TIC Tech Team: Donald Wickham (Celebrating 20 years at TIC!)
Donald has served as Chief Architect at TIC Software since 2000. Prior to that, he worked for Tandem Computers, Univac and Lockheed-Martin. He has made significant contributions in technical and leadership capacities in his long technology career. Besides being an outstanding software expert and technical leader, Donald has a broad range of interests and an entrepreneurial spirit. Donald is a self- confessed, compulsive fixer: he sees a problem and finds a solution. He has started several businesses, including real estate investing, smartphone apps, life coaching, and financial advising. He has recently completed a children’s book, Ellie and the Secret of the Magic Pillars, which is available for purchase on Amazon.
Q: Thanks again for taking the time. The purpose of this interview is to document your experiences across the technology industry, NonStop, and your time at TIC Software. To start, I’d like to ask you about your personal background and perhaps transition, from there, into how you entered into the computer science field, and larger technology business.
A: Well, we're going back in antiquity, of course. But I went to a university just up the road from you in San Luis Obispo: Cal Poly. I started in architecture and was convinced that was the path I was going to pursue, but like any college freshman, I was looking for an easier way. For me, that ended up being a concentration on math. At the same time, the school started to offer classes in computer science. It wasn’t yet an available major, but we were able to take several classes. This was the late 1960s, after all.
Q: Out of curiosity, given the time period, how were you able to avoid the Vietnam War draft?
A: Well, I actually got drafted. Initially, I was given a student deferment, but as soon as I graduated, I was enrolled in the Air Force. As it turns out, during my pre-training medical exams, it was discovered that I had a handful of allergies that made it ineligible to serve. I guess there was some concern that I would sneeze while flying an aircraft at supersonic speed, and end up completely off target.
Q: Thank God for pollen allergies. What did you do after you were discharged?
A: Well, the economy was a in bit of a slump. It was 1970. I couldn’t find a job. I thought about doing some missionary work, but that didn’t pan out, so I took a job at Lockheed-Martin, where I had interned briefly while in college. I mostly served as the IT guy for the staff of engineers.
Q: Where did you end up going after Lockheed?
A: I ended up working at a division of Univac doing software development – initially worked in the scientific, not the business side. I did that for a while and then shifted over to systems management, which was a bit more business-oriented. So that's what got me started. I became an expert in one of the applications that Univac sold to its customers, and, so, without having much of a plan, or giving it much thought, I decided to become a specialist/consultant. It didn’t take me long after that to realize the challenges of being a consultant, and that I had to get back to work at a larger company.
Q: Was it from there that you connected to Tandem?
A: Yes, someone had mentioned to me that Tandem was having a job fair, and why didn't I go check it out. I went down and went through the job fair, which was actually quite interesting.
Anyway, I ended up landing the opportunity at the job fair – and I was told later by the recruiter that I was hired because I didn’t try to BS as a self-appointed expert, when I didn’t have the answer to an interview question. I had answered simply that I didn’t know, but that I was a fast learner and willing to find out quickly. There were just two of us that were hired, out of hundreds of applicants at the job fair, which was pretty cool.
Q: And so did you remain in California, where you were living at the time?
A: Yes, I was in Cupertino at Tandem headquarters. I started in the company’s support group and then I got pulled into the network management group. Within Tandem, each office had its own system, which comprised a larger network. Our job was to manage this larger network, and my responsibility, specifically, was to provide technical support. It was during this time that I actually met Phil.
Q: Are you able to talk a little about the uniqueness of the Tandem computer technology – in particular how it differentiated itself from things that came before, and other platforms that were available at the time?
A: It was a pretty innovative product, especially when it launched. Tandem’s claim to fame was that it was fault tolerant and the requester-server model was also unique to the system. In addition to the technology, Tandem itself had a very vibrant company culture. I was 33 years old when I started at the company – with a wife and 4 kids – and I felt very privileged to be in my position and at the ground floor of a very special company. I also had the benefit of learning from, and being mentored by, the original members of the Tandem management team.
Q: What was your progression like through the company and did you work for different departments or groups while you were at Tandem?
A: Yes, as time passed, the network support group, where I originated at Tandem, folded into the Corporate Information Service group. I became a department manager and was responsible for overseeing a team. In retrospect, I made the mistake of trying to manage my employees like I tried to parent, and realized quickly that my passion and talents didn’t lie in middle management. It was especially challenging trying to keep track of incredibly bright and talented engineers – all of whom, deservedly, were trying to be the smartest person in the room. I also think I made the mistake, like many managers before me, of solving problems quickly for my employees, rather than letting them go through the process, and coming to conclusions on their own.
Q: What did you end up doing post these revelations?
