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Chapter 14. The Wizard and the Princess
hardware hackers had liberated the computer and made it personal, had spawned a new industry.
Not far from Talking Bear was an inconspicuous two-story
building constructed for offices and shops. Except for a small
beauty parlor, a lawyer’s office, and the tiny local office of Pacific
Gas and Electric, the entire building was occupied by the Sierra
On-Line company. Its main product was code, lines of assemblylanguage computer code written on floppy disks which, when
inserted into personal computers like the Apple, magically turned
into fantastic games. A specialty of the company was “Adventure” games, like that perfected by Don Woods at the Stanford AI
lab; this company had figured out how to add pictures to the
game. It sold tens of thousands of these disks.
As of this August day in 1982, On-Line had around seventy
employees. Things changed so quickly that on any given day it
was difficult to give an exact figure, but this was over triple the
employees it had a year ago. A year before that, there were only
the two founders, Ken and Roberta Williams, who were, respectively, twenty-five and twenty-six when they started the company
Ken Williams was sitting in his office. Outside was his red Porsche 928. It was another day to make some history and have some
fun. Ken’s office today was relatively neat; the piles of papers on
the desk were only several inches high, the sofa and chairs facing
the desk were clear of floppy disks and magazines. On the wall
was a lithograph, homage to Rodin’s Thinker: instead of that
noble human frozen in cerebration was a depiction of a robot contemplating a rainbow-colored Apple.
Ken Williams, meanwhile, was characteristically sloppy. He was a
burly, big-gutted man, with swollen features that overwhelmed his
friendly blue eyes. There was a hole in his red T-shirt and a hole in
his jeans. His shoulder-length, dark-blond hair covered his head in
an uncombed matting. He sat draped over his tall, brown executive armchair like some post-counterculture King Cole. In a
pleasant California cadence punctuated by self-effacing comments
that wistfully tripped off his tongue, he was explaining his life to a
reporter. He had covered the tremendous growth of his company,
his pleasure in spreading the gospel of computers to the world
through the software his company sold, and now was discussing
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the changes that had come when the company became big, something much more than an operation of hackers in the hills. He was
in touch with real world power now.
“The things I do on a daily basis blow my mind,” he said.
He talked about eventually going public. In 1982, a lot of people
who owned companies spawned by the revolution that the hardware hackers had started were talking about this. Computers had
become the jewel of the economy, the only area of real growth in
a recessionary period. More and more people were seeing the
magic first glimpsed in batch-processed monasteries by the handson visionaries; in the power harnessed by the PDP-1 artists; in the
accessible mastery of information provided by Ed Roberts and
proselytized by Lee Felsenstein. As a result, companies like Sierra
On-Line, started on shoestrings, were now big enough to contemplate public share offerings. Ken Williams’ talk was reminiscent of
that heard several years before, when, using the same selfconsciously nonchalant cadences, people would speak of one day
getting rolfed: in both circumstances, an act once approached with
evangelistic gravity was now regarded as somewhat of a delicious
inevitability. Going public was something you naturally considered, at least when you had gone from being an ambitious computer programmer to an owner of a $10-million-a-year computer
game company in a little over two years.
It was a crucial time for Ken Williams’ company. It was also a
crucial time for the computer games industry, a crucial time for
the computer industry as a whole, and a crucial time for America.
The elements had conspired to put Ken Williams, a self-described
former hacker, into the driver’s seat of more than a Porsche 928.
Ken Williams left his office and went to a large room two doors
down in the same building. There were two rows of cubicles in
this plaster-walled, industrially carpeted room. In each cubicle
were a small computer and a monitor. This was the programming
office, and this was where a young hacker had come to show his
game off to Ken Williams. The hacker was a cocky-looking kid; he
was short, had a smile of bravado on a pug-nosed face, and his
chest jutted out, bantam-like, under a faded blue T-shirt. He had
driven up from L.A. this morning, so high that he could have filled
up the tank with his excess adrenaline.
