Software pioneer John Cullinane on breakthroughs, BIRDs, and Boston as a ‘CEO City’

John Cullinane
John Cullinane

Last week, John Cullinane, the founder of Cullinane Corporation (later known as Cullinet), the first company to sell computer software as a standalone product, stopped by The Boston Globe to talk about computer history and his recent book “Smarter Than Their Machines: Oral Histories of Pioneers in Interactive Computing.

He spoke about breaking new ground in the software industry, the growing technology sector in Ireland, and the future of innovation in Boston.

A series of firsts

Cullinane Corp., which was based in Westwood, was the first successful software products company in the computer industry. Before the company began selling software packages to enterprises, software would either be pre-packaged in computer hardware or would be developed in-house to meet a company’s specific computing needs. Cullinane was the first software company to go public, it was the first to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and it was the first to be valued at more than $1 billion. “I was also the first software company to advertise during the Super Bowl, but I’m not very proud of that,” Cullinane said, laughing.

“I formed the company to specialize on software as a product in 1968. At the time, people said it couldn’t be done, others had tried and failed, and the industry gurus at the time predicted that I would too,” Cullinane said.

He said that at one point, the company came close to failing. On a day when they were supposed to pay out $8,500 in payroll, the company only had $500 in the bank. However, a check came through later that day for $8,500 and the company ended up being a success from that point on.

Cullinane was the first software company to received funding from Greylock Ventures, one of the country’s oldest venture capital firms. Today Greylock is one of the premier firms in Silicon Valley, with investments in Facebook, Instagram, Airbnb, and others. Cullinane went public in 1977, and was listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1982. The company was acquired by Computer Associates in 1989.

New kids on the Stock Exchange

Cullinane said that taking the company public and eventually listing on the New York Stock Exchange was incredibly important not only for his company, but for software industry in general.

“All the companies in the software business were looking at our public offering to see what we’d do,” he said. “And since it ended up being so successful, it convinced a lot of people on Wall Street and everywhere that there might be real money to be made in software.”

“It was a big deal, being a first,” Cullinane said on bringing the company to the exchange. “Our office was right next to the Route 128 train, and so I reserved a car on one of the Amtrak trains. All the senior management and their wives came and we had a club car to ourselves,” he said.

“We went down to New York, and we are all on the floor, and the first trade was for us, someone in London bought 100 shares, and when those shares were purchased it went first on the ticker.”

“That was pretty cool,” Cullinane said casually. Then he burst out laughing.

An international business bridge 

In recent years, Cullinane has worked to promote innovation in Ireland and to create partnerships between American businesses and companies in Belfast and Dublin, as well as other major Irish cities.

“Ireland has  a great tradition of intellectual accomplishment and education,” Cullinane said. “So I took it upon myself to promote the Ireland’s high tech industry in the United States.

Cullinane said he also worked on the Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation (Israel BIRD) with Israel, which encouraged joint ventures between Israeli and American tech companies on favorable terms. Cullinane said that the Israel BIRD program has been very successful to this day, and he believes that the Republic of Ireland should introduce a similar Irish BIRD program.

“What was so great about the Israeli BIRD was that Israel had all these smart people building things, and yet they have this small country and it’s a little country just like Ireland,” Cullinane explained. “They were wondering where they were going to get customers from, and they put together BIRD as a way to go and find customers, by matching up with these companies in America that have an excess of customers.”

Boston: The CEO city

Cullinane, who said he has always been curious about how the dials of government turn, has a lot of thoughts on how both Boston and Massachusetts can position themselves as innovation centers.

“I think the state is in very good hands with Charlie Baker. But if I were Baker, I would promote Massachusetts as the CEO state. If I were Marty Walsh, I would start to promote Boston as the CEO city,” Cullinane said.

Cullinane added that both the city and the state have great assets that should appeal to executives looking for an ideal place to set up headquarters. Boston, he said, is a strategic location for companies to do business throughout the world.

“CEOs often do things for personal reasons, like move the headquarters of a business to Palm Beach because they like to golf or to Colorado because they like to ski,” Cullinane explained. “They may be in some location right now that might not be a strategic location for them to run their business.”

Cullinane said he would sell Boston as the only city that is strategically located to address the key concerns of a CEO; specifically, he said it’s a livable city, it has access to great talent, it has access to great universities, and it has world class hospitals. If Boston became a “CEO City,” it would give executives the opportunity to network with CEOs from other startups and other major companies. He added that Boston is also strategically located, with an increasing number of direct international flights out of Logan. “When you put this message to a CEO that is thinking about where to locate headquarters, these things could tip things,” Cullinane said.

Dennis Keohane was a Senior Staff Writer for BetaBoston.
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