Some company start-up dates:
In 1983 Ben Franklin wasn't like ABC's Shark Tank.
Who are Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania?
"We provide early-stage technology firms and established manufacturers with investments, networking opportunities, and technical and business expertise. Ben Franklin staff work with companies to enhance their entire way of doing business."
Who are Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania?
"For over 30 years, Ben has been the leading seed stage capital provider for the region’s technology sectors, investing over $175 million in more than 1,750 regional technology companies, many of which have gone on to become industry leaders. Ben Franklin has also launched university/industry partnerships that accelerate scientific discoveries to commercialization, and has seeded regional initiatives that strengthen our entrepreneurial community."
"Ben Franklin Technology Partners is an initiative of the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. In addition to its numerous investment partners, Ben Franklin receives funding from the Ben Franklin Technology Development Authority. "
In the spring of 1983 it wasn't quite like that. Inspired by the fact that the description of our company on the Ben Franklin web site was kind of sparse I decided to tell our story of how Ben Franklin Technology Partners got its start.
"Software Consulting Services was the first Ben Franklin incubator company anywhere in the state." From the BFTP/NEP web site prior to 2016.
Let me introduce Michael G. (Mike) Bolton. He worked in Lehigh University's development office. Development office people seek donations from alumni. Mike couldn't help but wonder with Bethlehem Steel and other heavy industries in the Lehigh Valley going into decline, would Lehigh's student and (eventual) alumni recruiting efforts be compromised? Would Lehigh fall as the Valley's industries fell?
Mike was to launch his big idea - The Ben Franklin Project. He would seek to join new entrepreneurs with expert faculty and state funding to grow local tech businesses. The idea made the newspapers.
One of the organizations about to leave the Valley was the American Newspaper Publishers Association Research Institute. The ANPA was given land on Sullivan Trail in Forks township in the late 40's by Easton Express publisher, Larry Stackhouse for its research institute. By the 80's it was time for a new facility and the ANPA decided that it would be located in Reston, VA.
I was by then the Research Manager of Computer Applications for the ANPA/RI. Prior to that I'd been a ANPA/RI software developer. Before that I was employed by Lehigh University as a systems programmer. I was simultaneously teaching as an adjunct faculty member and the Co-Director of the Computer Science Group in the Graduate School of Lehigh's Department of Mathematics (along with Prof. Sam Gulden.)
This was my second career. Before getting a BS in computer science in 1971 from the University of Delaware, I was employed as an architectural draftsman (and an Associate Member of the American Institute of Architects) working in the Planning Office of the U of Delaware.
Martha, my wife, didn't like Reston at all. She was an army brat who had grown to love the stability she found in the Lehigh Valley. I would quote her as saying, "You can go to Reston, if you want, but you will sleep alone." It wasn't quite that bad, but you get the idea.
I had worked for the ANPA/RI for almost a decade and loved nearly every moment of it. I had a great team, recruited from the best of my Lehigh students, got to travel all over the world representing newspapers, consulted with publishers on their computing needs, invented cool stuff and built software that I got to see deployed and used by grateful newspaper staff.
Most of the six member ANPA Computer Applications staff didn't cotton to moving to Reston either. One of my concerns was the political atmosphere surrounding the move. You can imagine what that was like.
Nevertheless, Jerry Friedheim, then VP of the ANPA, was surprised to find that a project in automated newspaper design (Layout-80) that he thought was in four test sites was actually fully deployed and in production at 38 newspapers with over 125 more queued up to get installations.
"Who will support this if you and your staff go? Find some vendors who can support it and license it to them." said Jerry. Eventually six vendors to newspapers signed up for licenses.
Now Martha and Mike Bolton come back into the story.
When Martha and I came to the Valley, I got the job at Lehigh and she got a job at Pennsylvania Power and Light also as a systems programmer.
When we (actually, she) decided to start a family in 1974, Martha found that PP&L (at that time) didn't have much flexibility for career women who wanted to be nursing mothers. So Martha took the leap and founded Software Consulting Services. Working from our home in Allentown and, with infant Sharon in tow, she wrote software for companies like Ingersoll Rand and Lehigh Valley hospitals. Martha was an early adopter of personal computer technology, even supplying PC productivity software to American Express and others. This was so noteworthy at the time, that Martha and her start-up were mentioned in Inc Magazine and the Wall Street Journal.