A: Tandem offered sabbaticals to its employees – a six week period where one could really take the time to decompress, refresh, and plot next steps. Fortunately, I was able to able to take advantage of this time away, and when I returned, I decided – along with my bosses – that I was a better individual contributor than manager to the company. I ended up joining a group that we referred to internally as “blue sky,” where I was able to brainstorm new ideas and tinker.
Q: Were there particular Tandem accounts on which you were focused or applications to which you devoted your time?
A: Well, I was on the corporate side, so my work wasn’t especially client focused. On occasion I might get involved with network support for a customer – for example, I remember being brought it to help with GTE, which was a telecom company at the time. I recall that the owner of American Satellite literally shared a backyard fence, as neighbors, with Jimmy Treybig, Tandem’s founder. On the application side, I wrote a program called Courier, which Phil bought, and distributed through TIC. I also was the lead developer for Server Object Gateway (SOG), which was a product that Tandem discontinued supporting, so TIC stepped in and picked it up. It's something we, at TIC, still sell and support.
Q: So, did you stay, then, through the Compaq acquisition?
A: Yes, I was there through the Compaq and HP acquisitions. I started to think about transitioning out of the company in 1999. I knew that I wanted to migrate out of development and work more on the client. During one of my sabbaticals, I ended up doing some work for TIC, and enjoyed the experience. TIC always stood out in my mind as one of the few, if not only, vendors that wasn’t problematic at some point. I kept in touch with Phil, and as my time was winding down at Tandem/HP, I finally decided to take him up on his offer to work at TIC. As it were, this also happened to be in the middle of the Y2K panic, so I ended up staying on a little longer than expected at HP, before joining the team at TIC full time.
Q: Was there, or is there, something unique to TIC that made it/makes it especially appealing as an employee?
A: I’ve talked to Phil about this a lot. I think one of TIC’s most unique traits is its commitment to clients and its responsiveness. Our support system is so seamless that it often feels like we are working not just on behalf of the client, but also hand-in-hand with the larger company we are servicing.
Q: What are your day-to-day responsibilities at TIC?
A: Like everyone at the company, I do a bit of everything. I really enjoy coming up with new ideas and developing applications. TeleFTP and TelePath are two examples of products I development in the past few years. I’m currently working on a new application that will help to create more operational bridges between Windows-based programs and those on the NonStop. I also did a fair amount of consulting work for Gallagher-Bassett and US Foods – both onsite and off-site.
Q: While NonStop has always pursed a customized solutions approach, it seems that many customers have turned to less expensive, packaged-based programs to tend to their IT needs. Do you see this as an ongoing challenge to NonStop?
A: Yes, it’s definitely an issue we’re are up against. We see it in different forms. Sometimes, problems arise from trying to create a path for a package to co-exist with NonStop within a financial institution, for example. Other times, like the medical industry – which saw the replacement of all NonStop-based electronic record keeping, with a standardized Oracle-based package – EPIC – we see one-size-fits-all solutions rendering NonStop extinct.
Q: The ongoing joke within NonStop is that the business is dying, but like the patient that couldn’t afford to pay, the doctor keeps giving it another 10 years. What do you think is in store for NonStop’s future?
A: It’s hard to say. I think we need to figure out if there are new NonStop customers out there. You’ve been to the user group meetings; you’re a baby compared to the general attendees. We need to focus on filling the pool for future developers, future executives, and future programmers.
Q: You bring up a good point, in terms of preparing for the future. It seems like one of the biggest challenges in NonStop is knowledge transfer. Do you find this to be the case?
A: Absolutely. I think a lot of NonStop customers and vendors alike are struggling with this issue. The older, HP onsite training model isn’t an especially popular educational format. It also seems cost prohibitive. There was a time when I taught NonStop classes – training on behalf of TIC customers. I remember training classes in Oslo and Melbourne, in particular. I think I’d like to get back to that. It was a lot of fun sharing my NonStop knowledge – and of course, Tandem old-time stories – with different people.
Q: In addition to your ongoing architecting projects at TIC, what are some of your personal goals in the near and longer term?
A: In recent years, I’ve thought about transitioning away from technology and focusing more on financial services. In fact, I went through the training and certification to become a financial advisor. Ultimately, though, I’m not sure that I’m entirely cut out for the hustle and shake down that is that business. I’d like to spend more time focused on coaching – perhaps a combination of entrepreneurship and spirituality. That being said, I continue to enjoy my work in the technology space, and as long as my mental faculties allow, I’ll look forward to remaining a part of TIC.
About Transaction Innovation Corporation (TIC) Software:
Founded in 1983, TIC Software was created to address the challenges of keeping Tandem/HP NonStop legacy systems current with ever-evolving “modernization” technology – providing consulting expertise and software solutions designed to keep mission-critical applications up-and-running. Today, we continue to meet these modernization challenges – as well as offer migration solutions to organizations looking to explore other technological options.