Higginbottom Remembers the VIC-20
- from an interview conducted by Rick Melick on March 18, 1997
>Describe your work for Commodore and your role in the VlC-20?
I worked for Commodore from 1979 to the end of 1991 in a variety of roles in development, marketing, support and even training. The variety of work was what made working at Commodore so great. You could definitely make a job and go and do it if you had initiative.
I started work with Commodore in England, and in 1980, I think, someone gave me a VIC-20 prototype to evaluate, knowing that I loved getting new things to learn as much as I could about. Around the same time I accepted an offer to emigrate to Canada and work at Commodore's tiny Canadian computer division (about 4 people when I started). Until I could get the paperwork straightened out to emigrate, and because people at Commodore in the UK had sort of written me off as 'that guy who's leaving us anyway' I could spend 100% of my time learning the capabilities of the VIC-20. Therefore, when I got to Canada, Jim Dionne, who ran the Canadian computer division and had offered me the job, made me the VIC-20 Product Manager. In this 'one man' capacity, I did everything (not necessarily well) from setting prices and ordering product from California and Japan, producing television and print commercials, writing demo programs and utilities, supporting dealers and customers on the phone, to working closely with Commodore U.S., so we could synchronize with what they were doing and help in whatever way we could. Canada made a couple of really great contributions to VIC history: Jim Butterfield, and Karl Hildon's Transactor Magazine. I worked with Karl at Commodore Canada and he's a great guy. Jim is a walking encyclopedia, great communicator, and terrific entertainer. I'm sure all readers are familiar with his prolific contributions to the computer industry. Jim was a great fast moving target I tried hard to keep up with.
>Describe your knowledge of the corporate climate and work environment at Commodore?
I think it would best be described as an intense one, bordering on chaos. It worked though, because there was so much talent at the company over the years, and because the founder, Jack Tramiel, was a quick decision maker with a clear idea of what he wanted to do. Until he left, the company was definitely run closely by Jack, who was very intense, somewhat unpredictable, and often intimidating, although he seemed to 'micromanage' much more of the U.S. operation than elsewhere. After he left, the company was never the same, in some ways for the better, because like many founders, Jack wasn't the right person in my opinion, to run a billion dollar company. It had one real chance to go further after that, with Tom Rattigan at the helm, but unfortunately the company wasn't big enough for him and the Chairman, Irving Gould. After that, it was down hill.
>How did your work on the Commodore VIC-20 help you with your career today?
Given my understanding of the PET, the VIC-20 came fairly easily, but the experience of launching a wildly successful product (the VIC-20) was obviously a tremendous learning and growth opportunity. I did enjoy reading the other interviews you've done, and recall one bit of trivia. Working at Commodore in Canada, I spent a fair bit of time on the phone with Andy Finkel, Neil Harris, and Mike Tomczyk, south of the border. I think they had the impression I was a lot older than I was and when I eventually visited their office near Philadelphia (which amazed me because it was so cramped and chaotic), I think they were surprised to meet this 'kid' who barely had to shave. :-)
>What are you doing these days?
I am Technical Director at Geac Computer Systems, formerly Dun & Bradstreet Software. I am in the process of relocating from near where Commodore's head office was in Pennsylvania, to Atlanta, Georgia. I oversee a variety of software development projects, mostly related to Microsoft BackOffice (including Windows NT, Microsoft SQL Server, etc). Last year, I oversaw a project to make the company's software compatible with Microsoft SQL Server and more integrated with Microsoft BackOffice.
When I left Commodore, I went to Great Valley Products, the largest producer of add-on hardware for the Amiga at the time, and had a great time helping them manage 100+% growth, filling in the holes that Commodore was leaving in the product line. Then I realized I had to get into the PC business because Commodore was dying. I also decided that I wanted to be in software development full time and so I bought a fully loaded PC and taught myself Windows, C++ programming, PCs, and went on into running client/server software development teams. Having started with BASIC on the PET, I'm still in love with it, and think Visual Basic on the PC is an incredible tool. I'm also quite heavily into Java, which is what C++ should have been.
In summary, I'm still a techie, but with a business focus toward getting large software systems delivered.
>Does the VIC-20 hold a special place for you, or was it no more/less significant than the machine on your desk right now?
The PET, the VIC-20, the C64, and the Amiga models each hold a special place because each was a milestone. The VIC-20 was a breakthrough in price performance, and paved the way to the C64, which was a quantum leap forward, followed by the Amiga, which was another quantum leap.
As far as what's on my desk right now, I've become a BIG fan of notebook computers in the past few years. The ability to carry around a computing powerhouse is terrific. I travel a lot and so being able to work on planes, in airports, in hotel rooms, etc., is a wonderful thing.
>The VIC-20 Programmer's reference Guide was an excellent publication. How long did it take to compose, and what were some of the unique challenges in writing it?
Thanks. My contribution didn't take long as I recall (a couple of weeks maybe). It couldn't take long because we were all under tremendous time pressure. I would have gladly worked any amount of hours though because I knew people would appreciate the information and it was neat to be contributing to a book.
>What do you think of the VIC-20 emulators, and the effort to preserve the history of the VIC-20 for future generations of computer enthusiasts?
I think it's great, although I think it will be difficult. I recently saved an original 8K PET in perfect working order that someone was going to throw away! I showed it to someone else who thought it was quaint, but couldn't imagine why I would want it. Oh well, I guess you had to have been there.