SCS bought one of the first (if not the first) Apple II's sold at ComputerLand of the Lehigh Valley. With good credit, a business plan sketch and the distribution rights to the Pascal Validation Suite, SCS bought a $20,000 PDP 11/23 mini-computer to make tapes for the PVS distributions. First National Bank of Allentown lent us the money. They and their successors were our bank for many years, until they effectively left the Valley.
I represented the newspaper industry on the ANSI X3J9 Pascal Standardization Committee for the ANPA and newspapers.
Then came the decision point in early 1983. Bolton's Ben Franklin Project made the news. I said to Martha, "This sounds like us." So I called Mike and told him our story. SCS would be one of the licensees of Layout-80. It would employ me and three of my ANPA staff. We wanted to be a Ben Franklin company. SCS and Martha had two employees at this time.
Mike came to visit me in my ANPA/RI office. He had another development office staff member with him. I told of my plan to join SCS full time. He wasn't just interested, he said we were exactly what he was looking for. High-tech, innovative, national exposure, part of the Lehigh community, etc., etc. He seemed absolutely beside himself. Then he asked, "When would you like to do this?" "We are leaving the ANPA/RI on April 29th and want to be relocated and in business on Monday May 2nd," I said.
His face dropped. "We don't have any funding." "That's okay," I said. "SCS has a positive cash flow, good credit and my ANPA severance pay. We will be fine without any money from Ben Franklin.
Unfortunately shortly thereafter there was more bad news from Bolton. It seems the Centennial Building on Lehigh's Goodman campus was to be the home of the Ben Franklin incubator. At first it was used for training teachers of gifted children, then teachers for normal children (whatever that means) and finally for children with emotional and discipline problems.
I walked into the building and couldn't believe my eyes. There were holes bashed into walls, wires and plumbing fixtures torn asunder, ceiling tiles here and there. Broken furniture, etc. It was a mess. Then Bolton said, "The good news is that the university will put up $35,000 to renovate the building; the bad news is that the university's architect says she can't get to any new projects for at least six to nine months." We were two months away from launch.
"So what you need is a set of plans and specification for the incubator renovation done by a credentialed architectural draftsman? Would it help, if the draftsman had large university planning office experience?" "What?" "I'll have drawings and specs ready by next weekend." "But what about the university's architect?" "You can let her pick the colors. I was never very good at that." And so it was.
Bolton very much liked that I knew how to handle issues of university bureaucracy. It made him think of what fun working with entrepreneurs could be.
He didn't know of my being a rebel in the ranks at Lehigh's computing center where I advocated using high level languages like Pascal to write the systems programs they thought should be written in assembler. And the EE department's antipathy toward using anything but COBOL and FORTRAN since that's what employers said they used, never mind that these antiquated languages (and Lehigh's own primitive Wizard) made doing modern computer science almost impossible. So I found a tolerable and happy environment in the math department. During my academic teaching I had several hundred undergraduate and graduate students. I mentored a number for their masters degrees. Seventeen of Lehigh's faculty took the courses I designed and taught. And when last I checked some 30 years after I stopped teaching there, the catalog described "CES411 - Advanced Programming Techniques" with almost identical copy to mine for M411.
So SCS licensed Layout-80 from the ANPA. My boss Erwin Jaffe retired. His boss, Bill Rinehart was furious. And Bill's boss, Jerry Friedheim, seemed delighted and saw that we got booth space cheaply at the next ANPA trade show.
About one month before the change over day, I got a call from the ANPA's Chairman of the Board, Bill Marcel, publisher of the Fargo (ND) Forum. He said he wanted to get Layout-80 installed. I said, we could do it for him, but the ANPA had shut down the distribution in advance of the move. "No," he said, "I don't want it from the ANPA, I want it from you and Martha. I want the Forum to be your first newspaper customer."
SCS announced software support for Layout-80 and all 38 current users volunteered to pay. We had a support customer base and several dozen new customers lined up in our first week after I joined SCS.
The ANPA further helped us by recommending me and SCS for newspaper consulting work. I did a lot of this "Technical Advisory Services - (TAS)" during my nine and one-half years at the ANPA.
