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Bill Burcham 3 January 2008

Bill Burcham

Technologist, craftsman, inventor

Bill fell in love with computing in 1979 playing Star Raiders on a friend’s Atari 800. He went on to enter many Compute! magazine hex games into his VIC-20 and Commodore 64. After earning his Computer Engineering degree from the University of Arizona, he developed software, standards, teams and products at aerospace, computer manufacturing, banking, and commercial software companies.

Near the end of 2005, recognizing the historical opportunity for tiny teams to bootstrap meaningful Web applications, Bill embarked on a new mission: a return to the craft of software development, deeply hands-on, with heaping helpings of Web standards goodness. In early 2007 he launched his first commercial site, He provides consulting to clients in Portland and elsewhere and continues to delve deeper into his craft.

Bill lives in Portland with his wife, Cynthia and their children: Mia, Owen and Liam.

What are you up to?

Recently, the bulk of my professional energy has gone into helping an undercover Portland startup build a business analytics product in Ruby on Rails.

What are you into?

I’ve always been fascinated by math. My aptitude, while sufficient to get me through electrical engineering courses in school, is not really on a par with my interest. But for the past few years I’ve been reading historical math books like “A History of Pi” and really enjoying it. Also, I recently started tutoring some math students at my kids’ elementary school. I find it super gratifying.

I love design, all kinds really, especially industrial and graphic design. At the same time I’ve always felt sort of crippled by my own lack of design skills. Last summer I decided to do something about it. I begin my third session in the Graphic Design program here at PCC next week. It’s been a hoot so far. It’s so cool to have a design vocabulary. I can’t believe I waited this long.

What do you like most about Portland?

I relocated my family here at the end of May, 2007. My wife, Cynthia, and I were really ready for a change from Dallas, Texas where we’d lived for 11 years. We love Portland’s creative vibe and general crunchiness — you know, the whole left coast thing. Coming from Dallas (Plano) which is basically a big 100 square mile concrete slab we really appreciate Portland’s “smart growth” alternative to urban sprawl.

We love the beautiful summer weather and the proximity to the ocean, mountains and Montana. Driving around the city up and down the hills, in the trees, over the bridges — it feeds our souls. Oh and the coffee culture is awesome too.

You’re pretty enthusiastic about the product opportunities on the Web right now. Sounds like things pretty much couldn’t get any better huh?

I am enthusiastic, and it is a wonderful time. Web applications have significantly reduced the relevance of the desktop wars, to Apple’s delight and mine. And I, like the rest of the folks who read TechCrunch, rely on that Web application ecosystem for my daily bread.

At the same time it seems that the desktop platform wars have to a significant degree been replaced by the Web platform wars between the likes of Google, Yahoo!, MSN, Facebook. These platform combatants offer canards like OpenSocial while society endures the long Web standards winter.

It seems to me that the big opportunity now, both from a societal good perspective, and a business perspective too, is the continued development of platformless Web applications. I was hopeful when Amazon opened up the Alexa indexing services to third parties that we’d see more startups leveraging that service but I don’t really think that’s happened. Dave Sifry’s Hoosgot service uses Technorati’s index to achieve the sort of decentralized service I’ve got in mind.

Yahoo! bbauth and Google’s proxy authentication were pretty exciting too. Those interfaces promised to open up the respective walled gardens, but they were never fully rolled out. Maybe OAuth will pick up steam. I hope so. We have some hopeful signs right here in Portland of course. The whole OpenID thing is a bright spot and the folks at JanRain are providing lots of stewardship.

Are you really an Avie Tevanian strike survivor?

It’s true. Through a series of improbable connections I somehow ended up with an onsite interview at NeXT Computer, Inc. in Redwood City. It was 1989 and the NeXT absolutely the hottest computer on the planet and I was smitten. My last interviewer of the day was Avie Tevanian, then VP of Engineering, later the software chief at Apple. I recall him picking up my résumé, scanning it for a few seconds, putting it back on the table and saying:

“I don’t see anything on this paper that would indicate that I should hire you”

Needless to say, I did not receive an offer. At the time I was kind of crushed. But it proved to be a formative experience. It contributed to a personal philosophy that’s served me well. It’s easy to look out into the wide world and see great products and think: I gotta work on that, I ought to throw in with them. I always question that impulse, asking instead: what is great about what they are doing? why do I admire it? how can I weave that observation into my own life’s work. Just because they’re building something really cool doesn’t mean it’d be really cool to work with them.


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