Borland's New Guy

It remains to be seen what the new man at the helm of Borland Software will do for the Valley's venerable toolmaker, but one thing is certain: Tod Nielsen is a good story teller. And that might be just what Borland needs.

To be fair, you can say a bunch of other stuff about, him, too--that he is considered the driving force behind the success of Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN), for instance, or that he held executive positions at Oracle and BEA. (He joined BEA after its acquisition of Crossgain; he was the CEO.) But as he took the stage at Borland's annual developer conference, wrapping up today in San Francisco, to deliver a short, funny, focused keynote on his first day on the job, it was Nielsen's ability to tell his new company's story that struck me as potentially his greatest asset.

Many industry watchers have faulted Borland over the years, not for its products, which everybody loves, or for failing to support its incredibly loyal customer base, but for its apparently genetic inability to get the freakin' word out. A few years ago, a Borland exec told me with some pride that his company has always been a word-of-mouth operation. ''We can never compete against the guys who can spend billions in a week,'' he said. ''We’d rather put that money behind our research and our customers, and give it to our shareholders. We’re being strategic in that area.''

Word of mouth is good--great, even; it's often the very best proof of the value of the products and services a company offers. But it's just not enough in a market that is so damned Darwinian. To wit: Borland lost $17.5 million on sales of $66.6 million in the second quarter. The third-quarter report was a little better: the loss was $4.8 million on sales of $67.9 million.

Borland is a survivor. It survived the tech downturn intact, which was basically a miracle. Dale Fuller, Nielsen's predecessor, was actually hired to break up the company and sell off the pieces. It survived one of the dumbest name changes in the industry's history (remember Inprise?). And now it has to survive the tectonic shifts in the developer tools market wrought by the Eclipse juggernaut.

And a lot of people hope it will. I don't know why that is, exactly. Sure, the JBuilder fans and the cult of Delphi are going to be pulling for Borland, but there's just something about this company that makes you want to root for it. Maybe it has something to do with its origins in the Silicon Valley gold-rush days, or the fact that Borland invented the IDE. Maybe it's because its products are platform-neutral. Fuller once called Borland ''the Switzerland of software,'' but not because the company's platform neutrality. He drew a comparison, instead, with the banking industry. ''Why is Switzerland the leader in banking?'' he said. ''They have the cutting edge technology, and they have the absolute trust of their customers. And they never get forced into picking sides.''

Nielsen has noticed this phenomenon, too. ''Everybody in the industry wants Borland to win,'' he told his audience. Nielsen also told what is destined to be one of my favorite developer-vs.-management stories. I won't do it justice here, so I refer readers to the conference Webcast. I'll just say that it involved some interesting product code names (''Beavis'' and ''Butthead'') and an invitation for someone to bite something. He cited it as ''indisputable proof that developers rule the world,'' and I can't argue with that.

I can convey a couple of the new chief's bon mots :

''The software-empowered economy is now a reality.''

''Software development has become the core ingredient for driving economic growth.''

''Our goal is to empower you to be on-budget, on-time, every time.''

And his golf analogy: ''Our goal is not for you to get the occasional par, but to make sure that every time you step into the T-box, you par or birdie every hole... We want to make you scratch developers.''

The Self-Indulgent Non Sequitur: So I gotta ask: What's with David Intersimone's beard? When he appeared onstage to launch the conference, I couldn't tell whether I was looking at David I, Borland's vaunted technology evangelist and most senior employee, or the headmaster at Hogwarts. That thing is heading into ZZ Top territory. Some Borland folks told me that David lets his beard grow every year for Christmas, implying that he plays Santa. Is this true? For what occasion does he don the red long johns? I'm just asking, one round, hairy guy to another. (Check out Mr. I's blog here .)


About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at [email protected].