Adventures in Alpha Land

Episode 1: Adam Green and the Standard Demo Plan

Dan Bricklin interviews Adam Green on his software background, and his goal to help Alpha create a standard series of demo apps.
Show Notes

00:00 Dan: Introduces Adam Green, an independent consultant to Alpha Software.

00:27 Adam: My overview of 35 years in the software industry.

01:16 Dan: A lot of people seem to know about you from your days of teaching dBase.

01:31 Adam: In the dBase days I travelled and taught seminars, and I did a lot of work with the Third Party market.

02:13 Dan: Were the people you taught in those days serious programmers, or were they self-taught?

02:25 Adam: They started out mostly self-taught, but then evolved into corporate programmers over time.

03:44 Dan: And then you co-founded

03:54 Adam: Yes, I helped a software publisher create a network of sites that became

04:48 Dan: These sites were all related to the web?

04:52 Adam: We wanted to emulate ZDNet and CNet.

05:06 Dan: You convinced me to first get onto the web.

05:16 Adam: Around that time I ran around screaming, "The Internet!".

05:36 Dan: You also did a Web 2.0 startup, what happened with that?

05:54 Adam: We built RSS widgets, but it didn't gain much traction.

06:49 Dan: Between these experiences you got used to running back ends.

06:58 Adam: Yes, basically I approach all applications as databases.

07:55 Dan: Now you've ended up in the Twitter world.

08:09 Adam: I decided to get back to programming, and since 2009 I've been coding using LAMP tools with the Twitter API.

08:51 Dan: Do you think of yourself as a coder or an educator?

09:09 Adam: I'm a synthesist. I combine a lot of ideas and productize them.

10:45 Dan: How did you end up as a consultant to Alpha Software?

10:49 Adam: I've known the founders of Alpha for years, and in early June of this year it looked like they could use help with their Twitter account.

11:57 Dan: Tell me more about the goals of this podcast series.

12:35 Adam: My initial goal was to create a set of standard demos for Alpha, and these podcasts will help provide context for this work as the demos are developed.

14:55 Dan: Do you think you are enough of an Alpha expert to pull this off?

15:06 Adam: I'm not an Alpha Expert. The audience will get to follow along as I learn Alpha Anywhere.

15:58 Dan: The podcasts will be Adam in Alpha Land. Do you want to invite anyone else.

16:28 Adam: As we move along through the series, I would like to bring in other experienced Alpha developers.


0:00 Dan: Welcome to the first in a series of podcasts on "Alpha Anywhere." I'm Dan Bricklin, CTO of Alpha Software. Today, I'll be interviewing Adam Green, an independent consultant who's working with Alpha on various projects. We thought we'd use this first podcast to let Adam introduce himself to the Alpha community.

0:22 Why don't we start, Adam, with a quick overview of your involvement with the software world?

0:27 Adam: It'll have to be an abbreviated summary, since I've been working with software for almost 35 years. Over that time, I've done just about anything you can think of with software, including writing it, publishing, running retail, mail order, wholesale businesses. I've written and published books on software. I've taught seminars. I even studied software history in graduate school.

0:54 I've been both CTO and CEO of various software companies. My two claims to fame are writing the first book on the dBase language in the early '80s and co-founding Andover.Net in the dot-com era. Among other things, Andover acquired the Slashdot site and took it public.

1:18 Dan: I know a lot of people I run into have heard of you from those old dBase days. They say, "Adam Green. Is that the Adam Green from the days of dBase?" You used to do a lot of teaching and stuff back then. Is that...

1:32 Adam: I played two roles. I taught seminars, traveled around the country, traveled in Europe, taught tens of thousands of people in classes. I also did a lot of work with the third-party market. People who built add-ons for dBase. For people who know the dBase market, as it became more contentious with Ashton-Tate, I was the leader of the loyal opposition.

1:59 I helped the third-party find a home when Ashton-Tate became a little aggressive and helped move people over to what we ended up calling the xBase standard. I played a lot of roles.

2:13 Dan: Those people, were they heavy-duty programmers, or were they businesspeople who happened to be doing programming, developing apps for themselves or something?

2:24 Adam: On the user side it started out as, in the early '80s, as people who were self-taught. People, for example, who needed a billing system. A doctor or a lawyer. They would teach themselves dBase, come to one of my classes, read a book, and build their own apps. As PCs became more mainstream and started penetrating corporations, the seminars I taught took on a more corporate model.

2:59 We mostly had people who were sent to the classes to learn. A company would decide to standardize on dBase and then send their developers to one of my classes. We used to say that a week with Adam Green is like a month with dBase. I'm pretty high bandwidth. I put in a lot.

3:20 Dan: You've worked with all sorts of different types that you've taught, on the spectrum of their programming ability and stuff.

