Government Gateway chronicles part 1: “Microsoft are our common enemy”

In business it’s been my experience that chance happenings, hard work and good luck lead to success more often than detailed strategic planning. This was definitely true when I found myself involved in Software AG’s efforts around the Government Gateway in the early 2000s.

I joined Software AG in the summer of 2001 from a web content management startup (Mediasurface). It was fortunate that I did. Mediasurface was haemorrhaging venture capital at an alarming rate. Some weeks after I left, Mediasurface was downsized drastically. I still have my share option certificate and occasionally wonder what on earth I’d have done with all the riches it was supposed to have bestowed on me.

The invitation to join Software AG came from two former Computer Associates’ colleagues. I knew of Software AG because of a faintly ridiculous encounter I’d had with them in the mid-1980s. I’d asked an employee if the Adabas database (like Ingres) had an embedded SQL interface. This was answered in the form of a (very) long lecture on why SQL was the spawn of the devil and why Adabas was the only true way. A consistent feature of Software AG during its 50 years has been passionate advocacy for our (often unique) approach to software engineering.

I was at Mediasurface the next time I bumped into Software AG. This happened during the 2001 Socitm Spring Conference, where XML was being positioned as the key enabler for e-government. By lunchtime I’d become rather tired of being asked if the Mediasurface product was based on XML (it wasn’t) and had gone brochure hunting instead. I picked up one for Tamino – the XML database – and asked a Software AG representative who on earth would need such a thing. You can guess how long it was before I managed to prise myself away …

One of the early assignments I had after joining Software AG was working on our bid for a local government ‘pathfinder’ project at Sedgemoor District Council. (It wasn’t my first assignment – this was for Leeds City Council, who remain the only client I’ve ever worked with who insisted on recording our meetings.) The Sedgemoor ‘virtual service provider’ project was the first time that I’d seen the Government Gateway mentioned outside of the press. It was a ‘negotiated’ procurement process and in November 2001 we were informed that we’d not won it. One of the pieces of feedback we received was that they believed they needed a piece of Microsoft technology known as a DIS (Departmental Interface Server) to work with the Gateway. “You’re not a Microsoft partner, so you can’t meet this requirement” was the gist of what was said.

This was intensely annoying for a number of reasons. Firstly, as the Gateway used documented XML standards it was more than possible for us to work with it. We’d shown that we could, using Tamino X-bridge (later renamed EnitreX XML Mediator) against the Inland Revenue’s ISV test Government Gateway. Secondly, our corporate tagline at the time was ‘The XML Company’, so senior management took a dim view of any suggestion that we didn’t do XML as well as someone else. Thirdly, we’d had lots of success that year in selling XML middleware to UK local government. If we were good enough for Birmingham City Council, we were good enough for anyone! One of my colleagues remarked that we should build our own DIS to demonstrate that they were wrong. At the time I laughed …

2002 arrived and Software AG was struggling. Worldwide sales had dropped from around €600m in FY2000 to just over €400m in FY2001, primarily due to difficulties in re-integrating the US business. The XML database market hadn’t grown in the way the analysts had predicted. The partner channel was also underperforming expectations, so there was renewed focus on trying to encourage business through that route. Alex Campbell, a long-time Software AG employee, was working as our UK partner manager at the time. One rainy lunchtime towards the end of April he happened to be walking past my desk and asked what I thought he should talk to the Sun local government team about. Having known Sun salespeople for most of my career (my first job after university was porting the PAFEC DOGS CAD software onto a Sun 2/50), I suggested that he might want to provoke them. This is what I came up with.

Our corporate offer wasn’t that exciting – as slide 3 of the presentation I spent that afternoon crafting shows.

Slide 3 of a presentation given to Sun in May 2002.

I predicted that by the time he’d finished talking through it, Sun’s salespeople would have already switched off. Hence slide 4. Marmite time. Alex was either going to love it or hate it. Given the legendary antipathy between Sun and Microsoft, I hoped that at the very least it would spark a discussion. It did.

The slide that started it all ...By the time I got to the “architecture” slide Alex was sold on the concept and he pitched it to Sun in early May.

The first 'Sun Software AG DIS' "architecture" slide
The first ‘Sun Software AG DIS’ “architecture” slide. IESD = Integrated Electronic Service Delivery – a Tamino-based CRM product we sold to UK local government customers from 1999 onwards.

I wasn’t able to be at that first meeting with Sun, but the slides had the desired effect. I’m fairly sure that some people at Sun were thinking along similar lines too, but this certainly galvanised the effort. We agreed to jointly approach the Office of the e-Envoy to explore the idea further. But without the Marmite, obviously. Because it was nonsense (as well as grammatically incorrect). Without Microsoft, there would have been no gateway in the first place, and no opportunity for us.

To follow soon: Government Gateway chronicles part 2: The Gateway Interface Project gets the green light