There never was a company quite like EDS (Electronic Data Systems). It filled an opening created by an explosive technology early in the 1960s; but its founder, Ross Perot, did not recruit for technological skills. Himself trained as an electrical engineer at the Naval Academy, he had been in the middle of his class academically. He valued other qualities, in himself and others, and sought specific types for his business venture. As he said when I interviewed him recently in Dallas, “I never had any of the ideas I used, but I used them with a focus and relentlessness that is somewhat unique. What I bring to the table is that I make things work.”
Perot wanted men who were, like him, doers rather than thinkers. They should be married, though he intended to take them away from their wives for long stretches of time. He favored men with military experience, preferably combat experience—an odd qualification for people who would mainly be computer programmers and operators. Like J. Edgar Hoover, he liked to recruit people from religious schools. He put them in uniform—dark suits, white shirts, plain ties, short hair, smooth-shaven. He encouraged secrecy. The firm’s very name was vague, and he explained its business, noncommittally, as “facilities management.” He wanted others to know as little as possible about his unit’s activities. Even his closest associates should not be certain what their fellows in the company were earning. You might think he was setting up a paramilitary operation—and, in a way, he was.
The gap Perot meant to fill was more a manpower problem than a technological one. Perot had been an IBM salesman, selling the company’s computers to people who were clamoring for this new wonder—who, in fact, had trouble getting the computers they wanted, so far was demand running ahead of supply. Perot, who quickly met his selling quota under these conditions, saw that the computers already in service were being used for only some of their capacity, and not even efficiently, to do the work for which they had been programmed. Tailoring the software to each business’s peculiar needs, then entering all the requisite information into the program, was immensely time-consuming. The in-house programmers of most purchasers were setting up their systems tentatively, in stages, over a long period. If new programmers were hired for the initial, labor-intensive part of this process, they would have to be laid off as soon as timesaving goals were reached.
Perot saw the obvious and acted on it. If he brought in a team of specialists for fitting the computers to individual company needs, he could, by a crash effort, cut the initial programming time, eliminate the need for in-house operators, and then maintain the system for a prestated fee, while his initial team moved on to new companies. He could even set up systems for those people still waiting for their own computers, renting other companies’ idle machines, so the system would …