On the monitor was a prototype of a game called Wall Wars,
written in the past few months in intense bursts between midnight
and eight in the morning. While the hacker had worked in a small
apartment, his stereo had blared out music by Haircut 100. Wall
Wars involved a stream of colorful, brick-like pieces forming a
kinetic wall in the middle of the screen. On the top and the
bottom of the screen were equally dazzling robot-like creatures. A
player would control one of the robots, shoot through the wall by
knocking out enough bricks to form a moving gap, and destroy
the other robot, who of course would be trying to accomplish the
same task, with the player as the victim.
The hacker had promised himself that if Ken Williams bought his
game concept, he’d quit his job as a programmer for Mattel and
go independent, joining the ranks of an elite group who were
already being referred to as Software Superstars. They were the
apogee of a Third Generation of hackers who had learned their
programming artistry on small computers, who had never bootstrapped themselves up by way of a community. Who dreamed
not only of the ultimate hack, but of fame, and big royalty checks.
Ken Williams ambled into the room and leaned an elbow on the
edge of the cubicle. The young hacker, masking his nervousness,
began to explain something about the game, but Ken didn’t seem
to be listening.
“This is all so far?” Ken said.
The hacker nodded and started to explain how the game would
eventually play. Ken interrupted him.
“How long will it take you to finish?”
“I’m going to quit my job,” said the hacker. “I can do it in a
“We’ll figure two months,” said Ken. “Programmers always lie.”
He spun around and started walking away. “Drop into my office
and we’ll have you sign a contract.”
It was reminiscent of an old-time entertainment mogul giving the
nod to an auditioning starlet. It was indicative of the massive
change in the way people thought of computers, used computers,
and interacted with computers. The story of the MIT hackers and
The Wizard and the Princess
the Homebrew Club had led to this: Sierra On-Line and aspiring
The Hacker Ethic had met the marketplace.
• • • • • • • •
Ken Williams was never a pure hacker. He certainly did not take
the appellation as a badge of pride; the idea of an aristocracy of
computer excellence never occurred to him. He’d stumbled into
computing. Only incidentally did he develop a relationship with
the machine, and it was not until he thought himself its master
that he even began to appreciate what kinds of changes the computer could make in the world.
At first, the computer had him totally stymied. It was at California
Polytechnic, Pomona Campus, which Ken Williams was attending
because (a) it cost only twenty-four dollars a quarter plus books and
(b) he was only sixteen, and it was close to home. His major was
physics; he had trouble with classes. Though Ken had always slid by
academically on high aptitude, things like trigonometry and calculus weren’t as easily mastered as the subjects in high school
were. Now there was this computer course, geared to programming in FORTRAN.
Ken Williams was intimidated by computers, and that intimidation triggered an odd reaction in him. He had always resisted
preset curricula—while refusing to do his homework in junior
high, he would almost compulsively read, everything from the
Hardy Boys to what became his favorite genre, the rags-toriches stories of Harold Robbins. He identified with the
underdog. Williams’ father was a television repairman for Sears,
a rugged man who had moved to California from Cumberland
County, Kentucky; his coworkers nicknamed him “Country.”
Ken grew up in a fairly tough neighborhood in Pomona, at times
sharing a bedroom with his two brothers. He avoided fights assiduously, later cheerfully admitting he was “a coward.” “I wouldn’t
hit back” he once explained, as if the rites of dominance and
macho posturing were alien to him.
But when he read about those struggles in big, melodramatic
novels, he was enraptured. He loved the idea of some poor kid
making a bundle and getting all the girls. He was susceptible to
the hyperbolic charms of a life like that of Jonas Cord, the young,
ruthless, Howard Hughes-like figure in The Carpetbaggers who
built his inheritance into an aviation and filmmaking empire.
“That’s where I got my role model,” Williams later explained.
Maybe it was some of Jonas Cord’s kind of ambition that led Ken
Williams to become more active in high school, where he joined
the band, had a girlfriend, learned how to play the game of good
grades, and worked up schemes to make money. (He would later
boast that he won so many sales contests on his paper route that
he was on a first-name basis with the ticket-takers at Disneyland.)
Ken’s inclination toward self-deprecation and his seemingly casual
independence masked a fierce determination that showed up even
as he was backed into a corner by an ornery Control Data computer in FORTRAN class.