We moved in several weeks before Bolton moved into the offices I designed for him and Ben Franklin.
As a side note - we did the wiring for our data lines and AC power on our own. (I trained as an electrician.) We wired our phones to the point where Chadwick Telephone - yes, that Chad Paul - had connected.
Funny thing happened with the phones. I was on my first SCS-based TAS in Buffalo NY. I was hired by Warren Buffet to review the technology and staff of the IT department of the newspaper he had just bought, The Buffalo (NY) Evening News. When I called back to the office I couldn't get through. I thought we hadn't done the phones right. Brenda, the secretary I brought from the ANPA, informed me that all three outside lines were often busy. The phones were ringing off the hook, not just for support issues, but new business!
Martha and I had used the brand new spreadsheet tool, Visicalc, to plan out business scenarios on our Radio Shack TRS-80. We made a set of projections - one if we did poorly, one if we did well and the average of those being what we hoped and expected. For our first 12 months we did the sum of all three projections. We grew a staff member, bought another computer and signed several new customers every month.
In 1983 SCS became the poster child for Lehigh's Ben Franklin project. Martha and I found ourselves meeting and greeting visiting dignitaries and politicians like Senator Arlen Specter. One could hear Ben Franklin's Mike Bolton say, "See how well this university facilitated and state sponsored partnership with entrepreneurial companies works!"
SCS got a Ben Franklin grant of $5,000 in 1984 to fund start-up work on SCS/Track. Descendants of this technology are in production use at newspapers throughout the western hemisphere.
By 1985 the Ben Franklin project was well established. My final patent for the ANPA, was called ReQueSt-DB - Relational Queries on Sequential DataBases. The invention was a method and apparatus that allowed an advanced cable TV set-top box and an inexpensive cable-end device to distribute easily searchable classified ads to hundreds of thousands of cable subscribers. This was over ten years before Craigslist decimated newspaper classified advertising.
The application process for funding was less formal then. (Mike Bolton said, "Rich, I have 100 grand for innovative projects by incubator companies. Would you like some of it?")
The ANPA wanted to see electronic classifieds developed and so arranged for SCS to get the intellectual property. Ben Franklin provided funding that allowed hiring one programmer for two years to complete a ReQueSt-DB demo sufficient to show that it worked quite nicely.
Bark Lee Yee, founder and owner of the Lehigh Valley's Twin County Cable said he could build the electronic devices in Taiwan. He wanted me to get support from newspapers.
I got an audience with Rupert Murdoch and his technical team at the New York Post. I presented ReQueStDB to Murdoch and company as if pitching to investors on Shark Tank. At the conclusion of the meeting I was told they would get back to me. A while later one of their technical guys called and said Mr. Murdoch wasn't interested, saying that it seemed unlikely to him that anyone would ever want to read classified ads on a VDT (video display terminal.) And, besides, wasn't I just looking for funding?
ReQueSt-DB evolved into a web-based software version in the 90's and is in production use in newspapers today.
In 1996 SCS received the Ben Franklin Incubator Graduate of the Year award and, for doing so, was presented with a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition by Paul McHale, Member of Congress.
SCS's business with newspapers and media companies continues to grow. It now includes installations of its mission critical software in over 250 organizations publishing an estimated 1,500 products. SCS's world-wide impact includes serving major newspaper groups like Tribune (owner of The Morning Call), Advance (owner of the Express-Times), Gannett, Lee Enterprises etc. Besides having large US newspaper customers, the very largest newspapers in Brazil (Folha DE S.Paulo in São Paulo, and O Globo in Rio de Janeiro); in Buenos Aires, Argentina (Clarín and La Nación) and in Montevideo, Uruguay (El País); etc. use SCS software every day. (Nineteen countries in all.) Publications in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Chinese are designed, sold, produced and managed with SCS's newspaper applications. Even so, SCS has been able to provide systems to small nearby shoppers and newspapers, including PennyPower in Coopersburg and the Bucks County Herald in Lahaska.
The Ben Franklin web site has been upgraded to have a more complete description of SCS. We are proud to be the very first Ben Franklin company, and to have helped get it all started.
How many vendors to the newspaper industry – especially software vendors – can boast 40 years in business under the same owner?
