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Remembering Novell’s Ray Noorda

Oct 10, 20066 mins
Enterprise Applications

'Father of Network Computing' remembered for humility and business - not technical - acumen

Ray Noorda, who became known as the “father of network computing” for building Novell into a dominant LAN company in the 1980s and 1990s, is being remembered the day after his death as one of the industry’s fiercest competitors and humblest contributors.

“When I think of Ray, I think of the ultimate competitor,” says Darl McBride, CEO of The SCO Group, a company embroiled in litigation with IBM and Novell over the origins of Linux. “The reason he would cooperate was so that he could compete better. It was 90% competing and the 10% cooperating that would help companies and industries compete better.”

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Bryan Sparks, former CEO and co-founder of Caldera (which later became SCO Group), says Noorda never feared taking risks and saw them as just being part of business.

“Ray would start work early and end work late so he could see who was there. If no one was at the front desk and the phone would ring, he would answer it,” says Sparks, who worked with Noorda on a skunkworks project on the Linux desktop.

Noorda, who died at the age of 82 due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease at home in Orem, Utah, was raised by Dutch immigrants in Ogden, Utah during the Great Depression. His early work experience – setting pins in a bowling alley, picking cherries and herding sheep — instilled in him a strong work ethic and a desire to provide jobs for people. After graduating from the University of Utah with a degree in electrical engineering, Noorda worked at General Electric and developed a knack for turning ailing companies around. Among the companies he helped were General Automation, Boschert and Systems Industries.

‘Uncle Ray,’ as Noorda was called by Novell’s employees, joined the company as president and CEO in 1983, at the behest of Jack Messman, a founder of Novell Data Systems and until recently its CEO, chairman and president. Back when Noorda joined the company, Novell had 17 employees and a network operating system to sell. Noorda grew the company to 12,000 employees and its NetWare software was credited with more than 70% market share in the 1990s. Noorda continued as the company’s chief until his retirement in 1995.

During his time with Novell, Noorda also coined the term ‘coopetition’ — alliances among technology competitors that develop common standards to grow the overall market for their products.

“During the 1980s, 3Com and Novell were in what Ray Noorda famously called ‘coopetition,’ and it was fierce,” says Bob Metcalfe, the 3Com founder who invented Ethernet and is now a venture capitalist at Polaris Ventures. “I remember 3Com being five times bigger than Novell, and yet Ray had analysts giving Novell 70% market share. Through it all, Ray was kinder, gentler, and, well, smarter than we were.”

Noorda is also credited with developing a tiered distribution channel for Novell’s products and for the implementation of certification programs for Novell users.

“Ray’s weak points were in technology and vision about technology,” says Craig Burton, a Novell founder and former executive vice president of corporate marketing at the company. “But he was smart enough to know where to go get it.”

If anything, Noorda will be remembered for his business acumen.

“He was always forcing competition,” says SCO Group’s McBride. “When people think about the saying, ‘Lead, follow or get out of the way,’ there was no question which camp he was in. He was always leading.”

Noorda also led the company into what industry observers say was its eventual decline. In 1993 Novell acquired Unix Systems Labs from AT&T and in 1994 bought WordPerfect, Borland’s Quattro Pro spreadsheet and Digital Research’s DR-DOS, in an attempt to compete with Microsoft on the desktop.

His unwavering attention to NetWare users is something Noorda will be remembered for, customers say. Noorda was instrumental in forming an online community of NetWare users to answer their support questions.

“He always took the users perspective and always had time to spend with NetWare users,” says Dave Kearns, an original NetWare sysop for Novell’s online support forum. Established in 1987 – the forums are still in use today as Novell transitions into Linux.

“At an early user group meeting, Ray sat down to talk to the users and stayed to answer questions for about two hours after he should have,” Kearns says. “He cared what the users thought.”

After retiring from Novell in 1995, Noorda founded the Canopy Group, a firm that funded start-ups in Utah, including Caldera.

Some say they will remember Noorda most for his humility, whether it was his playing with employee’s children so they could get some work done in the evening, stopping by your cubicle to see what you were working on or sitting down to talk to customers.

“Ray Noorda was one of the IT industry’s best examples of one of those people who is not always right, but seldom in doubt,” says Michael Dortch, principal analyst for the Robert Francis Group and an early Noorda acquaintance.

“I met and interviewed him several times, and always came away invigorated by his drive, energy, and wit,” says Dortch. “Once, I had lunch with him — just the two of us, no handlers — and after discussing everything of import in the industry and the world, his parting advice to me was ‘Eat your vegetables.'”

Drew Major, a co-founder of Novell and Father of NetWare, recalls Noorda and his family.

“Ray was very unassuming and had few personal needs,” says Major. “One time I was visiting Ray and [his wife] Tye at their home and they were debating whether or not they needed to buy a new mattress for downstairs. They weren’t sure whether it would be worth spending the money [and he was probably a billionaire at the time].”

Major also says that when Noorda traveled he wouldn’t buy breakfasts at the big hotels because there was always leftover food on the tables by the meeting rooms. “Why let that food go to waste? What did matter to him was using his money to create jobs and to help people.”