For weeks he struggled, lagging behind his classmates. He had set
a problem for himself: to simulate a little mouse running through
a maze, following a wall, and getting out of the maze. (It called
for a program similar to the old Mouse in the Maze program on
the TX-0, where the little mouse tries to find the martini glasses.)
With six weeks gone in the nine-week course, Ken was headed
toward an F. And there was nothing that Ken Williams, even then,
liked about failure. So he kept at it until one day he came to a
sudden realization. The computer really wasn’t so smart at all. It
was just some dumb beast, following orders, doing what you told
it to in exactly the order you determined. You could control it.
You could be God.
Power, power, power! Up here where the
world was like a toy beneath me. Where I
held the stick like my cock in my hands and
there was no one . . . to say me no!
—Jonas Cord, in
The mouse got through the maze. Ken Williams got through the
course. It was as if a light had gone on in his head, and everyone
in the class could see it from the ease with which he turned out
code. Ken Williams had something going with the Dumb Beast.
The Wizard and the Princess
A more important relationship to Ken at the time was his romance
with a girl named Roberta Heuer. He had met her in high school,
when she was dating a friend of his. Out of the blue, two months
after a double date, Ken called her, nervously reminded her who
he was and asked her out. Roberta, a demure, passive girl, later
said that she hadn’t been that impressed with Ken at first. “He
was cute, but I thought he acted kind of dumb. He was shy but [to
compensate for it] he would go overboard, acting too aggressive.
He carried cigarettes in his pocket, but didn’t smoke. He asked me
to go steady the first week [we went out].”
Roberta had been seeing a boy who lived upstate. Ken tried to
force her into choosing between them. Roberta might well have
decided against this insecure, pushy boy, but one day Ken opened
up to her. “He was talking about physics,” Roberta later recalled.
“I figured he really was a bright guy. All the boyfriends I’d had
before were rather dumb. Ken was talking about real things,
responsibility.” She stopped seeing the other boy, and almost
instantly Ken pushed for a permanent commitment. “I didn’t want
to be alone,” he later reflected.
Roberta talked to her mother about it: “He’s going to go someplace,” she said. “To really make it. Be something.”
Finally Ken told her, “We’re getting married, and that’s it.” She
didn’t fight it. She was nineteen; he was a year younger.
Within a year, Roberta was pregnant, and Ken was pulling Ds and
worrying about supporting a family. He knew from reading the
want ads that there were a lot more jobs in computer programming than there were in physics, so he figured, just like it said on
the matchbook covers, that he would find a career for himself in
electronic data processing. Roberta’s dad cosigned a student loan
for $1,500, tuition for a trade school called Control Data Institute.
The world Ken Williams was entering was nothing like the holy
preserve of the MIT AI lab. His would-be colleagues in the business computing field had little of the hands-on hunger that drove
the class of Altair graduates who hacked hardware. In the early
1970s the business computer field that Ken was entering was considered the creepiest in America. It was a joke, an occupation
where meek little moles did things—who knows what those things
were?—to the punch cards and whirring wheels of Hulking Giant
computers. As far as the public was concerned, there wasn’t even
much difference between the drones who mechanically punched
the cards and hammered at the keyboards, and the skilled technicians who programmed the machines to put the cards in their
places. They were all seen as the white-shirted, Coke-bottle-glasses
moles in the computer room. Creatures of the disembodied age.
If Ken and Roberta had been part of a wide circle of friends, they
might have had to confront that stereotype, which Ken did not
resemble in the least. But Ken and Roberta did not bother to put
down roots or establish close friendships. As a computer programmer, Ken was less a Richard Greenblatt or a Lee Felsenstein
than he was Jonas Cord. Later, he would jauntily say, “I guess
greed would summarize me better than anything. I always want
Ken Williams was far from a dazzling programmer when he finished Control Data Institute, but he was certainly prepared to do
anything required of him. And more. As much work as possible,
to help him go as high as he could. Then take on another, more
demanding job, whether or not he was qualified. Instead of
cleanly breaking with the previous employer, Ken tried to keep on
the payroll, in consultant mode.
