It’s not very often that an original employee sticks around for 30 years, however, Mary Szekely (pronounce C-K per the Hungarian origins of the name) is that very person at Progress Software. A software engineer and fellow at the company, Mary is one of the initial four employees at Progress and one of the first fearless females to enter the male-dominated field of software development. I recently had an opportunity to talk one-on-one with Mary and below is a summary of our conversation.
Q: What was it like when you first started at Progress?
Mary: When we started out there were three engineers and one person who focused on the business side of things. That person was Joe Alsop who then became CEO. The other two engineers, besides me, were Clyde Kessel and Chip Ziering. Clyde and Chip concerned themselves with the database part of the product and I took care of the compiler and run-time part of the product and... it was just a lot of fun. We were in a dentist's office in Billerica, MA. The roof leaked. We had what was then a novelty - a wireless phone. I would answer the phone, "Data Language Corporation, may I direct your call?” and pass the call to whoever was ready to act the part of President. I had four young children at home so it was a little scary to work at a place where I was not sure of any future or salary, but it was exciting beyond any belief.
Q. What did it mean to be a woman in the software industry 30 years ago?
Mary: There were few women. Actually, when I went to school, which was long before that, in the 50s and early 60s, I was the only woman in many of my college classes. I was taking engineering, math and computing classes. Math was my passion and computers were a way to solve intractable math problems, and that’s what got me excited about computers.
Q. What has kept you at Progress for so long?
Mary: The variety in the job. I'm still working on the compiler, and the language, and the runtime, just like I was back then, but it's all different now. Back then, you were working on a machine that had 256K of memory, floppy disks and no hard drive. To back up the product, we had to insert the floppy in the drive to copy the code then switch floppies to back it up because 256K was too little capacity to copy the whole thing. We took turns every night to go through the backup process. Nothing like today when some automatic system backs our data up somewhere in the cloud.
Q. What was your goal as a startup company?
Mary: Clyde and Chip were the best of breed of the engineers from MIT. We were experts on databases and compilers and we knew exactly what we wanted to do, which was to build a serious database product on what was then called “micro-computers” (now known as personal computers.) That’s how Chip, Clyde and Joe decided to formally found the company as Data Language Corporation on December 29, 1981. After 18 months, we had a product, RDL [what does it stand for?], now known as OpenEdge.
Q. What was your first big commercial success?
Mary: We sold a source license to ADR (Applied Data Research) in 1984 for $2M. They had a mainframe database system that was very popular at the time and they needed a personal computer version of it. They didn’t even want to think about building it themselves, so they came to us after seeing us at a Comdex show. They rebranded it as “PC Ideal” but their product didn’t sell very well because they didn’t understand the PC market. Ours on the other hand was doing great and one year later, we sold a second license to NCR for another $2M. Receiving that first $2M check from ADR is my most memorable moment at Progress. I will never forget that. That was like, you hit it. In fact, you hit it big.
Q. What differentiated Progress from its competitors back then?
Mary: Our goal was to do a very robust system that you could run a business with but at the same time, we wanted it to be easy to use. Everybody in the world at that time was scrambling around trying to get database software out for the banks and other businesses to use on their mainframes. By contrast, we wanted to supply it on this new platform, the PC, and we wanted it to be simple and easy, which is something no other company - I can say that, no other company struggled as hard as we did to achieve. That's always been our struggle and it continues to be today. We wanted our customers to not only have their problem solved, but to have it done as simply as humanly possible.
Q: How have the key technology breakthroughs from the past 30 years impacted you as a developer?
Mary: The key event that started the company was the very existence of personal computers with their 256K memory and little floppy disk that let us save our software. We then had our first hard drives, which allowed us to write more code. In the mid-80s, we got homogeneous networking that allowed systems to talk to each other within a vendor’s network. This was our first client/server networked configuration. But it’s when TCP/IP appeared that we really took off. We went through a whole period in the 80s where we were the only company that had a database product that worked across heterogeneous networks. Our database became one of the safest with the highest availability on the market. At that time, all I worked on was networking. I had cables all over my office. Then machines kept getting smaller, but much faster, with dramatically more memory and disk space. This allowed databases to grow much larger, which eventually led to 64-bit addressing. In early 2000, we went to a three-tiered architecture with a server, a thick application server client and a thin client. A lot of dramatic changes that required re-architecting again and again.
Q. How have you been able to keep up with all these changes?
Mary: We have gradually brought people on board who have been mentored until they understand the architecture well while becoming an expert at a particular section of the code. Mentoring is about keeping our code alive. We control the code through the expertise that is progressively developed and maintained over the years. Therefore when a paradigm shift occurs, like now with cloud computing, we can get our millions of lines of code to react faster. I have mentored very many engineers over the years, concentrating on keeping the code alive and capable of servicing our customers in the best possible way. It's fun to work with a lot of smart people.
Q. How do you think Progress has grown to what it is today?
Mary: Every single person who works here works really hard and they do their job well. I'm talking about people in your department as well as mine. It's the only way you stay alive for 30 years. Every single person has to do the best that they can, every day, without supervision, just because out of their heart they want to do the best job that they know how to. And to me that's what defines a Progress employee. Every time I get to talk to them I commend them for being very faithful to our work ethic. I've never found an engineer at Progress that just doesn’t care.
Q. What is your current role?
Mary: I'm working on the cloud computing multi-tenancy. We're modifying OpenEdge so that one database can serve many customers while keeping the data protected from each other. I work on the client side, like I always have.
Q. Where would you like to see Progress 30 years from now?
Mary: I would like to continue to see satisfied customers who become stunningly successful thanks to us; and happy employees. If we really work at trying to make these two things happen, we will be successful and we will last another 30 years and more.
Happy New Year from Progress Software!
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