That’s the milestone Martha Cichelli reached in November in 2015, celebrating the ruby anniversary of her founding of Software Consulting Services (SCS), a small, family-owned start-up whose systems would become the heartbeat of hundreds of newspapers – large and small – throughout North and South America.
SCS’s core product, Layout-8000™, is now a central component of the production and advertising systems in dozens of the largest papers in the United States, and is widely considered the standard for automated advertising dummying solutions in the newspaper industry. Dominant newspaper chains – including Gannett, Tribune, Lee Enterprises and Advance Publications – are among its devoted users, as are hundreds of small and medium-sized independent papers.
Most recently, SCS shifted its focus to include a broad range of subscription-based solutions and services for newspapers, including: advertising, editorial, digital asset management, and color management. The FotoWare digital asset and color management software it markets, sells and installs has a customer base that extends beyond newspaper customers to include The White House Historical Association, the Ford Foundation, Hewlett Packard, the city of Toronto, and Lubrizol (a Berkshire Hathaway company), among others. The pivot helped keep SCS responsive to the evolving needs of its customers, and has provided the company some traction in expanding its services beyond the niche for which it is better known.
Up till now, “we have been the kings of interfacing,” Cichelli said. “We’ve interfaced [Layout-8000] to every front-end system out there and to numerous pagination systems, including QuarkXPress in 1987 which established the viability of desktop publishing tools as an alternative to proprietary newspaper vendor provided systems.” But what SCS is discovering, she said, is that bundling the ad dummying software with its own advertising and editorial solutions, and offering the whole system to newspapers by monthly subscription, provides advantages to both SCS and its customers that had not previously been realized. “We … find it much easier to do it all … than having to interface to lots of other systems,” she said, “and that’s what we’re working toward.
The initiative has led to recent sales of SCS’s so-called Community Advertising System to The Lawton (OK) Constitution, The Falmouth (MA) Enterprise, and the Virgin Islands Daily News, among others.
The shift in business models is not the first for SCS since its humble beginnings in the mid-1970s, with Cichelli programming, her husband, Richard, helping out with part-time consulting, a neighbor (who is still with the company as its controller) handling marketing and sales, and fairly soon thereafter the addition of another programmer and two summer interns.
The company didn’t start off writing software for newspapers, but rather did custom programming and data analysis for a variety of customers – businesses, organizations and individuals. Cichelli said, “It wasn’t products that I was making.” Rather, it was her facility with math and her computer programming skills that lent themselves to providing consulting services at a time when desktop computing was just in its infancy. She said she simply “did things that people wanted done,” but couldn’t do for themselves.
That meant, for example, writing a custom desktop scheduler and calendar for a “forward thinking” American Express executive – “stuff that you’d get for free now on your [smart] phone,” Cichelli commented, “but at the time there wasn’t anything like that, particularly nothing that would sit on your desktop [computer]. So, in Pascal, I wrote some simple, little applications for him.”
That connection helped Cichelli wrangle SCS’s first credit card. Though initially turned down by American Express for lack of credit history, she recalled, “I wrote back to them and said, ‘We’re extending credit to a member of your executive staff and it would be nice if you could do the same for us.’” The tactic worked and the card was issued. “That’s the same American Express card we use to this day,” she said. “It’s the same account.”
Math in Her Blood
Although something of a math prodigy, Cichelli didn’t have any formal training in computer programming until after she graduated from college in 1968.
The granddaughter of a University of Wisconsin math professor, Cichelli said that “it was kind of pre-ordained” that she would study math. “I did love math, especially Algebra,” she recalled. “Algebra was wonderful!”
Her grandfather – “a big guy in abstract algebra” who “wrote some parts of the Encyclopedia Brittanica” on the subject – had apparently instilled some of his own passion for his vocation into her, at a very early age. Although she had no personal recollection of it, Cichelli related a story told her by her mother, saying, “He taught me how to add fractions by suggesting I tear up pieces of paper and figure it out. So I figured out how to add a half and a third before I started school.”
By the time she was a grade school student at a tiny town in central Maine – “trudging through blizzards, uphill both ways” – she was essentially setting the curve for her classmates. “The teacher I had in fourth grade somehow was convinced that I would have a perfect paper in Arithmetic, which was not the case, and she would just mark mine 100% and grade everyone else’s from mine. I’d bring home this perfect paper and my mother would re-grade it,” Cichelli said, laughing.
