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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Perfection in Utah

Across the U.S.A. Dept.: Written September 11, 1989, this was the seventh installment of my series of articles produced during a cross-country car trip and published in the Schenectady Gazette. I was in the thick of writing about computers at the time, and a big fan of the program WordPerfect (which I still use, although more as an anti-Word). So it made sense to make a stop at what was then the sprawling headquarters of the software maker, then at the height of its popularity with version 5.0 of the DOS-based word-processing program.


THERE’S AN UNUSUALLY SECLUDED feel about the Salt Lake City area. Interstate 15 is a huge highway, rivalling the approaches to New York in congestion and complexity, but this desert-white metropolis sits with seeming quiet beside the highway in the flat well of a bowl bordered by mountains.

WordPerfect 5.0
This was the area chosen by Brigham Young to celebrate the particular perfection of his Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints and the area remains a testimony to his planning. No disrespect is meant in my suggestion that the avatars of this century include technology, and no technology has threatened to become its own religion more than the computer biz.

It’s also good for the local economy. Ski Utah! is exclaimed on all the new state license plates, and the tourists who pour into Provo each winter carry the appropriate bundles of equipment. But snow is now getting competition from sand and rust. Sand is the basis of computer chips; rust coats the data diskettes.

That stretch of northern California dubbed “Silicon Valley” is a densely-packed home base for many of the young, burgeoning computer companies, but WordPerfect Corporation stubbornly keeps its base in Orem, a town near Provo and Brigham Young University.

It was as a BYU professor that WordPerfect president Alan Ashton marketed the first version of the program a decade ago in the hope of some salary enhancement. Working with graduate student Bruce Bastian, he created what is now the biggest-selling word processing software in the world.

Word processing has replaced the lowly typewriter for all but the most stubborn traditionalists. The process is no longer one of simply putting words on a page. Now the words have become things that seem to take on animate life on a computer screen.

The best programs take you far beyond snappy editing, too, and an important part of WordPerfect’s success is its entry into the desktop publishing realm, allowing you to produce intricately-typeset copy on an office laser printer.

From an intimate operation of a few fanatics, WordPerfect’s realm has grown into an industry that employs about 1500 people. Once scattered among vacant office spaces in the Orem-Provo area, it is now concentrated in a newly-built campus on North Technology Way. The dark brick buildings are tiered on the side of one of the hills that ring the area, easily visible from the flat village with its perpendicular grid of streets.

Any large business near Salt Lake City will have a significant number of Mormons within, and WordPerfect isn’t an exception. There’s nothing churchily obvious about that, but it may have something to do with the friendly attitude that pervades the buildings and makes this company unique among thriving, quickly-growing concerns.

It still feels like a family, and a casual one at that.

You don’t see many neckties or formal dresses about the place. The very high-ups such as Ashton wear suits to work, and tend to sit a little apart in the dining area, but they’re very approachable, eager to listen.

The former WordPerfect complex in Orem, Utah,
now Canyon Park Technology Center
That dining area, by the way, is something most employees would kill for. Whimsically dubbed the Hard Disk Cafe, it’s like a huge fast-food joint gone conscientious. For absurdly low prices you’re offered a selection of salads, pastas, Oriental food. Build tacos at the Mexican food area, select a sandwich from the sandwich bar.

Just across the parking lot, bulldozers work to prepare an area for yet another building. Many employees are still getting used to new quarters. “We were afraid of losing our individuality,” Julie Harrison explained on the Publications floor. “I mean, these are artists and layout people who aren’t used to a corporate structure.”

From the look of their area, they’re asserting themselves aggressively. Although cubicles and grey carpeting give it the look of a Madison Avenue junior-exec mill, the many posters and mobiles and whimsically-qualified cubicle identification tags fight against that image.

A new program is being created and all departments are working on its testing and documentation. Besides the word processing program, WordPerfect offers a spreadsheet (PlanPerfect) and database (DataPerfect). The new product (DrawPerfect) will take the company into another popular software realm, that of presentation graphics.

There’s a department devoted to testing, with Don LaVange at the head of it. He lives and breathes the products and talks about them with the enthusiasm usually reserved for spare-time interests. Each of the products goes through continual revision, and the big-daddy program, WordPerfect itself, will soon be re-released as version 5.1.

Durk Merrill is coordinating the beta testing of that product, which means that his department takes messages from nationwide group of users volunteering their time to discover problems the new release may have. It’s a frenzied process, with hundreds of reports pouring in daily, but each is acknowledged and attended to. And Durk, a pleasant-faced transplanted Virginian, is happy to take a little time off to conduct a tour of his part of the building.

The quest for perfection thus brings in a few hundred outsiders as part of this extended family. They complain like a family and are soothed the same way. This may not have been Joseph Smith’s original vision of a community that functions as family, but it’s an amazing testimony to one 20th-century attempt to keep that feeling alive.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 11 November 1989

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