INTERVIEW: Doug Walker, WRQ's chief bicyling commuter

Past is prologue: expand data access

WHAT'S MORE

  • Age: 50


  • Family: Wife, Maggie; daughter Kina, 13


  • Pets: A few snakes that Kina looks after


  • Last book read: The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, HIdden Dimensions and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory by Brian Greene


  • Last movie seen: 'O Brother, Where Art Thou'


  • Worst job: Clearing land as a farm worker

  • Doug Walker

    Doug Walker is the Walker in Walker, Richer and Quinn Inc. of Seattle, now known as WRQ. As a co-founder and now chairman and chief executive officer, Walker has headed the privately held software company for 20 years.

    WRQ claims more than 8 million users worldwide of its tools and services, which focus on integrating legacy enterprise information for Web access.

    Walker, a magna cum laude graduate in mathematics of Vanderbilt University, is a director of the Nature Conservancy and the Wilderness Society. He commutes about 4,000 miles per year by bicycle and encourages his 600-plus employees to find alternative commuting methods.

    GCN chief technology editor Susan M. Menke interviewed Walker by telephone.


    GCN: Has your alternative commuting program helped your company retain its information technology work force?

    WALKER: Yes. We've got a lot of people here who are enthusiastic about the outdoors in general. I even try to use a bike for business appointments in town.

    I guess I qualify as a biking nut, but I'm a convert of the employees. I wasn't a biker before. They got me to try out the commuting, and I got hooked.

    GCN: Do you think about programming while you're pedaling?

    WALKER: Biking is easier and less stressful than driving, so I find in general it's easier to think. But I like to think a little about where I'm going so I don't get killed.

    GCN: Did you co-found Walker, Richer & Quinn as a programmer?

    WALKER: I do come from a technical background; you labeled me correctly. I was a mathematician and moved into the computer area.

    GCN: Why has your company never gone public?

    WALKER: First and foremost, the company never took outside investment, so it didn't have the strong compulsion to let the outside investors realize their profit by taking the company public. We haven't felt the necessity to do it, and in today's environment we're kind of happy we're not public.

    GCN: You got started as a mainframe-oriented company and now seem like a Web-oriented company.

    WALKER: The other founders, like myself, had a lot of prior experience with computers and saw how we could leverage existing knowledge with new technology.

    The IBM PC was launched the same year as WRQ. They used to use the term microcomputer'ancient history'but we saw that the best thing we could do with this emerging technology was to integrate micros with existing IT environments. We weren't just thinking mainframe software.

    Today, our interpretation is that we're just doing the same thing. What the Web has meant for IT and for the world in general is greater and greater connectivity. In the 1970s when we dealt with IT managers, they communicated with only a limited number of people. They gave printouts to users. Some minority of users might have had online terminals.

    Today, not only is everybody using corporate information assets, but their customers and trading partners are, too'via the Web.

    What we're trying to do is help IT managers give a vastly larger set of users access to data. We're doing the same thing we did 20 years ago.

    GCN: How is the government using your software?

    WALKER: In my experience, government tends to layer in a great deal of complexity. It doesn't throw things away. Our government accounts have tremendous problems with integration. They have to figure out how to pull together disparate systems, and they tend to have more disparate systems than the average business does.

    At the same time, government faces demands from on high to provide Web interfaces. That essentially means a command imperative to integrate their systems and provide online interaction for the public and for government users.

    The government also has high security requirements so that people can't go online and look up everything they're not supposed to know about others. So the main thing we've been able to help with is to integrate government assets better to serve their expanded set of customers.

    One agency I can mention is the Geological Survey. USGS uses a fairly technical Unix product of ours called Reflection Suite for X. It has helped out on several fronts to integrate different systems and to simplify and lower costs.

    GCN: How did you happen to make a product called NetMotion? Does it put a mobile front end on back-end information?

    WALKER: It's different from that. Working with various businesses, we became expert with the Internet's TCP/IP protocol. We especially developed remote and wireless expertise. So NetMotion is an outgrowth of our networking experience. It deals with particular problems in wireless data communications.

    We attacked three problems: the persistence of wireless connections, the security aspects and the management of wireless devices.

    NetMotion is not front-end software; it's really plumbing. An example would be losing your connection when using a cell phone. We all have. It tends to be a little more disastrous with wireless data.

    NetMotion logically keeps the connection even if the physical connection is broken. You could use a laptop or personal digital assistant in a building with a wireless LAN and walk outside, switch cards to a wide-area wireless network and still keep running the same wireless applications.

    GCN: Does this work any better than Bluetooth?

    WALKER: Well, it's different. We're not attempting to make the physical connection like Bluetooth short-range radio does. It's not a competing thing; it's a complementary thing.

    The problem in the wireless arena is having some sort of logical way to maintain connections when there are interruptions. With wireless, there will always be interruptions. In a hospital, you walk in front of the X-ray room where there's lead, and you lose your connection.

    The other problem with wireless is that you roam around and change networks, from wide-area to local. The thing that's supposed to make cellular work is that, as you roam around, you go to different cells. The problem's the same, but slightly worse, with data.

    GCN: What do you think of Oracle Corp. chairman Larry Ellison's comment that government should toss middleware [GCN, July 16, Page 7]?

    WALKER: I've heard this is something he's talked about off and on quite a bit, and also something that Oracle people in general say'the way to make the world work is to do everything with Oracle software.

    The world would be a lot simpler place if it were a lot simpler place.

    GCN: What's your own view of where middleware is headed?

    WALKER: My own view is that the world is a pretty complicated place. The tendency of technology to evolve means a tendency for complexity to increase. There tends to be greater variety of best solutions.

    The only way to work successfully is to have a greater and greater variety of heterogeneous developments. Integration is one of the central problems of how we make technology work as we go forward.

    We're in a world where we increasingly see computer technology integrated with human activity. Some wag said humans are losing their short-term memory because they have to remember all their phone numbers.

    What we're looking at is a world where our activities are becoming sort of a combination of carbon and silicon.

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