Cichelli went on to study math under a scholarship at Wilmington College in Ohio, later transferring to Temple University in Pennsylvania, because Wilmington “only had one math professor” and at Temple “there was more variety.” Even at Temple, however, there was little opportunity for exposure to programming as a profession. “There was no Computer Science [program] at Temple when I was there,” Cichelli said. “They had one computer course and I never got to take it because it was [cancelled due to] ‘lack of interest.’”
Her first job out of college, though – at E. I. DuPont de Nemours Company in Wilmington, DE – was as an entry-level programmer, which afforded her “training from scratch.” She said, “Within a week, I couldn’t believe that they were actually paying me to have this much fun. I was hooked.”
While acknowledging that “Computer Science is now considered a male-dominated field,” she doesn’t recall it feeling that way when she entered the profession in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. “It was at least 50:50 and maybe even more women than men.” She noted, however, “It wasn’t called ‘Computer Science’ then. I have a personal theory that as soon as it got the title ‘Science,’ it scared women off.”
By 1968, Cichelli had married her husband and future SCS collaborator, Richard, whom she had met in Delaware. He was renting the upstairs apartment in a house she shared with her mother and future step-father, and they crossed paths over a game of pool.
The two would discover a common interest in Computer Science. Richard had had a very early introduction to it, teaching himself – at age 14 – to write FORTRAN from an instruction book he had borrowed from his father, who was Engineering Research Director for the DuPont Company. “His dad said, ‘Oh, you want to run those programs?’” Martha recounted, and “took him over to the DuPont Experimental Station and let him run programs on the Sperry Rand UNIVAC I (the very first commercially manufactured computer)” – a $7 million playground for her then-adolescent future mate.
When he and Martha met, Richard was working as an architectural draftsman, helping design the building that housed the Computer Programming Institute of Delaware, from which he would later graduate. After their marriage, he went back to school and got a B.S. degree in Computer Science from the University of Delaware while Martha worked at DuPont. Richard subsequently went to work in the data processing department of a bank, “supervising the running of computer jobs. He made a name for himself there by greatly reducing the complexity of that process for them,” she said. “He applied, I guess you could say, Computer Science to that. He wasn’t writing software at that time.”
The couple eventually moved to Allentown, PA, where Richard had secured a position as a systems programmer for Lehigh University. Martha took a programming job with the Pennsylvania Power and Light (PP&L) Company, coding, she acknowledged, in new languages that “I never claimed to know.”
There were some barriers of sexism Martha encountered along the way. While applying for computing jobs in Allentown, PA, for example, she interviewed with a large manufacturing company that initially balked at placing her on a team designing software solutions, the interviewer admitting: “We’ve never had a woman analyst. You’d have to talk to the men out on the floor, and they can be pretty rough.” An offer did come, Martha recalled, but many months after she began working at PP&L.
The genesis of SCS came when Richard and Martha decided to start a family. “PP&L did not have part-time programming jobs and neither did anyone else that I could find,” Martha said. “I wanted to stay home with our new baby, but I wanted to stay active in computing. So, what could I do but start my own company?” Martha founded SCS in the fall of 1975 and their daughter, Sharon, was born in February of 1976.
Sharon, Martha recalled, “pretty much grew up with the company.” Martha brought her along on site visits, placing her in a car seat “parked behind the warm tape drives at a client’s.” As a preschooler, “she learned enough to write simple programs” – like adding two numbers together – “ which she claimed she ‘did not use to do her homework.’” During her high school and college years, she spent time at SCS writing documentation and testing programs – an experience that got her her first “real” job. “Eventually, she came to love writing software and is now a Lead Technical Analyst at a company in Austin, TX,” Martha said.
Leaving PP&L and starting her own company, Martha said, was not particularly a difficult transition “because I had a husband supporting me, and it wasn’t like I was on the verge of financial crisis with the business. It was more like a hobby, at first.”
“It was growing,” though, Martha noted. The company added another programmer and started employing summer interns – “another tradition that we continue to this day,” she said – and plunked down $20,000 for its first minicomputer, used to create Pascal Validation Suite distributions. “This was a big deal at the time,” Martha said. “This was my first experience negotiating a business loan from a bank.” Richard, who had meanwhile become an adjunct lecturer and co-director of the computer science program in the graduate school of mathematics at Lehigh University, was a member of a committee that wrote the official standards for the Pascal programming language and had become a very early evangelist for using Pascal in teaching programming.
