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STARring Carlos Cuadra.

When the Online Information Age dawned, Carlos Cuadra was there, probably thinking about how to improve on, and sell access to, the colorful sunrise. Yes, when online delivery of information was on a dream, Carlos Cuadra was one of the primary dreamers. It was Carlos who founded the Orbit Search Service (now part of Maxwell Online). Without him the online information world we know today would be markedly different.

Carlos' vision, inventiveness, and entrepreneurial spirit shaped the development of Orbit, and, with it, the information industry itself. Along with Roger Summit at Dialog, Carlos Cuadra is responsible for creating an industry where one previously did not exist. His name is also synonymous with tracking the growth of the information industry. The Cuadra Directory of Online Databases provided the statistical analysis used to explain how online information was exponentially exploding.

Does this bring to your mind some doddering old fogy, immersed in the past, living his life at 300 baud? Think again. Meeting Carlos, with his brisk walk and easy laugh, is greeting the future, not revisiting the past.

Cuadra, as in Cuadra Associates

Today Carlos Cuadra is president of Cuadra Associates, a company that designs and sells STAR, a sophisticated, multi-user text management and information retrieval software system. Cuadra Associates is located in West Los Angeles, a building with (what else?) an automated touchscreen building directory. Carlos has a large office with a view of the frantic drivers on the Santa Monica freeway.

There are clues in this office about what keeps Carlos on the cutting edge of information technology. Not that it's a glitzy, high tech office, although powerful computers are on every desk I saw. There's computer code on office balckboards, and a normal complement of fax machines and high tech telephone systems. But a large fake palms tree stands in the corner of Carlos' office and a plush armadillo sits on his computer. Next door, sharing the office with Carlos' long time colleague Judy Wanger, is a life size stuffed Snoopy. And the staftt room sports a pink pig next to the coffee pot. Wind it up and it was walks across the countertop oinking. It is Carlos, grinning broadly, who winds it up to show me.

This is a company that recognizes fun as a necessary component in the workplace. It is noticeable how many times the world "fun" occurs in Carlos" conversation. Of course, when it's your company, you can set the tone. But this is a man who spent over 20 years building an onlinge host system for Systems Development Corporaton (SDC)--a large, rather bureaucratic, company. Did he have fun during that time, too?

Cuadra in Orbit

"Yes, it's great fun to invent things," recalls Carlos thinking back to those early days. Carlos joined SDC in 1956. Prior to that he had used his PhD in psychology as a research psychologist for the Veterans Administration and a training specialist for the RAND Corporation. But at SDC the switched from psychology to information.

SDC at that time lived on government contract money. "We were the western Beltway Bandits," says Carlos, referring to consultands who thrive in the Washington, DC area enclosed by the freeway system there. The contract that Carlos landed was with the National Library of Medicine. He created the ELHILL retrieval software for MEDLINE. ELHILL is the precursor of both the MEDLARS software and Orbit itself.

Sure with an innovative a technology as online information retrieval, everyone immediately grasped the import for the future? Not according to Carlos. "I did a survey in 1970 of known NTIS information purchasers, trying to find out what the level of interest was for online information retrieval. I hald only a one percent return rate. Most had no idea that this would have any value. The survey basically said there is no market for this kind of thing. Any sane person would not do this. So I ignored the survey and advised SDC to develop an online system." Although Carlos put the survey results in his desk drawer and told no one the results, he learned a valuable lesson. "There are certain kinds of things you can't ask people. If the need doesn't exist, you have to build it first. If you build it, he will come.''

Thinking back on SDC's many layers of management, Carlos remembers ignoring other rules and regulations as well. "If we'd done it right, followed SDC procedures, Orbit wouldn't exist." Take, for example, a little problem Carlos had with loading the Chemical Abstracts Condensates file in early 1973. An SDC programmer had written a routine to convert and load records. But it could only load 4,000 records per hour. The cost to load the entire database: $200,000. Carlos didn't have that kind of money in his budget. So he did what any entrepreneur would do. He made a deal with his son, Neal, who was learning programming at UCLA. Now SDC didn't know about this deal because they had a nepotism policy. The Neal deal was this. The faster Neal could load the records, the bigger his automotive reward. If the incremental increase wasn't very big, it was Tonka time for Neal, but if it was significant, he'd get a real car. This was a big incentive for a kid who had to take the bus to college. In ten days, Neal had pushed load time up to 39,000 records an hours and the cost down to $2,500. His new Toyota sported the license plate RTD BUS. Both Neal and his wife Ruth now work for Cuadra Associates.

Once it became apparent that there was an online information business, SDC increased the responsibilities of Carlos. He went from group head to department head to general manager of the SDC Search Service. In the 1970s, as online hosts grew rapidly, SDC and Dialog were often in competition for both database producers and online searchers. There was a time when Carlos and Roger Summit attended every online show. And what did these fierce competitors do in their spare time? Carlos and Roger could often be found at any pinao in the vicinity, playing duets and singing in harmony. Is there a connection that these two musicians were also pioneers in developing online host systems?