He would claim to know computer languages and operating systems he knew nothing about, reading a book about the subject
hours before a job interview and bullshitting his way into the position. “Well, we’re looking for a programmer in BAL,” they would
tell him, referring to an esoteric computer language, and he would
laugh almost derisively.
“BAL? I’ve been programming in BAL for three years!”
Then he would immediately rush out to get hold of some books,
since he had never even heard of BAL. But by the time the job
started he would have procured documentation, uniformly buried
in dense, cheaply printed loose-leaf manuals, to fake expertise in
the “BAL environment,” or at least buy time until he could get
into the machine and divine the secrets of BAL.
No matter where he worked, in any number of nameless service
companies in the yawning valley above Los Angeles, Ken Williams
did not meet one person who deserved an iota of his respect. He
would observe people who’d been programming computers for
The Wizard and the Princess
years and he would say to himself, “Give me a book and in two
hours I’ll be doing what they’re doing.” And sure enough, stackloads of manuals and a few fourteen-hour days later, he would at
least appear to be one hotshot programmer.
He’d come into the heavily air-conditioned computer sanctums at
weird hours of the night to fix a bug, or get the computer back up
when one of his programs accidentally fed on itself and tripped
the millions of calculations up in such a fury of misunderstanding
that nothing the regular crew could think of could revive the
machine. But Ken, confident that the stupidity of his colleagues
was dwarfed only by the astounding compliance of the Dumb
Beast whom he could feed and befriend with his programming
skills, would work three days straight, forgetting to even stop for
a meal, until the Dumb Beast was back on the job. Ken Williams,
hero of the day, tamer of the Dumb Beast, would go home, sleep
for a day and a half, then return to work, ready for another marathon. Employers noticed, and rewarded him.
Ken was rising at quantum speed—Roberta figured they moved to
various locations in the L.A. area about twelve times in that go-go
decade, always making sure that they turned a profit on the house.
They had no time for making friends. They felt like loners and
misfits, usually the only white-collar family in a blue-collar neighborhood. The consolation was money. “Wouldn’t it be nice to
make another two hundred dollars a week?” Roberta would ask, and
Ken would get a new job or take on more consulting work . . . but
even before Ken had settled into this new job, he and Roberta
would be sitting in the tiny living room of whatever house they
happened to be living in, and saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice to earn
two hundred dollars more?” The pressure never stopped, especially since Ken Williams had idle dreams of fantastic sums of
money, money enough to goof off with for the rest of his life—not
only all the cash that he and Roberta could spend, but all that his
kids could spend, too (Roberta was pregnant by then with the
second Williams son, Chris). Wouldn’t it be nice, he thought, to
retire at thirty?
By then something else was changing: his relationship with the
Dumb Beast. When Ken had time, he would often pull out some
of those dense, cheaply printed looseleaf manuals, trying to figure
out what made the big Burroughs or IBM or Control Data
machine really tick. As he gained proficiency in his profession, he
began to respect it more; see how it could approach art. There
were layers of expertise that were way beyond what Williams had
previously come to assume. A programming pantheon did exist,
almost like some sort of old-time philosophical brotherhood.
Ken had gotten a taste of this more exotic realm when he fasttalked his way into a job as systems programmer for Bekins
Moving and Storage. Bekins was switching then from a Burroughs computer to a bigger and slightly more interactive IBM
machine. Ken baldly fabricated a career history of IBM wizardry
for himself, and landed the job.
At Bekins, Ken Williams became hooked on pure programming.
His task was installing a heavy-duty telecommunications system
on the IBM that would allow one computer to support eight or
nine hundred users in the field across the country, and the problems and complications were beyond anything he’d confronted so
far. He would experiment with three or four languages that had
nothing to do with his job, fascinated with the techniques and
mind-frames required with each language. There was a whole
world inside this computer . . . a way of thinking. And maybe for
the first time Ken Williams was being drawn to the process of
computing more than to the goal of completing a task. In other
As a consequence of his sustained interest, Ken remained at Bekins
longer than at most of his other employers: a year and a half. It
was time well spent, since his next job presented him with an even
greater challenge, as well as contacts and ideas which would soon
enable him to act out his wildest fantasies.
