Fred Ebrahimi

Not skill alone, but total involvement

Not skill alone, but total involvement of its engineers is what the dominant software company is looking for, Fred Ebrahimi, President and CEO, Quark, tells Roopinder Singh

QUARK has dominated the publishing software market for long. Founded in 1981, in Denver, Colorado, USA, the company set up a software development centre in India in November, 1998. Farhad F. (Fred) Ebrahimi, President and CEO, Quark Incorporated, has a slightly rumpled and casual look that bespeaks more of an academic rather a businessman. He was in Chandigarh recently and the following are excerpts from an exclusive interview:

How did Quark manage to get the massive market share that it has of the publishing world? Was it the typographical precision?

Because we have the best product. Quark has 90 per cent of the share in publishing and that’s reasonable (laugh). Reliability, ease of use and a very strong architecture so that it is flexible and can be changed, and the extensions. I have people coming to me and saying that when they use the competitor’s products, they spend double the time. And time is quite valuable.

I think that it is because we have spent tremendous amount of time and energy trying to understand what makes a customer happy when he uses it. You are correct also that we have tremendous precision. We supported very strong typographical features way earlier than anybody else. It is not just the features, it feels better.

How did you all come up with the idea of having something like Quark?

The company was started by a partner of mine (Tim Gill, see box), who is no longer a shareholder He came from the computer side and I came from the computer and publishing background. When we got involved, both of us wanted to democratise publishing. In those days, because of the expensive cost of pre-press processes, very few people could publish. It took millions of dollars to start a publication.

We thought that it would be a good contribution to the world if we provided tools so that people with modest means could publish. So we used our skills as engineers and when we shipped QuarkXPress 1.0 there were only eight of us. Five were engineers and the rest administrative, accounting staff, etc. It took us nine months to ship QuarkXPress 1.0. It was a labour of love.

What is Quark?

Software engineer Tim Gill founded Quark in 1981, producing the first word processor for the Apple II computer. Gill named the company Quark after the subatomic particle proposed as a building block for all matter.

Fred Ebrahimi, Quark’s president and CEO, came on board in 1986. A year later the company released QuarkXPress 1.0, sparking a publishing revolution. During the next few years, Quark focused on perfecting the features, such as typography, hyphenation, multilanguage capabilities, and professional output features that have made QuarkXPress the most popular publishing software among designers, publishers and printers around the world. By the early 1990s, QuarkXPress had solidified its position as the industry leader in the electronic publishing market.

When did you start?

We started in June,1986 and we shipped in March, 1987.

By that time you had other products for desktop publishing?

Not desktop publishing, but word processing. We had a product called Word Juggler for Apple II.

Page Maker was, however, there.

Yes. Page Maker had an extensive market share. There were 50 other products, including Ready Set Go. It’s not that we didn’t have any competition.

You did well till QuarkXPress 4, which did not quite turn out to be as it was expected.

We made a mistake with Quark 4.0. I have apologised publicly. We didn’t test it enough. We had great new features. What we didn’t do is test it as strongly as we should have and Quark 4.1, subsequently, solved those problems and we have made a commitment that Quark 5.0 will not ship till our customers say “ship.”

What is the direction that 5.0 will be going in?

Well, the most significant issue of 5.0 is we are producing a tool that would enable you to go to print and, with the same person and same resources, be able to create a Web page with it conveniently.

The HTML output from 5.0 is very powerful, from which you could produce, for example, e-books (in Microsoft Reader), Flash or SVG. There is one thing that is very important to understand about this strategy—we all know that publishers are losing money on the Web. There is no substantial revenue there, but they have to do it anyway. They have to have a Web site, they can’t say, “I don’t have a Web site.” And right now they have all the additional cost without the revenue to compensate. So it is a losing proposition. We think that we are making a major contribution there. You could do what you make money at — namely, print publications, and at the same time put things on the Web without an additional cost. That’s the strategy. Obviously we have added many features, like tables, layers, but those are not as important as this fundamental issue.