3:28 Adam: I've worked with everything from self-taught, private individuals all the way to classes for the Department of Defense, the IRS. I even taught for the Canadian Department of Defense.

3:43 Dan: You said you co-founded Andover.Net. What type of stuff did you work on? You actually were programming back then. Is that it?

3:54 Adam: What's interesting is I started on the web in '95 and became obsessed with it and went to work with this company that became Andover.Net. At that time, they were a software publisher. That was in the days when people sold software. They would buy products or license them and then put them into boxes, sell them to retail stores.

4:19 I was hired, at first, just to build websites that they could use to sell their software, but I applied a lot of my dBase programming skills and built tools. Actually, I built the CMS, the Content Management System, in dBase. Technically, it was in FoxPro, a variant of dBase. I built the whole architecture of what became a network of sites that then became Andover.Net.

4:48 Dan: They were connected to the web, to the Internet?

4:54 Adam: They were related to the Internet. The focus of the site was like ZDNet, CNET, which is where we got the idea for the name. It was developer-related sites.

5:07 Dan: You're the one who convinced me to first get onto the web for some stuff, way back when, when I ran into you at one point, which I thank you for.

5:17 Adam: That's very generous. Basically, in the spring of '95, I was lucky enough to be unemployed. It's the best thing that ever happened to me. I was looking around for things to do. I found the web, and I just started running around, screaming, "The Internet. The Internet. You have to get on the Internet."

5:36 Dan: You sure did. [laughs] I heard it. Then, at some point, you also did some work in some more web 2.0-ish type stuff, on your own. What type of technologies did you use there, too?

5:54 Adam: That was built on JavaScript, as the primary. Basically, the company was called Grazr, and it was part of the web 2.0 widget model, where people at that point thought widgets would take over the web, and you'd have these little pieces of code running on people's web pages. We built a set of tools that were widgets for RSS feeds.

6:22 It wasn't that successful. We didn't gain a lot of traction, but I did learn an awful lot. That was the first time I'd been a CEO of a software company. I found out I'm happier being either a CTO, where I'm directly running the technology, or being more of an educator, someone who helps explain the technology.

6:48 Dan: Between all these things, you got used to running back ends, as well as, in that case, running some actual, real client code. Not just simple HTML.

6:59 Adam: In the case of Grazr and the widget company, yes. We had a very heavy database back end. Basically, I'm a database guy. As I said, I started with dBase. I spent years training people on the relational model. I approach all applications, basically, as database applications. We had a heavy database component that collected RSS feeds and aggregated them.

7:27 Then, we had a lightweight JavaScript widget that displayed them on people's pages.

7:33 Dan: How big were the databases you had in the background?

7:37 Adam: To tell you the truth, I was the CEO, not the CTO, so I didn't run the databases. I know they were in MySQL, and I had a lot of discussions about schemas, but I never actually managed the data.

7:55 Dan: Now, you've more recently ended up in the Twitter world. You've been doing some stuff there, too. Also, running data, figuring out what to do with data that you get from the Twitter streams.

8:08 Adam: Yes. When Grazr wound down, I decided to start working with the Twitter API. I had been using Twitter for a while. I started in about 2007. Then, in 2009, moving into 2010, at the end of Grazr, I decided to get back to programming. I learned the Twitter API and started building tools that work with the Twitter API, mostly in PHP.

8:44 Basically, I'd been a LAMP programmer, where in my case, the P was PHP.

8:51 Dan: You have a broad background. You've been there from [laughs] the early PC days up until the latest with Twitter and stuff like that. Do you think of yourself mainly as a coder or an educator? You had that history, even in the middle.

9:10 Adam: I've done both. I don't actually think of myself as a programmer, even though I do a lot of programming. I don't have a computer science degree. I think of myself as a synthesist. What I'm good at is combining a lot of ideas and then productizing them. One of my skill sets is that I minored in English and majored in chemistry as an undergraduate.

9:41 That's a unique background. What it lets me do is the chemistry taught me to think like an engineer and be precise and think in terms of tools. The English taught me how to write and explain. Not being a computer scientist, I can internalize what new users experience, which is often easier for people to learn from.

10:10 Dan: Chemistry is ... you're used to the messiness of the real world, so to speak.

10:15 Adam: Actually, chemistry is pretty precise. It's organic chemistry, at least, what I did. Synthetic chemistry is a lot more mathematical than people think. It's engineering, in that you have to plan a set of procedures and start from one point to get a certain amount of material out the other end. It is an engineering discipline, rather than pure research.

10:45 Dan: How did you end up as a consultant to Alpha Software?

