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Former Veritas CEO Bill Coleman Mourned As Software Visionary

‘The No. 1 job of a CEO is to give purpose to a company. Bill had a vision around what data meant to the world’s largest companies and what it meant to manage that data and make it an important resource for those companies. And he did that very well. He focused on things five years out, and didn’t look at next week,’ says Mike Palmer, CEO of business analytics startup Sigma Computing.

William “Bill” Coleman, the serial entrepreneur who oversaw the start of the entire middleware industry and successfully brought Veritas out of the shadow of Symantec, passed away Monday night.

Coleman (pictured with his wife Claudia Coleman in 2018 in a photo courtesy of the University of Colorado) had been dealing with cancer for some time before succumbing to it at the age of 73.

Coleman was best known as the “B” in BEA, the middleware company he co-founded with Ed Scott and Alfred Chuang, and as the man who helped Veritas return to its place as a leading provider of data protection technology before he left in 2018 to return to the venture capital business with The Carlyle Group and Alsop Louie Partners. However, his longest-lasting legacy is likely to be the foundation 20 years ago of the University of Colorado’s Coleman Institute for Cognitive Disabilities.

[Related: Veritas CEO Bill Coleman: Digital Transformation Requires A Platform For Information Management]

Coleman founded that organization after observing his niece, who had a cognitive disability, interacting with a Macintosh computer, said Ken McConnellogue, vice president for communication in the Office of the President at the University of Colorado.

The Coleman Institute for Cognitive Disabilities now holds a yearly conference attended by hundreds of people in the cognitive disability space, helped develop multiple apps to help people with cognitive disabilities carry on daily tasks, and issued a Declaration of the Rights of People with Cognitive Disabilities to Technology and Information Access that was endorsed by 645 organizations worldwide, McConnellogue told CRN.

“The Declaration adopted a people-first, not a disability-first, view,” he said. “Bill’s goal was to use technology to make sure the lives of people with cognitive disabilities were made better.”

McConnellogue said a colleague of his recently told him that Coleman over the last three years was working hands-on to build the Institute for the next 10 years.

“He brought on many technology people to talk about the importance of tech for people with cognitive disabilities,” he said.

Coleman was known for his long-term vision by many in the IT industry who worked with and for him over several decades.

Scott Dietzen, former CEO and now vice chairman of the board at Mountain View, Calif.-based all-flash storage and cloud management vendor Pure Storage, was the vice president of marketing at WebLogic when that company, which invented the idea of the application server, was acquired by BEA in 1998.

BEA under Coleman had the idea to build database containers, which now almost seems prescient, and with WebLogic was able to build cloud-like infrastructures before businesses thought about doing so, Dietzen said. That acquisition helped turn BEA into a billion-dollar company, he said.

“Bill was very informed,” he said. “And he cared a lot about people and their success. ... He knew the details, but fostered accountability. One lesson I learned from him was, if you want really great people, you have to delegate responsibility.”

Coleman’s ability to stay focused on the future was evident before the founding of BEA, back when Coleman was at Sun Microsystems where he was put in charge of a project in the early 1990s to migrate Sun’s operations from the company’s HP3000 minicomputer and a mainframe to Sun’s own distributed server technology, said Alfred Chuang, who was in charge of developing the architecture to make Sun run on Sun equipment.

Chuang, who would eventually join Coleman in co-founding BEA, told CRN that the migration effort at Sun eventually led to a new class of software called middleware, a term which was used sporadically at Sun but was part of BEA’s initial pitch to analyst firm Gartner.

Coleman, the oldest of the three BEA co-founders, was in some ways more philosophical and disciplined than the others, in part because he came from a large family and in part because of his time at the U.S. Air Force Academy where would have been a fighter pilot if he had had better eyesight, Chuang said.

While Ed Scott looked at aggressive acquisitions to drive growth, and Chuang looked at all manner of technical ideas, Coleman took a measured approach to the business.

“Ed and I were the goofy ones,” he said. “Bill was the adult. It was really interesting. When you do a startup, almost all ideas are supposed to be crazy. The best ideas are those that can change the world.”

That was where Coleman excelled, Chuang said.

“I could always count on Bill to go through my ideas and be supportive to the point that he would lay on the railroad tracks for me,” he said.

In early 1998, Chuang said he approached Coleman with the idea that BEA needs to be an e-commerce platform company.

“Bill said to me, ‘That’s a great idea, Alfred. We should go do it,’” he said. ”I would say a non-visionary person, when they hear those kind of things, their first reaction would be, ’Stop. We’ve only been public for two years. Everything is going good. You can go do some experiments. But don’t tell me we’re going to turn the entire company and hire a new sales force to do something different.’”

Chuang said that, at the time, BEA seeded small sales with its clients in the expectation they would grow over time into an enterprise licensing agreement.

“I said, I want to give all the stuff away,” he said. ”He said, ‘OK, to who?’ I said, ’To any developer, free to develop, free to deploy.’ He said, ’How are we going to make any money?’ I said, ’Well, if eventually they deploy enough, we go back and we charge them.’ He said, ’That’s all good Alfred, but what do we do with the gap?’ I said, ’We may have to miss a quarter or two of revenue.’ He said, ’That’s a great idea.’ Just like that.”