So, in effect, Quark is moving from print publishing to conversion.

You are absolutely correct.

And in this you are supporting the industry standard in HTML, compatible with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3)?

Absolutely. Actually the vehicle we use is XML. Quark is a senior member of W3 and we use very clean, standard HTML output. None of the crazy derivatives that you have problems with later on. In fact, you could take the HTML that we produce and take it to a product like Dreamweaver and additionally modify it if you wish.

Our commitment first is to our installed base. They are the ones who have stuck with us, good or bad; they have paid us, they have given us great ideas, and criticised us. We love publishing and we are not going to abandon it, as other companies are doing. We are committed to publishing. I have it in my blood. I love publishing and a lot of our staff is from publishing background and we are doing everything we can to help publishing.

What are the other Quark products?

A very good example is Quark Digital Media System, or DMS, and quite a bit of work on it is being done in this very building (Chandigarh). The same is the case with QuarkXPress 5.0.

The whole thing about DMS is the ability to store the content and deploy it, whether for print or Internet or whatever you want it for. It seamlessly integrates with QuarkXPress to allow you to easily reuse individual elements from QuarkXPress pages in a variety of publications.

We have to admit that we are pleasantly surprised that not only the publishing industry likes it, like the Independent newspaper in South Africa, but we also have customers like mail order catalogue firms, banks, and financial institutions like Barclay using it. It is a very powerful product for us and it is generating very good revenue.

It has a very tight integration with QuarkXpress, though we also support other programs like PhotoShop and Microsoft Word.

Quark Wrapture is for very sophisticated packaging design; you can look at it three dimensionally and so on. We have not tried to market it in India, but basically in the USA and Japan.

Most of the work on Mirim (data analysis and decision support tools for examining historical and real-time sales data from the Internet and print promotions) is being done here (in Chandigarh). It is about seeing how effective a marketing campaign is, because a lot of times people spend tremendous amount of money in marketing and retail campaigns for certain merchandise but don’t know how effective it is, who buys it, why he buys it and so on. Mirim combines date from existing order management systems, digital images from catalogues and web pages and data from e-commerce systems, resulting in a single solution for direct marketing professionals.

Why did you come to India in the first place? What has your Indian experience been like?

I am an explorer. Being an Iranian, this is like a second home to me. I feel comfortable. My wife loved it, my children love it. There is an affinity.

I have to admit that from a business point of view, it wasn’t a number one priority at first. It was a personal issue and we have enjoyed it here. There are difficulties, I don’t want to in any form or shape disregard those, but it is worth it.

What is it that makes it worth it?

In a very modest way, we feel that we have made a difference here. That means a lot to me.

What exactly is the kind of work that you are doing here?

This is what makes us significantly different from other companies. We do truly original work We treat our engineers exactly the same way as we do in the USA and they are treated exactly the same way as they would be in the USA or Germany, and get the same respect as they would in the USA. We have people here who are working on QuarkXPress 5.0, which is obviously very important to us, it is a $100 million-a-year revenue product, they are working on DMS, on Mirim.

We are doing something that not too many companies are trying to do. Most other IT activities are contract work here, year Y2K and so on, and that’s not the most interesting work. It’s one time. You do the work and it’s for a third party, which you don’t even know. What we are developing is a product that many companies use so you get a different kind of satisfaction out of that.

Has the economic slowdown in the USA affected Quark?

Yes. If any company says that the economic slowdown hasn’t affected it, it’s lying.

Have you laid off anybody?

No. No way. We are, actually, in a hiring mode. First of all we predicted this slowdown. When everyone else was hiring, we cancelled projects in some cases. We ended up with a lower level of staff in the USA, which was a part of our strategy. We were very well prepared. We are also very liquid. We have zero debt. We are lenders to banks, not borrowers from banks. We have a very strong economic situation, so we can take advantage of this slowdown and expand.

