake of trying to teach Bill Gates "a lesson." But through it all he was a pioneer, a catalyst who produced the networking revolution. And, yes, he was my friend. I will miss him.

* For more reading, please see "Former Novell CEO Noorda dies"; and "Remembering Novell's Ray Noorda". You can also take part in our "Remembering Ray Noorda" discussion forum.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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