Shift to Newspaper Orientation
At that time, the company didn’t yet have the orientation it has today as a vendor providing solutions and services primarily to the newspaper industry.
The first newspaper that hired SCS for consulting services was the Pottsville (PA) Republican,” Martha said. “They wanted to get into using these personal computers a little bit, and they had one” – a [Radio Shack] TRS-80. “They wanted to learn how to use it, [so] they sent us the computer and it sat in our offices, which were in our basement, and I learned how to use it and how to write programs for it and everything. And then I trained them a little bit on how to use it.”
It wasn’t until 1983 – when Richard officially joined the business – that the shift in orientation occurred. He had left his programming job at Lehigh to become the Research Manager of Computer Applications at the American Newspaper Publishers Association (ANPA) Research Institute. When ANPA – now called the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) – moved its headquarters from Easton, PA to Reston, VA, the couple decided not to relocate, and instead Richard joined forces with Martha at SCS.
As part of his job at ANPA, Richard had overseen development of an ad dummying system, Layout-80®, which was the precursor to SCS’s Layout-8000™. SCS was one of several companies that bought the rights to sell and install Layout-80, but it was the only one that enhanced the program and made the product its own, thanks to Richard and a few others from his staff at ANPA who had left to join SCS. The first newspaper to buy the product from SCS was the Fargo (ND) Forum, whose owner and publisher was the chairman of ANPA at the time. “Bill insisted on being SCS’s first customer for Layout-80,” Richard said. Layout-8000 is now on its 15th major version, and is currently in use at 1,500 publications in multiple countries, in five languages.
Along the way, SCS outgrew the Cichelli’s basement, and was the first company to become part of the Ben Franklin business incubation program, moving into offices on the Lehigh campus. It later “graduated” from there to a renovated four-room school house in Nazareth, PA and subsequently upgraded to a space in an office complex in Nazareth, large enough for its current staff of 20.
For a short while in the late 90’s and early aughts, Martha stepped back from the company, returning to school to earn a doctorate degree in behavioral neuroscience. “I learned so much in graduate school about psychology, behaviorism and research. The principles I learned apply everywhere – including SCS”, when she rejoined the company a few years later.
“We Are Customer Service”
The Cichelli’s pride themselves, above all things, on a company ethic devoted to customer service.
Helping newspapers recover from disaster is the most obvious and specific example. Martha recounted anecdotes about helping the Detroit Jewish News recover from a major fire in 2002, The Times-Picayune in New Orleans recover from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and El Diario la Prensa in New York recover after the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. In each case, SCS set up emergency servers in temporary spaces, and made sure the papers were able to publish without interruption.
“Talk to anybody that’s one of our customers,” Martha said. “Our folks really care and will go the extra mile.”
What’s next for SCS and the Cichelli’s, aside from their current transitioning business model? Martha replied that she can’t see that far ahead. “When Richard bought the desk that he’s sitting at, he told the furniture guy – it was a used furniture company – he said, ‘I want a died-at-the-desk desk.’ One that looks like it has a little dent there where the guy was working on his last day and he fell forward and his head hit the desk. That’s what I want: a died-at-the-desk desk.’ And he has it.
“I think that’s what he has in mind. I don’t know,” Martha said.
Platform independent applications
We work very hard at SCS at maintaining platform-independence in our applications, and we have a long history of this. Years ago, we delivered systems on DEC equipment running RSX, RSTS and VMS; HP equipment running MPE; and IBM equipment running MVS. More recently, we have delivered systems running under SCO Unix® and Linux. During the last 30 years, we have supported at least 40 different platform types and versions. We ported the advertising applications to various flavors of Windows as well (most recently Windows 7 and Windows 8 with touch), but only Layout-8000 has been requested on that platform. Our editorial and digital asset management products are Windows applications, although, even there, the image and story files may be archived on a Linux server.
Why do we remain platform-independent?