We are in the expansion mode all over the world, especially in India. However, let me be very honest with you. What we are doing is that we are raising the bar of expectation. Don’t be surprised if you hear that I have let someone go. Non-productive engineers are everywhere, even in this building. We weren’t right with every engineer that we hired. But please don’t misunderstand and think that we are lowering the staff. We are going to hire over 500 engineers in Chandigarh, as soon as we find ones who are good. Whether it takes two months, or two years.

What we are not going to do is just fill the position regardless of the qualifications. We are going to be much more demanding. So Quark will be a hard place to get in.

During the bubble time, a lot of expectation was built, a lot of people were given positions that they should not have been given in every company, including Quark, and corrections are needed. We are lucky in that we are prepared for this and we can go up, but a lot of companies have to cut. We are not cutting a single position because of lack of money. If we do any cutting; it is because the person is not qualified.

What kind of skills is Quark looking for?

There is something more important than skill. You are talking to me at a very special moment. I think that before skill, we have come to the conclusion we want to look for a certain character. A lot of people were inducted in the IT business worldwide, including India, but they don’t have the intellectual capacity and emotional commitment to be in the software business. People shouldn’t become software developers unless they really love this and they have a tremendous caring. Frankly, I compare it to good journalism. A great journalist loves what he does. He doesn’t do it for the money or for any other reason than searching for the truth.

In software you want to please the customer. What you should be doing is developing absolutely the best you can for the customer. That orientation is not strong outside the USA. Even in the USA, it’s not all that common, though there is a little better understanding of how to find out what the customer wants. In India or Germany, they are accustomed to somebody giving the specifications, because they have done contract work, and then preparing the coding according to the specifications. They have a rigid process. It is not interactive, it is not creative. So a lot of people in India are not trying to work in such an interactive, flexible way. In fact they have been trying to be rigid. So we want a person who is creative, is open to new ideas, and is also a good engineer. But believe me, being a good engineer is secondary.

Somebody who pushes the bubble just that little bit extra when needed?

And cares. In fact, I am very seriously considering hiring non-engineers to do IT work because they bring a human side. Look, I am an engineer and I feel comfortable criticising my own kind. We are not trained to have a sense of history, of art, of humanity and so on. Very few of us read poetry.

We deal with formulas and questions. We see the world differently. We need those skills, but they are not hard to come by. We need to be human first.

You are well known for your attempts to help disadvantaged children.

I think that it’s important to have education available to disadvantaged children. I don’t want them to learn about technology alone, because I think that it’s even more important that they learn about humanity. So a blend of technological education and humanities is needed. So I am more than happy to do what I can reasonably do to help.

What are the projects that you are working on in Chandigarh?

We have started with a programme for scholarships as an experiment. Forty scholarships, I believe, and they have chosen the candidates. We want to run it as an experiment and, if it is successful, I want to expand it.

A large number of children are doing IT courses in India. What kinds of skill sets have a future? What languages have a future?

This is another problem in India, not just in this country, but more severely here. I think that the language, etc, are not important. But the image here is that someone heard that his or her friend is a Java programmer and is earning double the salary. Therefore, they study Java. They have no understanding of Java; they have no love of that. The language used to develop the software is number five in our list of priorities. Engineers again think that’s that most important issue. That’s not true.

Actually we have some serious questions about Java. Java applications have not been as efficient. The fact of the matter is that I don’t know of a single, real successful Java application that has sold a lot. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with Java, we are using Java, as are millions of companies, but in some areas it is very appropriate to use C because it is much more efficient.

To some young kids and pundits, it becomes a religion and it’s “my religion is better than your religion,” which is nonsense, which is garbage. You should use the right tool for doing the work and sometimes it is Java, or C++ or, at times, C. One thing is emerging as very important, that we fully support in QuarkXpress 5.0, is XML. You have got to have a way in which you can communicate all the work that you have done with something else, a way that’s language independent.

We will have all kinds of languages. In my lifetime in computer sciences I have seen over 700 languages. I used to code myself in PL1 (Programming Language 1, used by IBM on mainframes). It’s like saying that a pen is more important than the poem.

The Tribune, Log in Tribune, May 7, 2001.