Marc Benioff's teenage affair with the Macintosh

<b>guest post</b> Six months after watching Apple's 1984 Super Bowl commercial, the 19-year-old future Salesforce.com CEO was a summer intern at Apple writing a sample game, "Raid on Armonk."

Marc Benioff The Change Agent
Benioff founded Salesforce.com and the Salesforce Foundation, among the first cloud-based companies and philanthropy organizations in the tech industry. He's also known for his personal philanthropy and stance on fairness and equality.
Marc Benioff
6 min read

Marc Benioff began his working career writing games in for early computers, including the Macintosh.

Dan Farber/CNET

Marc Benioff, the chairman and CEO of Salesforce.com, tells the story of how he ended up working at Apple in the summer of 1984 writing sample games in assembly language for the new machine.

This article is part of a CNET special report on the 30th anniversary of the Macintosh, looking at the beginnings of Apple's landmark machine and its impact over the last three decades.

I remember the first time I ever heard about the Macintosh, I was sitting in my Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity room at the University of Southern California. There I was watching the Super Bowl, and sitting in front of me was an Atari 800XL computer connected to my Sony television. I was writing games in 6502 assembly language combined with BASIC, which was how I was putting myself through college. The games were fantasy adventure games with names like "Escape from Vulcan's Island" and "King Arthur's Heir." Since high school I had written about 10 different games that ran on Atari, Commodore, and Apple computers. I don't remember anyone else at USC even having a PC then. I always loved writing software.

It was hard not to be impacted by Apple's Super Bowl commercial. It came out of nowhere and ended up everywhere. It was the girl in the red shorts that threw a sledgehammer at the large video screen among the lemmings with a completion text that said, "1984 was not going to be like 1984." When it was over I called my parents, and told them I was selling my Atari, and I was going to be a Macintosh programmer. They had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. And, they said, "Marc whatever you want to do well support you, but you are going to have to pay for it!"

If the Macintosh is turning 30, I am turning 50 because I was 19 years old when I watched that commercial. I started to work on my goal of writing software for Macintosh, and it was then that the problems started. It turned out you couldn't build software for Macintosh on Macintosh--you had to buy a Lisa, another computer from Apple. And the Lisa was very expensive. Apple had a solution, however. Coming shortly was the Macintosh 68000 Development System (MDS), and it required just two Macintoshes connected together. On one Macintosh, you wrote your software and compiled it, and on the other Macintosh you debugged. It was far from elegant for a developer, but I was intrigued.

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I ordered two Macintosh computers, the development documentation, and the connecting cables that would fasten the computers together, and then I waited for the software from Apple. First, the computers came, and they were amazing. Far better than anything else I had ever used -- the software and hardware created a perfect Zen of simplicity. The Macintosh software, including the word processor, paint program, and spreadsheet, was far better than what was on the PC. It just all made so much sense to me. I could hardly wait to write my own software! I waited and waited and waited. After months of waiting, the software still had not come.

I thought to myself, what kind of company was this that advertised products they didn't have? I called Guy Kawasaki, the head of developer relations for Apple. "This is Marc Benioff, CEO of Liberty Software," I told him from my USC fraternity room. "I have been waiting for months for the MDS software that you have been advertising to software developers, and I still don't have it." Guy gave me a long pitch on how well the Macintosh was doing, and how I would have the MDS software in just a few days.

Guy was a great salesman, he was always upbeat. He would tell me the same thing every time I called him, "It is coming soon." Somehow he started to have empathy for me because one day an envelope arrived from his office with two disks inside it, and nothing else. This must be MDS, I thought to myself, and I put the disks into my Macintoshes. All I found were a few cryptic files of what looked with an editor, an assembler, a linker, and a compiler. It was a software jigsaw puzzle, and I was sure I could solve it. After numerous tries, I got something to work, although it was extremely rudimentary.

I called Guy and told him it seemed that the software worked, but how could anyone be expected to write software without any documentation or even an example program. He asked me if I wanted a job, and I told him that I was not only the CEO of Liberty Software, but also a full time student at USC. As an alumnus of archrival UCLA, Guy was intrigued and asked me what I was doing for the summer of 1984. I told him I was planning on writing software to put myself through college. That's when Guy changed my life forever by asking, "Why don't you spend the summer of 1984 at Apple?" In my mind, I was always an entrepreneur, and I never thought I would have a job, much less a job at Apple writing software! Finally, it just hit me that it was a great idea. I was already wondering what it would be like to have a paycheck.

I arrived at Apple for my summer with my Macintosh in hand, and I was introduced to my boss, Scott Knaster. Our offices were in the Bandley 4 building, with a grand piano and motorcycle in the lobby, and I'm not sure but there may have been a pirate flag flying on the roof. Scott worked for Guy, running developer support. My job over the next 90 days was working with Bill Duvall, the creator of MDS, writing the same programs for the new development system.

My job at Apple wasn't any easier than my experience trying to get MDS working at USC except for one thing -- I was surrounded by the original Macintosh team. They really helped me grow my skills as a developer. I remember when I was really stuck on a specific problem, I was able to go and see Steve Capps, a key architect of the Macintosh, for help. Steve quickly saw that my code was wrong (a misplaced header), and then said to me, "Where are your code comments?" I asked him what code comments were, and told him that I was a self-taught programmer. Evidently code comments helped other developers figure out what your code was doing, but because I never had anyone look at my code before, I had no idea. It turns out that thousands of assembly language codes without comments are confusing if you are not the one who wrote them.

Finally, six months after I watched that Super Bowl commercial, I was building my first game for the Macintosh. I was so excited. The game was called, "Raid on Armonk," and it looked a lot like Atari's Missile Command. The player had the ability to do one very important thing--blow up IBM's headquarters. I could hardly wait to show Scott Knaster what I was up to, and have him play my first game on the Macintosh. Imagine my surprise when Scott got completely pissed off at me, and said, "Marc, why are you building this game? You are supposed to be building sample code for the Mac." Well, after many years of working for myself, I learned what it was like to work for someone else--you have to do what they want you to do! Interesting, I thought to myself.

But I really loved working at Apple. I worked in an amazing building with inspiring people. It was all very cool. The refrigerators were filled with Odwalla juices, and you could drink as many as you wanted! And, there were shiatsu massage therapists roaming the halls giving all the developers back rubs. I had a security badge with my photo on it. I even got my first real pay check. And, when the Macintosh 68000 Development System finally shipped that fall, it came with my example programs on it. I was part of the solution to help other developers build on this incredible new platform. Best of all, Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs was always around the building coming to see the executives, and looking at what all the developers were working on. Little did I know back then in 1984 what a huge impact he would have not just on our industry, but also my life, and the company I would eventually start 15 years later, salesforce.com.