Most of the advertising front-end systems in the 1980s were completely bound to specific hardware and operating systems, and they paid the price when new options became available. Can you imagine rewriting an entire application written in DEC assembly language and tuned to a specific DEC operating system? It just didn’t happen! Systems written specifically for Tandem machines, IBM AS400s and HP3000s died out too. And - here’s the lesson in all of this - systems written specifically and exclusively for Windows and Oracle® will someday go too. It’s not that any of these environments were or are intrinsically bad (although some have been better than others); it’s just that they come in and out of favor. Why bind your applications so tightly to any one of them?
How do we stay platform-independent?
In the early history of our company, we did it by using the standard subsets of high-level languages (e.g. Pascal) rather than anybody’s assembly language or non-standard extensions to high-level languages. Then all we had to do was find a compiler for the language on a new platform and, perhaps, translate some control scripts. This seems so obvious now, but there were people who claimed that only with assembly language could you get the performance required for a large multi-user system. We always felt that the right algorithms and database design were much more important for good performance than any tweaking at the machine level, and we have never had performance issues. Over time we became convinced that the best way to keep ourselves platform independent was to create the set of development tools that we use now for all of the applications we build ourselves (i.e., the entire advertising system suite). Only the tools need to be ported to new platforms; every application written with the tools then moves without recoding. Not only platform changes but changes to the look and feel of every application are implemented by enhancements to the tools. Our WIMPS interface (windows, icons, menus, pointers and scroll bars) is now as pretty as anyone’s.
What are these tools?
We call them, collectively, Spice (the Dune books and movie were a big hit when a name was being chosen). They include a screen designer, relational database manager, text editor, composition engine, dialog manager, help manager, application code/formula language, XML processor, report writer and charting package. Back when this was a buzzword, we called Spice a 4th generation language. The term is used to refer to non-procedural (or declarative) high-level languages built around database systems. SQL, for example, is a 4th generation language (the first generation was machine language, the second was assembly language and the third included high level procedural languages like Pascal or C).
What is the underlying database?
We use a record manager called C-tree (developed by Faircom, www.faircom.com). We are free to modify the source code, and we have made some enhancements over the years. It provides an ODBC-compliant (Open Data Base Connectivity) interface to our databases, which allows any report writer or query language that is ODBC-compliant to read our Spice databases directly and independently. Crystal Reports® and Visual Basic®, for example, can access Spice’s ODBC-compliant databases. Spice also supports mirroring its databases with others like PostgreSQL. Our Spice report writer (SpiceRAQ) can give you access to all the data in a Spice database - as a printed report, a screen display or an exported text file. (This is in addition to all the standard and user-customizable reports that come with each application.) No one wants to feel that his or her enterprise data - an extremely valuable resource - could ever be held hostage by a vendor who uses a “proprietary” database package. Our customers have never been in this position. We have customers who send data to a “data warehouse” or interface to or from applications from other vendors; sometimes they create these interfaces themselves using the report writer tool and sometimes they ask us to help them do it. Our ODBC-compliant database interface tool makes data access easy for Crystal Reports experts.
What platform(s) do we use ourselves?
Linux is our primary development platform here at SCS. Many of us also have Windows PCs and/or Macs on our desks, but a lot of SCS staff get along just fine with a Linux desktop. We all have access to Linux servers to develop and/or test the SCS applications and to use some of our own in-house databases. We don’t feel the need to go completely “Microsoft-free,” but it would be possible. We have some customers who have made that a goal, and our applications could help them.
Why should you feel comfortable doing business with SCS even if we are “different”?
For one thing, we’ve been serving the newspaper business for a long time (for our company’s history, read “About SCS” on our web site. In fact, we’ve outlasted most of the newspaper vendors that were around when we started, even the industry leaders. I like to think that’s because we have been doing things right. (As a side note, we were founded one year before Oracle and just one year after Microsoft.) We’re not going away anytime soon, and even if we did, we have our application source code in escrow for our customers. We’re committed to the best algorithms that computer science, newspaper expertise and brainpower can provide. We have skilled programmers implementing these algorithms. Customers praise our support staff as the best anywhere. Our long-term technological vision, our dedicated and intelligent staff, our extensive experience in both computers and newspapers and our reliable support are just a few of the reasons to get your newspaper systems from SCS.
Articles in the SCS Blog are written by SCS employees and associated news outlets.