As time went on, the difficulties of being an entrepreneur in a non-entrepreneutrial company began to take their toll on Carlos. In 1978, he resigned from SDC to form his own company. "That was hard," admits Carlos. "At SDC, there was still room for development, for growth, but the time came when it became--just not exciting any more."

In search of fun, Carlos and Judy Wanger rented office space and declared themselves consultants to search services and database producers. Comments Carlos, "There were not many people at the time who had run an online system. So we were rare commodities."

Cuadra Associates' first major project came from LINK Resources. Haines Gaffner wanted a study of the online database marketplace and who were better positioned to undertake this than Carlos and Judy? The resulting study, published in 1978, was called "Strategies in the Online Database Marketplace" and contained the germs of what became, in the fall of 1979, The Cuadra Directory of Online Databases.

The first directory was only 5/8 of an inch thick and had lots of white space to make it look bigger. It has more than trebled in size since. Cuadra Associates began a second directory in 1990, this one of portable databases. It too is growing at an astounding rate as new database appear in CD-ROM, diskette and tape form. However, this past year Carlos made the decision to sell the directories to Gale Publishing. "We decided to get out of the publishing business and concentrate on our main product, STAR," explains Carlos.

If the directory was Cuadra Associates' first major product, STAR was the second one. Started only six months after the company began, it was designed to be an Orbit-like retrieval package that could be managed in-house. "We wanted users to be able to index on the fly," says Carlos. "We wanted people to have a front end for entering data and give them freedom from programmers." Other initial objectives were that the system support multiple simultaneous users, use high-speed full-screen techniques, have immediate dynamic updating, fully protect the user's data, and run on micro-computers. If that sounds commonplace, remember we're talking late 1970s here, when the computer revolution was just beginning.

"We though the customers would be organizations of a relatively small size with private files. But the people interested in the first version were large libraries. By the second version of STAR, we knew we had a tiger by the tail."

Among the first customers for STAR were the National Agricultural Library, the Library of Congress, and the University of Maryland, not exactly small entities. By 1988, there were over 100 STAR systems in operation. Libraries use STAR for online public access catalogs. The Resolution Trust Corporation has STAR for its reading rooms. In Los Angeles, CALL (Community Access Library Line) uses STAR to maintain their database of community services and programs. Database producers such as CINAHL (Cumulative Index to Nursing & Allied Health Literature) is an multi-system STAR user. Outside the U.S., STAR is also a success. The BBC uses STAR for its new operation. Even the Tower of London uses STAR to manage its historical collection. In Mexico, both the National University of Mexico (with 400,000 students) and El Colegio de Mexico (with 400 students) are STAR users. The Mexican version of STAR features a Spanish user interface and incorporates alternative spellings based on sound. For example, a search for "Cuadra" will also retrieve "Quadra."

Orgininally STAR ran only on Alpha Microsystems. In response to customer demand, STAR is now available for the UNIX operating system. Having choice between UNIX and Alpha has made purchasing decisions less emotional, believes Carlos. But he worries about this being a step backward, a step toward taking power away from users. His observation on end users versus computer experts is: "End users always do upgrades right because they follow instructions. Experts take shortcuts and get into trouble."

Cuadra Associates is also working on a Windows version of STAR. Carlos admits it has taken him some time to "make peace with the mouse. I'm a keyboard person. I learned to type when I was young. I don't even use function keys." A Windows version will expand STAR's capabilities of automating images and sounds with textual databases. This includes patents, technical reports, and AV library collections. Multimedia will greatly expand STAR's market.

Although Carlos gets excited talking about STAR developments, he admits that customers have contributed many improvements as well. "We've sold them an elegant pencil, but we don't know what they're writing." Much of the idea behind STAR was to empower users to run their own lives without dependence on programmers. "We get out kicks from seeing inventive, creative uses of STAR. AT] User Meetings, we are stunned, shocked and delighted at what our users have created. One customer, for example, created an equivalency table that linked ZIP codes to city and state data."

Does Carlos miss online? The answer is unequivocal, "No, no I don't. Online is very different. One is selling people access to a thing but people all do the same thing with it. They use different search terms, that's all. But there is no learning from one another." For him, the challenge is freeing customers to interact with information and to share techniques. STAR User Groups are set up to facilitate interaction amoung customers. The library interlibrary loan model attracts him. "It's compelling. You get more if you share."

Luckily for us, Carlos Cuadra is still sharing information, still looking ahead, still having fun. For a pioneer, he looks an awful lot like a futurist. As one colleague put it, "I'm proud to be in the same industry with Carlos Cuadra."

Marydee Ojala is an information consultant and itinerant online searcher based on Overland Park, Kansas.
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Author:Ojala, Marydee
Publication:Information Today
Article Type:Biography
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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