It was a tough decision as it would take time to change the sales force during which they may not be able to sign any deals, making the developers the ultimate source of future deals, Chuang said.

Chuang proposed BEA take a drastic step and acquire a dot-com company, WebLogic, which was much more in line with the developers.

“I brought [the WebLogic people] to see Bill, and Bill said, ‘You know these guys are crazy, right?” he said. ”I said, ’Of course, they’re crazy.’ He said, ’What are you thinking?’ I said, ’I think we should buy them.’ He said, ’How much will that cost?’ I said, ’Twenty percent of our market cap.’ He said, ’OK, how much market revenue do they have?’ I said, ’$4,000.” He said, ’Oh, wow, you know the shareholders are not going to like this.’ I said, ’I know they won’t. They won’t like it now, but I can assure you in four to five quarters, they’re going to love us to death.’ And Bill said, ’That’s crazy. Let’s go do that.’”

The board of directors unanimously rejected the deal except for the biggest shareholder, Bill Janeway of private equity firm Warburg Pincus, who Chuang said was another true visionary.

Coleman went ahead with the acquisition anyway, which led to an immediate 60-percent drop in BEA‘s share prices but turned BEA into a dot-com company. It was the kind of thing that really tested the two partners’ relationship, Chuang said.

“We were about to walk into this pre-earnings call, before the market opens, and tell the Street, we‘re just not going to get there, but the world’s going to be rosy in the future,” he said. ”Bill said, ’You know what? There’s no regret. I wouldn’t have done it any other way. Proceed, Albert. We should do it.’”

Chuang went into the call expecting the analysts to ask a million questions. “I remember Bill left to go skiing, because the questions went on and on and on for over an hour,” he said. ”He left. He got on a plane and left. And I was answering the rest of the questions. And then he called me after, and asked how everything was. And I said. ‘Things went very well, except our stock dropped down 60 percent.’ He said, ’Oh, OK.’ I said, ’What should we do now, Bill?’ He said, ’Well, I don’t know about you, but if I were you I’d just go relax and forget about this whole thing. I am going to go down the slope real quick.’ And he did.”

In the end, that turned out to be a real good decision, with revenue quickly snapping back and the company changing the world of software, Chuang said.

“The world went crazy about the adoption of the internet,” he said. ”And this was really the very, very first time in the enterprise that the adoption of developer relations became a thing.”

Chuang said he will never run into another person like Coleman who took the risks he did despite a lack of training in taking risk.

“For a guy so educated, so thoughtful, so philosophical, and so visionary, to take these kind of very tactical risks, it worked,” he said. ”It didn’t just allow me to do the things I needed to do. But strategically, stepping up to buy these companies, or making other monumentally big decisions of the direction of the company--companies don’t just make 90-degree turns when everything is doing well.”

Coleman eventually left BEA in late 2001, and two years later founded another company, Cassatt, to develop data center energy management software. Cassatt was later sold to CA, while Coleman went into the venture financing business. He was eventually tapped by The Carlyle Group after that private equity firm in 2016 acquired Veritas Technology to be its new CEO.

Veritas, previously one of the IT industry’s top data protection vendors, had suffered during the eight years it was owned by security company Symantec, and it needed someone to rebuild its business.

That someone was Coleman, said Mike Palmer, the CEO of business analytics startup Sigma Computing and the former executive vice president and chief product officer at Veritas during Coleman’s tenure there.

Coleman brought confidence and a vision back to Veritas, Palmer told CRN.

“The No. 1 job of a CEO is to give purpose to a company,” Palmer said. “Bill had a vision around what data meant to the world’s largest companies and what it meant to manage that data and make it an important resource for those companies. And he did that very well. He focused on things five years out, and didn’t look at next week.”

Anyone who was successful with Coleman found him a passionate supporter, Palmer said.

“Bill would say, if you are willing to rise to a challenge and put your name on it, he would be there for you,” he said.

Jeremy Burton, now the CEO of San Mateo, Calif.-based Observe, was a newly-minted executive at Veritas when Coleman joined the company, and found Coleman to be a true visionary.

“He had had this huge vision for data center automation at Cassatt,” Burton told CRN. “He was trying to build a fully-automated system we now called the ‘cloud.’ He explained it to me, but the vision was so big and grand I was thinking I must have a small brain to not comprehend it.”

Mark Teter, enterprise architect at San Antonio, Texas-based Sirius Computer Solutions, has worked as a channel partner for Veritas for many years, and said that Coleman is a real legend in the IT industry.

“He definitely helped Veritas establish itself again,” Teter told CRN. “It was him helping Veritas compete against the startups like the Rubriks and the Veeams. He brought in good people, and helped Veritas recover after it was sold by Symantec.

Teter said his former company, Advanced Systems Group, which was acquired this year by Sirius, had written Veritas off as a data protection vendor.

“Now, with our healthcare and big company customers, Veritas is back doing its thing, and people are relying on it,” he said. “I would say Bill saved Veritas.”

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