• • • • • • • •
The company was called Informatics. It was one of a number of
firms that sprang up in the mid-sixties to take advantage of a gap
in the mainframe computer software field. More and more big
companies and government agencies were getting computers, and
almost none of the software that the behemoth computer companies supplied could artfully execute the tasks the computers were
The Wizard and the Princess
supposed to perform. So each company had to hire its own programming staff, or rely on highly paid consultants who invariably
would disappear just when the system crashed and valuable data
came out looking like Russian. A new team of programmers or
consultants would then come out to untangle the mess, and the
process would repeat itself: starting from scratch, the new team
would have to reinvent the wheel.
Informatics and companies like it were set up to sell software that
made the Hulking Giants a little more comprehensible. The idea
was to invent the wheel once and for all, slam a patent on it, and
sell it like crazy. Their programmers would toil away at the
assembly level and finally come up with a system that would allow
low-level programmers, or even in some cases nonprogrammers,
to perform simple computer tasks. After all, these commercial systems all did pretty much the same thing—you had something
coming in from a clerk or a branch office on paper which got
keypunched and entered into a system which modified some preexisting file. Informatics came up with a pre-programmed system
called Mark 4. Sometime in the seventies it became the largest
selling mainframe computer software product of all time,
approaching at one point $100 million in yearly revenue.
In the late seventies, one of the managers in charge of Informatics’ new products was Dick Sunderland, a former FORTRAN
programmer who was climbing the corporate ladder after reluctantly foregoing a late-in-life stab at law school. In place of the
law, Sunderland had determined to pursue a romance with a
bright and holy concept of management. To be a leader of men, a
deft builder of competent, well-meshed employee teams, a persuasive promoter, and a constructive manipulator . . . this was what
Dick Sunderland aspired toward.
A small, chalk-complexioned man with hooded eyes and a contemplative drawl, Sunderland considered himself a natural manager. He had always been interested in the advertising, selling,
promoting of things. Psychology fascinated him. And he was especially enamored of the idea of choosing the right people to work
together so that their joint output dwarfed the measly sum of their
Dick was trying to do that at Informatics with his new product
team. He already had one genuine wizard on the staff, a lean,
quiet man in his forties named Jay Sullivan. Jay was a former jazz
pianist who had come to Informatics from a more mundane job in
his native Chicago. He later explained why: “Systems software [at
Informatics] was much more interesting. You didn’t have to worry
about mundane things like applications or payrolls. It was much
more real programming to me; you dealt more in the essence of
what programming was about. The actual techniques of programming are more important than the specifics of the job at a specific
time.” In other words, he could hack there.
In his programming, Sullivan worked like a vacationer who,
having planned his trip carefully, educating himself on the subtle
characteristics of the local scenery, followed the itinerary with
enhanced consciousness. Yet he still retained the curiosity to stray
from the plan if circumstances seemed to call for it, and derived
pleasure from the careful exploration that such a fork in his path
would involve, not to mention the sense of accomplishment when
the detour proved successful.
As with many hackers, Sullivan’s immersion in programming had
taken its social toll. Sullivan later explained that with computers
“you can create your own universe, and you can do whatever you
want within that. You don’t have to deal with people.” So while
he was a master in his work, Sullivan had the infuriating kind of
programmer personality that led him to get on splendidly with
computers but not pay much attention to the niceties of human
interaction. He would casually insult Dick, and nonchalantly go
about his business, doing brilliant things with the operating
system, but often would see his innovations die because he was not
adept at politicking, a process necessary at the large company. Dick
Sunderland had forced himself to be patient with Sullivan, and
eventually they had arrived at a seller-inventor relationship which
produced two lucrative improvements to the Mark 4 line.
Dick was looking for more master programmers, calling recruiters
and making it quite clear that he was looking for cream-of-thecrop people, nothing less. One recruiter mentioned Ken Williams
to him. “This kid’s a genius type,” the recruiter said.
Sunderland called in Ken for an interview and made sure that his
true genius, Jay Sullivan, would be there to test the mettle of this