Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Atari founder Nolan Bushnell – whose greatest regret remains turning down an offer to invest early in a now-legendary computer start-up – predicted a near future of “massive benefit” from technological gains alongside escalating clashes with anti-techies.
“We’re looking at two roads: one is of massive disruption, the other side is massive benefit,” Bushnell said at the annual Tech Bloc rally Thursday night. “You will see in the next 10 years more conflict with Luddites than anyone else. To create a disruption of change is going to give a lot of people fear.”
In an interview with the Rivard Report after his keynote talk, Bushnell bemoaned the relative dearth of female programmers; noted “there are certain things that girls like that are different” in the gaming world; and riffed on Atari product placement in a blockbuster science fiction cult movie from the 1980s and its recent sequel.
See our Q&A with Bushnell here.
During his keynote talk, Bushnell told the Tech Bloc audience that future unemployment would be the result of bad government, bad education, and a failure of imagination.
“Everything that irritates you, fix it,” Bushnell said. “Make life as frictionless as possible.”
The rally was held for the first time outside of the downtown tech corridor – this year at Rackspace headquarters off Interstate 35 in Windcrest. Bushnell addressed avid gamers who had lined up to test their skills at half a dozen vintage Atari video games. Also in attendance was the entire inaugural class from CAST Tech high school. Rally organizers said they sold more than 1,100 tickets for the event.
In addition to his vision of the future of tech, Bushnell shared his past as a successful (and not so successful) entrepreneur,
Bushnell transformed arcades from pinball games to video games, and brought them into homes. He also introduced work innovations that helped make Silicon Valley a magnet for tech talent, giving Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak their first jobs, and creating many technological innovations, including the first car navigation system and an enterprise virtual reality system.
In order not to compete with video game arcades, Bushnell said, he created Chuck E. Cheese’s, the national chain of pizza parlors with video games and robotic characters that he later sold.
Bushnell said he lost “lots and lots of money” on other robot inventions. But his greatest regret was not acting on an offer in a new computer company.
The company was Apple: Bushnell would have received one-third of Apple in exchange for an initial $50,000 investment.
The Rivard Report interviewed Bushnell after the rally about the evolution in tech workplaces, Blade Runner, and anime.
Rivard Report:What was the tech workplace environment like when you first started your company? What influences do you see in today’s tech workplaces that stem from the gaming industry?
Bushnell: In some ways we took over the industrial space. We had blackboard paint in our first tech workplaces. I think I helped bring a lot of the whimsy you see in tech workplaces today. We had game rooms and now they’re everywhere in tech companies. I was the first one to have a beer tap in the office. We would have a “Friday beer bust,” that started at 3 p.m., but only if your made your quotas.
RR: Were there any notable women when you were building Atari or any other of your business ventures? What do you think is the outlook for women in tech today
Bushnell: Yes – Donna Bailey, who created the game Centipedes. I think the outlook today is that there are certain things that girls like that are different. Sixty percent of Candy Crush players are women, and we have lots of good games that are female centric, while Minecraft is pretty close to being gender neutral.
What is surprising to me is that there are not more female programmers. We need a lot more because we can’t meet the demand for innovation in the future. One of the best database programmers I ever had was a woman. She worked on a particular problem we had that required a lot of multitasking.
RR: Atari product placement was prominent both in the original Blade Runner movie and 30 years later in the latest Blade Runner sequel movie that was released earlier this year. How did that happen?
Bushnell: I thought the sequel was a good reprise, and I loved the first one, so I said yes to both. The first one is in my top three favorite movies of all time: The first Matrix movie, the first Blade Runner, and first Star Wars movie.
But Space Odyessy…Hmmm. O.K., top four movies.
RR: Do you enjoy anime? What do you think about it?
Bushnell: Do I like anime? Absolutely. I almost did a company that was going to use anime and manga with a voice over in English to act as a sort of a cross cultural narrative. I might still do that.
Former Rackspace Execs Recount its History
During the program, three former Rackspace executives highlighted the tech hub that has emerged at the company, as well as its role as a catalyst for San Antonio’s growing tech business sector.
Rackspace co-founder-turned-entrepreneur Dirk Elmendorf; former Rackspace president and Tech Bloc co-founder Lew Moorman; and Graham Weston, Rackspace’s former chairman and founder of Geekdom and 80/20 Foundation, spoke about Rackspace’s earliest days and its growth to become one of the top managed cloud providers.
As the panelists reminisced about the early days of Rackspace and the evolution of the company’s signature devotion to customer support known as “fanatical support,” Weston spoke about the company’s rapid growth and the need to stay true to the company’s DNA – superior customer service.
“Growth isn’t all its cracked up to be if you can’t deliver what you promise,” Elmendorf said.
The concept of Rackspace’s trademarked “fanatical support” can also be an advantage for startups, which cannot compete with large companies typically, Moorman said.
“Startups have very few resources to compete, but what they do have is focus and alignment,” he said. “A small group of super focused people is dangerous [competition for large companies].”
Weston said he wants help fostering the right conditions for the next Rackspace to emerge in San Antonio. “I think over the coming decade we are going to become one of the great cities in this country,” he said.