10:49 Adam: I've known Selwyn and Richard Rabins, the founders of Alpha, for years, since the early '80s. I've always been aware of the product of Alpha, various iterations of Alpha.

11:03 Dan: Three, four, five, and now Alpha Anywhere.

11:06 Adam: All the way through to Alpha Anywhere. I never saw an opportunity to work directly with them, so I would just check in every couple years to see how things were going. As I said, for the last few years, I've been working with Twitter and largely building tools that help people promote their brands. It's Twitter search and marketing techniques, but with a heavy code component.

11:36 I had lunch with Richard Rabins in June, and I explained what I do with Twitter. It seemed like a fit. Alpha wasn't doing that much with Twitter, at that point. I offered my services as a way of helping Alpha promote their product. That's how I decided to get started with them.

11:57 Dan: Just like I've known Selwyn and Richard way back. Same thing. I had different interests when I ended up joining the company. Which is cool, how both of us have, we've all known each other. Our paths have diverged and closed in. You started working with Alpha, with that said, Alpha on Twitter. Now you're launching this podcast series.

12:22 I'm hosting this first one. You're going to be hosting the ones that we're going to be having in the future. Can you explain what your goals are going to be for the podcast series?

12:34 Adam: The real idea behind the podcast was a realization I had, as I was tweeting about Alpha. Alpha produces a large number of videos. I realized that the videos are kind of ad-hoc. They tend to use different starting points, different example sets. I thought what would be better would be to create a standard set of demos.

13:05 The same way there was a standard demo for VisiCalc, and then there was the Northwind demo for Alpha for many years. Northwind is not the best example set for mobile apps. That's the real strength of Alpha now. It still has all the database capability, but mobile is where the pain point is and where Alpha's trying to help.

13:34 What I thought would be good would be to create a standard set of demos, just as Northwind was a standard demo for database apps. I proposed to Alpha that we create this standard demo set, both the demo and the data set that works underneath that, and then that would be a foundation. All videos, all documentation would be based on that standard set of demos.

14:02 The podcast is part of that standard demo project. What I would like to do, the plan is that I'll be able to interview you and Selwyn, who's the architect of the product, and we build these set of demos together. That would give us a framework where we could explore the product and convey a lot of information.

14:28 Putting both of you into these podcasts will let people understand the thinking behind the product. That's one of the things I've enjoyed in talking to you and Selwyn, is there's a lot of thought behind what the product does. That thinking doesn't always get conveyed in the demos that are out there now. This would, as we built new demos, people would get to learn why you do things, not just what it does.

14:55 Dan: This is a really ambitious plan. Do you feel that you're enough of an Alpha expert to be able to hone this, to pull this whole thing off?

15:07 Adam: Actually, I'm not an Alpha expert at all. I'm going to be completely honest now and as we build the demos. I'm familiar with the product, but in no way am I an expert. I actually think that's an advantage. Just as I said, I'm not a computer scientist, and that helps me explain to people who are learning programming. I will be learning Alpha Anywhere as we build these demos.

15:34 I'll be learning on my own and with you and Selwyn. That will let me give honest reactions to the product. It's what people often call a fresh set of eyes. As I learn the product, it will be a new experience. Those insights should be helpful. I'll act as a proxy for people who are learning the product themselves.

15:58 Dan: The podcasts will end up being Adam in Alpha Land, as you're slowly...The listeners get to follow along with you as you learn and ask the questions of a newbie, as you find new things and as you figure out how to put the stuff together. It's going to be an interesting journey. I know that Selwyn Rabins and I'll be regular guests on the podcast. Do you want to invite anyone else?

16:29 At first, I thought it would just be the three of us. Especially as we're building the demos. Then, as we move along and get far enough through the product, I thought it'd be fun to bring in other people, especially experienced Alpha developers, and possibly even running some panel discussions, where they can ask you and Selwyn about features they'd like to see.

16:53 Again, what's interesting is you people revealing the thinking behind the product. It would also give us a chance for you to talk more about a future roadmap. They might say, "This particular feature is difficult." The response from you or Selwyn might be, "Well, we have plans to improve it. Here's what we're planning to do."

17:15 Dan: Thanks, Adam. I'm looking forward to participating in this podcast in the future. I'd say in the future, we're going to try to keep them to around 15 minutes apiece or thereabouts. This won't be too hard for the listeners.

17:35 Adam: Thanks for taking the role of host this time, Dan. Next time, the roles will be reversed, and I'll be getting to interview you. That will be a lot of fun for me.

17:46 Dan: You'll get to get used to being a podcast person. I've been doing podcasting on and off for many years. I always enjoyed being on other people's podcasts, though. It's going to be interesting. For those of you listening who'd like more information about Alpha Software, you can always go to The podcast will have its own place. You just go to Thanks a lot...