A Problem That Changed The World: Dan Bricklin at TEDxBeaconStreet (Transcript)

How many of you have used an electronic spreadsheet, like Microsoft Excel? Very good. Now, how many of you have run a business with a spreadsheet by hand, like my dad did for his small printing business in Philadelphia? A lot less.

Well, that’s the way it was done for hundreds of years. In early 1978, I started working on an idea that eventually became VisiCalc. And the next year it shipped, running on something new called an Apple II personal computer. You could tell that things had really changed when, six years later, the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial that assumed you knew what VisiCalc was and maybe even were using it.

Steve Jobs back in 1990 said that “Spreadsheets propelled the industry forward. VisiCalc propelled the success of Apple more than any other single event.” On a more personal note, Steve said, “If VisiCalc had been written for some other computer, you’d be interviewing somebody else right now.” So, VisiCalc was instrumental in getting personal computers on business desks.

How did it come about? What was it? What did I go through to make it be what it was? Well, I first learned to program back in 1966, when I was 15 — just a couple months after this photo was taken. Few high schoolers had access to computers in those days.

But through luck and an awful lot of perseverance, I was able to get computer time around the city. After sleeping in the mud at Woodstock, I went off to MIT to go to college, where to make money, I worked on the Multics Project. Multics was a trailblazing interactive time-sharing system. Have you heard of the Linux and Unix operating systems? They came from Multics. I worked on the Multics versions of what are known as interpreted computer languages, that are used by people in noncomputer fields to do their calculations while seated at a computer terminal.

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After I graduated from MIT, I went to work for Digital Equipment Corporation. At DEC, I worked on software for the new area of computerized typesetting. I helped newspapers replace their reporters’ typewriters with computer terminals. I’d write software and then I’d go out in the field to places like the Kansas City Star, where I would train users and get feedback. This was real-world experience that is quite different than what I saw in the lab at MIT.

After that, I was project leader of the software for DEC’s first word processor, again a new field Like with typesetting, the important thing was crafting a user interface that was both natural and efficient for noncomputer people to use. After I was at DEC, I went to work for a small company that made microprocessor-based electronic cash registers for the fast-food industry. But I had always wanted to start a company with my friend Bob Frankston that I met on the Multics project at MIT. So I decided to go back to school to learn as much as I could about business.

And in the fall of 1977, I entered the MBA program at Harvard Business School. I was one of the few percentage of students who had a background in computer programming. There’s a picture of me from the yearbook sitting in the front row. Now, at Harvard, we learned by the case method. We’d do about three cases a day.

Cases consist of up to a few dozen pages describing a particular business situation. They often have exhibits, and exhibits often have words and numbers laid out in ways that make sense for the particular situation. They’re usually all somewhat different. Here’s my homework. Again, numbers, words, laid out in ways that made sense.

Lots of calculations — we got really close to our calculators. In fact, here’s my calculator. For Halloween, I went dressed up as a calculator. At the beginning of each class, the professor would call on somebody to present the case. What they would do is they would explain what was going on and then dictate information that the professor would transcribe onto the many motorized blackboards in the front of the class, and then we’d have a discussion.

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One of the really frustrating things is when you’ve done all your homework, you come in the next day only to find out that you made an error and all of the other numbers you did were wrong. And you couldn’t participate as well. And we were marked by class participation. So, sitting there with 87 other people in the class, I got to daydream a lot. Most programmers in those days worked on mainframes, building things like inventory systems, payroll systems and bill-paying systems.

But I had worked on interactive word processing and on-demand personal computation. Instead of thinking about paper printouts and punch cards, I imagined a magic blackboard that if you erased one number and wrote a new thing in, all of the other numbers would automatically change, like word processing with numbers. I imagined that my calculator had mouse hardware on the bottom of it and a head-up display, like in a fighter plane. And I could type some numbers in, and circle it, and press the sum button. And right in the middle of a negotiation I’d be able to get the answer.

Now I just had to take my fantasy and turn it into reality. My father taught me about prototyping. He showed me mock-ups that he’d make to figure out the placement on the page for the things for brochures that he was printing. And he’d use it to get feedback from customers and OKs before he sent the job off to the presses. The act of making a simple, working version of what you’re trying to build forces you to uncover key problems.

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