Ray Ozzie on Lotus Notes and Slow Hunch Innovation

By Steven Johnson

[More in the series of excerpts from the conversations in my new collection, The Innovator’s Cookbook. This is part of my exchange with the brilliant Ray Ozzie, who recently stepped down as Microsoft’s Chief Software Architect. Ray has been thinking about social software for as long as just about anyone, so I had to ask him how those ideas had evolved over time.]

SJ: How did the idea for Lotus Notes come about?

RO: The Lotus Notes is story is one of those situations where I and several other people — the people who ended up being my cofounders — were exposed to a system that we couldn’t shake. It became an itch that we needed to scratch. And the thing that we ultimately built, both the ethos and the name itself, came from that thing that we were exposed to. The product we ultimately built was actually a lot different. But the original experience was the common thread between us.

This was in 1974 through 1977, and there was a group of us who were exposed to this Plato system at Urbana-Champaign in Illinois. This was on the early side of computer science; we were still using punch cards in our computer-science classes. But this Plato system was built by this creative eccentric, Don Bitzer, who believed that computers could change education. He didn’t know what couldn’t be done. He wanted to build graphics terminals with multimedia, audio. He invented the plasma panel, in order to have a graphics terminal. He built an audio device for it. That left an imprint in and of itself. I love being around people who just don’t believe things can’t be done, or don’t know that they can’t be done, and just build whatever the concept requires.

But on the software side, we were all exposed to things that ultimately we’d get used to in the Internet. It was the emergence of online community. And there was probably a community of ten thousand people, five thousand at Urbana, Illinois, and another five thousand around the world. There were online chats, online discussions, interactive gaming, news. It was a full-fledged community. And there was this thing called Notes that did e-mail, personal notes, and discussions, group notes. And after we left, and went into the real world and got our jobs (they went to DEC, I went to Data General), that was the thread that we kept coming back to. We were like: these are interesting computers, but where are the people? And so basically we would get together weekend after weekend, month after month, year after year, and say: “We have to bring the people back into the equation.”

SJ: So it ends up taking you six, seven years before you actually start building that thing in your head. It reminds me so much of something in my own life, although I didn’t do anything nearly as epic. I was in college from ’86 to ’90 and HyperCard came out in ’87. I’ve never really been a programmer, but I lost a whole semester trying to build this HyperCard application basically for keeping all my notes and research. (Which eventually fed into my interest in applications like DEVONthink and the commonplace-book tradition.) But the main thing I got out of HyperCard was that it really prepared me for the Web, by working in that hypertextual environment. So I dabbled with HyperCard and then I kind of put that experience away for seven or eight years — but then in ’94, when the Web started to break, I was just prepared for it. The first time I saw it, I was like: oh, I know exactly what this is going to be.

RO: That’s a reoccurring theme also. You are the sum in many ways of your experiences and you get these success patterns, failure patterns, sometimes those patterns help — like what you just described. But sometimes those patterns hurt, because they constrain your outlook. Something that might not have worked before might work now, because the environment has changed. But the innovators that I know that are successful keep testing those patterns over and over and over because people around them change and the technology environment changes. And so you might look at somebody and say: “You’re a one-trick pony. You keep building the same thing over and over.” But it’s a good thing! That means you’re taking those patterns and just recasting them continuously against changes in the environment. And if you believe passionately in a pattern, it’s great. Go for it!