Here’s some serious advice: stay alert because life is going to bring you irresistible, life-changing adventures, sometimes out of nowhere. Unexpected things happen, and you never know when something might wind up being the one indispensable key to your future.
My brother was 21 years older than me, so we weren’t what you’d call close. Yet he showed up at my graduation a long time ago, completely surprising me. He gave me a box: inside was a desktop application development system called CA-Clipper. Which made about as much sense to me then as it does to you now: little to none, right?
As incredible as it is, that little box unlocked the adventure that led me to immense success with my company, SoftwareKey, over the next three decades.
"Go make some money with this"
About a year after high school in 1988, I was living in Cleveland, Ohio. My brother Joe, who was living in Arizona at the time, paid me a surprise visit for one of my graduations – and gave me a gift. He handed me the box containing CA-Clipper.
I knew very little about computer programming, but I was familiar with BASIC (or “Beginners’ All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code), which relied on numbered lines to write code. Clipper, on the other hand, didn’t use numbered lines at all. Instead, Clipper was a procedural programming language. All that being said… I had no idea what to do with Clipper. Using the gift from my brother, I ended up teaching myself how to use this different language. Once I mastered it, a new world opened up for me.
Shadowing at the radio station
At the time, I loved to hang around my local radio station. I thought the whole broadcasting industry was fascinating, and I quickly struck up a friendship with one of the DJs working at the station. Sometimes, when he was working by himself at night, I would hang out at the station and watch him work.
It was through this observation that I realized being a radio DJ was not a high-tech job. The system many stations used was based on an index card filing system. Songs were written on index cards and placed in categories from which the DJ would pull the top card to see which song to play next. After the song played, the pulled index card was placed at the back of the category pile.
Not only was this system archaic, but it was also prone to both user error and user interference. There was nothing to stop the DJs from deciding they didn’t like the next song and search for another one they preferred, instead! I wanted to use my newfound knowledge in Clipper to remove the friction from the whole process.
There was already another system on the market to randomize music, but it was pricey, and many local radio stations were reluctant to pay the cost. So, I teamed up with a friend of mine to create a program called Auto-Jock. Auto-Jock would take the radio station’s music database and randomize the songs according to a schedule set by the program director. The program would then print out a playlist for the DJ to follow. No more index cards… and no more picky DJs!
Innovating an innovation
Unsurprisingly, the radio station loved our innovation. Other stations began to show interest, and before I realized it, Auto-Jock had become a business. Once interest started to grow for our software, I knew that we had to find a way to protect it. Frequently, radio stations are owned by larger parent companies that own multiple stations. Since we had priced Auto-Jock so competitively to the pre-existing software on the market, it would make sense for these parent companies to purchase a copy of our software for one station and then make copies for their other stations as well.
In my efforts to protect Auto-Jock from this kind of use, I did some research on Compuserve (which was a sort of precursor to the modern internet). By 1989, I had developed a rudimentary system for product activation. My system contained an algorithm to fingerprint the computer on which software was installed and to use this fingerprint to generate a unique number on the computer’s hardware. Once that was established, I developed another algorithm that would enable me to verify this generated number over the phone to activate the product.
Protection PLUS is born
As time went on, we became fairly well-known in the broadcasting industry due to our product, and more importantly, our product’s price point. Once other software developers began to see the product activation we had built into Auto-Jock, we received calls asking for help doing the same for their software applications. After the third request for assistance in product activation, I had the idea of creating a product out of this software.
Thus, SoftwareKey.com’s core product, Protection PLUS, was born. I developed Protection PLUS with the intent of being able to provide a toolkit that would allow other software publishers to protect their software.
Taking a page from Joe's book
My brother Joe died last year. Up until his final moments, he was planning adventures and experiences he was going to have. When I would try to bring him back to reality, his response was always the same: “Why not?”
That endless well of inspiration is Joe’s legacy to me, certainly, but I like to think to the larger world as well. What a rich and generous gift was contained in that little CA-Clipper box!
Joe was insistent on seeing the world as he wanted to see it. That was his way of bringing those things he wanted into reality. Who was I to tell him what was possible? Those of us who enjoy good health have no excuse: it is our challenge (and our privilege) to pursue those things that inspire us the most.