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Creating PowerPoint: The Man Who Changed the Way the World Presents

Robert Gaskins

Robert Gaskins invented PowerPoint. He studied computer science for research in the humanities and linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, and then set up and managed the computer science research section of an international telecommunications R&D laboratory. His PowerPoint business plan attracted Apple’s first strategic venture capital investment and soon after that his company became Microsoft’s first significant acquisition. He then headed the Silicon Valley graphics business unit of Microsoft for five years continuing to develop PowerPoint to an annual sales level of over $100 million.

Mindjet: How did you visualize PowerPoint when you were working on it, before everyone knew about it and before it became the pervasive, ubiquitous presentation tool it is today?

Robert Gaskins: Well, the original Mac had just shipped so there were no prototyping tools for us to use. We proceeded by creating fully-detailed precise drawings to visualize every screen, every menu, every dialogue box, every kind of output. We wrote a manual explaining how to use the product shown in the mocked-up drawings, and if something was complicated to explain in the manual we changed it in the drawings. We wrote some substantial papers analyzing our difficult decisions, the “open issues,” and kept a list of those and their resolutions. We did small programming experiments.

I also wrote conventional product-planning documents, with quantitative market research, competitive analyses, summaries of features and benefits, plus conventional business plans, spreadsheets, and even presentations. (These are more interesting now than they were twenty years ago. They’re on my website.) But these documents were for communicating with outsiders, particularly investors.

Developing any truly new product is hard because you have to figure out what your customers will want before the customers know. In the days of PowerPoint 1.0 development (1984-1987, twenty years ago now) the people who gave presentations did not yet even use computers themselves—they worked through secretaries, artists, and service bureaus. The big idea for PowerPoint was to directly empower the “content originators” so they could cut out the intermediaries and create their own presentations using the brand-new Macintosh computer and its graphical user interface. We had to predict what would persuade presenters to buy Macs and PowerPoint. We had to avoid being misled by the opinions of the intermediaries and of the early computer users who were using minicomputers, neither of whom were like our target presenters.

I played the role of our ideal customer, using a large collection that I’d made of manually-produced presentations as evidence of what presenters wanted to create. Fortunately presenters did go out and buy graphical computers to use PowerPoint 1.0, which is what got Apple interested in investing in us, and then got Microsoft interested in buying us.

MJ: As in any startup, credit for the long-term success of PowerPoint is due to the “wizards” who were there early to set the direction. How did you keep your original team focused on the specific opportunity? What tools did you use?

RG: The main technique is to keep the number of people as small as possible, so as to reduce the communications overhead. A tiny group of great people working 80 or 90 hours a week can accomplish vastly more than a much larger conventional organization. The basic work to design PowerPoint was done by me and Dennis Austin for a good while, and then we were joined by Tom Rudkin to refine a shippable product. Communications technologies have improved the ability to work together, but have not eroded the advantage of smaller groups over larger ones. This advantage was true twenty years ago, and is still true for startups today: use a very few minds intensively. Then the tools hardly matter. We continued this strategy for a long time—when PowerPoint was selling over $100 million a year (on both Mac and Windows, in two dozen languages worldwide) there were still fewer than 100 people working on it, exceptional people of course.

MJ: But then how did you balance your work and the rest of your life?

RG: It seems to me most people choose the wrong time periods for thinking about work/life balance. The usual discussion is about achieving a balance every day or every week. That just dilutes and compromises both your work and the rest of your life. A startup is a chance to balance out your work and life over many decades. If you can work, say, five times as effectively as other people (which is hard), and if you can get paid for that, you have the possibility to compress your working life into 9 years instead of 45 years—that will give you an extra 36 years with no work commitments at all, free to travel and choose your own interests. Most of the early PowerPoint people have had careers something like that, working flat-out for a few years and then having long periods of discretionary time. Balance in this form can make up for a lot of all-nighters during the startup.

MJ: Since PowerPoint you yourself have spent time living in London doing research there to revive knowledge of the Victorian concertina, which you call “the only native English musical instrument.” Where does this interest come from? And how do you organize all your various efforts?

RG: Oh, I’d been interested in music for a long time. It’s not unusual—at PowerPoint we hired quite a number of programmers who had backgrounds in fields such as music or art or games along with computer science. The main way of organizing volunteer efforts these days is with websites, by making a sort of “public intranet” for people scattered all over the world who share a minority academic interest. The results can be amazing; a great deal has been discovered about concertina history in the last decade through the widespread collaboration made possible by the net. We live in wonderful times.

For more information about Robert Gaskins and about the history of PowerPoint visit