Days of VisiCalc

A couple days ago I read the most interesting post on Bhanwara’s blog. He is a guy from India. In the 1980’s he got a job at Software Arts. He worked on the VisiCalc project. This was programming on the early IBM PC. His initial task was to get the program to fit in 256k of memory. He was able to do this in a couple months. So he then went on to tackle some of the bugs submitted for the system.

Here is where Bhanwara got into a little trouble. Most of the guys did not like to do maintenance programming. So they took their time when fixing bugs. They might correct a bug every couple days. And they did not strive to tackle the hard problems. However Bhanwara was hungry to knock out the bugs. So he averaged around 5 bug fixes a day. At first they thought there was no way he could sustain this pace. They thought he was not actually fixing the bugs. Then the quality assurance people checked his fixes. And they were good.

It is generally not a good thing to make the other guys on your project look bad. I know this from personal experience. It does not matter what your intentions are. If you make the other people look bad, you are going to be in for a lot of pain. This was especially the case for Bhanwara. He was the new hire and the young guy on the project. The developers got together and labeled Bhanwara an idiot savant. Yes he was real productive in knocking out the bugs. But they called him dumb and a freak and said he was something akin to the Rain Man there.

Bhanwara had some good insights into both VisiCalc and the Software Arts company as well. VisiCalc was written in a dialect of Lisp which made it slower. The competition was Lotus 1-2-3 which was much faster since it was written in assembly language. Bhanwara himself wrote code in assembly language when writing new graphics code for VisiCalc. Eventually Bhanwara left the company because it was a bad scene all over. They other guys had it out for him. And the company and the product were headed for extinction.

The real gem of the post was that Dan Bricklin decided to comment on the story. Dan is the cofounder of Software Arts and the inventor of VisiCalc. Bhanwara himself was pleased that Dan posted a comment. Dan is something of a legend having created the first spreadsheet computer application. You should check out Bhanwara’s blog post. Good work man.