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Software's nerd-free zone

He may be Chinese but he's no philosopher. David Bowen meets the down-to-earth chief of Computer Associates; profile; Charles Wang
Software geniuses are the industrial wizards of our time. They are fabulously wealthy, they dress casually, they congregate in northern California and they love sharing their vision of the future with the rest of us. They are Microsoft's Bill Gates, Larry Ellison of Oracle, Apple's founder Steve Jobs ... and all the other chipheads who populated the recent BBC2 television series Triumph of the Nerds.

Charles Wang, head of the second-biggest software company in the world, Computer Associates, is no mean chiphead, but he comes out of another mould. He is fabulously wealthy yes, but he wears dark suits, presides over an office block in New York State and is deeply unphilosophical about the future and himself. He has written a book, true, but it is a down-to-earth rant aimed at frog marching top managers into the information age.

There is another reason why so few people have heard of Mr Wang. CA does not make consumer products: it is the leading supplier of the technological equivalent of widgets - the software that makes corporate computer systems work better and which one trade magazine described as "as sexy as mouldy cheese".

CA has a stranglehold on the software used by mainframe computers, and is moving rapidly into areas such as client-servers (the PC-based networks that are now spreading across commercialdom). "We do the plumbing in the background," Wang says. "We don't touch the faucets." It is big business, this plumbing: CA has sales of $3.5bn (pounds 2.3bn) and a market capitalisation of $16bn. How much of this does Mr Wang own? "Four, six, five per cent? Who's counting?" he says. The answer is Forbes magazine, which reckons he is worth $410m.

It is a shame that the 51-year-old Mr Wang (pronounced Wong) shuns the cameras, because he is quite a character. He looks Chinese but he talks like Officer Dibble in Top Cat, spicing his conversation with heartfelt four-letter words and snappy one-liners. He also has some interesting views. For one, he is distressed at the ignorance top managers have of information technology, and has set up "boot camps" to bash some knowledge of microchippery into them. More startling, he believes that in software more is less. "At CA if a project is late, we take people off it," he says. "It takes an artist to create software: it isn't like building a house where more carpenters and more nails mean it will be finished quicker." Most software is initially created by a small group, he says. "Then MBAs come in and screw up because they put in too many people."

So is his reticence anything to do with a dislike of the California set? Not of Bill Gates, anyway. "We're good friends - he really is a brilliant man," he says, adding that he and Gates started up at about the same time. "He's got two years on me - I guess he'll always have two years on me."

Ask him about Larry Ellison, head of Oracle and the man who believes personal computers will be replaced by simpler $500 machines called Network Computers, and his attitude hardens. "For a lousy 500 bucks you can get a real PC with a real monitor," he says. Then again Oracle and CA are bitter rivals for the number two software slot - so it is hardly surprising there is an edge to their relationship.

Charles Wang was born in Shanghai in 1944. His father was a Supreme Court judge there, but in 1952 he decided to leave and found a job as a law lecturer in New York. The family left with two suitcases, and Wang's memories of life in Queens are of struggle and sacrifice. Emerging, in 1966 at 21, from an undistinguished education, he found two-and-half pages of advertisements for programmers in the New York Times. "I told my mother I'm going to be a programmer," he says. "She said: what's that? I said: I don't know but they sure need them."

He soon discovered he loved programming. "It either works or it doesn't, and it's heaven when it works. If you love to solve puzzles, which I do, there's nothing like programming."

He was not however a good employee, and decided there was a crying need for software suppliers who actually listened to their customers. He and a college friend Russ Artzt (now CA's head of R&D) persuaded a Swiss company called Computer Associates to let them sell a program called CA-Sort in the United States. Setting up Computer Associates International, they bartered for office space and computer time and "every time we ran out of money we applied for a new credit card". He sat on the floor staring at a mirror as he rang prospects so he could see when his concentration was lagging and could buck himself up. He ran contests for his sales force which, being the only member, he tended to win.

CA-Sort was a good product, and after a year the company was on a steadier footing. By 1981 sales were up to $13m and they decided to float. The $3.2m raised allowed them to make the first of 62 acquisitions. Combining purchases with in-house development, CA grew exponentially (absorbing the Swiss company en route). By 1989 it was the first independent software company with sales of more than $1bn - it was bigger, then, than Microsoft. Although Microsoft has since zoomed ahead and the mainframe market is the least dynamic part of the industry, Wang is confident that CA is adapting fast enough to hold its position.

His management style is self-taught and refreshingly un-American. "I'm not a big fan of 'How to Climb the Corporate Ladder' books, and I'm not interested in 're-engineering'. It's all cock - you should fix your problems as they occur." He does however have a "flat hierarchy", as the consultants would call it, because that is the best way of keeping in touch with his 9,000 employees. He also provides them with free breakfasts, gyms and Montessori schooling. He keeps shareholders happy too: in the past five years CA's shares have risen tenfold, twice as much as Microsoft's.

There is, many say, a Mr Hyde side to match this Dr Jekyll. For one thing, it is easy to be an ex-employee of CA. Software rival Legent, which CA bought for $1.8bn last year, is reported to have lost 80 per cent of its staff since the takeover. Oracle's Larry Ellison has described CA as a "bottom feeder" - an asset stripper.

Wang defends his strategy. "I tell everyone within a week of acquisition where they stand, and 52 of the companies we bought have come to us because they were going bankrupt."

He is ambivalent about his roots. "We never thought of ourselves as Chinese and I only speak a little of the language," he says. "I think being a middle son is more important, plus watching my parents struggle." On the other hand, he thoroughly enjoyed being lionised when he returned to China last year, 43 years after he had left. "We were driving along in a cavalcade in Shanghai. I told my driver: stop, that's the house. They said: no, we've got a map. But it was because I pictured it exactly - the second house after the gate."

What keeps Wang going, given that money is hardly an object any more? "We have the greatest fun - it's almost like we're playing with friends," he says. And what does he do with his wealth? Not a lot really. "I play basketball with the same guys I have for 15 or 20 years. And I cook - I have a real Chinese kitchen." Cooking for him is in the same realm as programming - he wanted to see how it was done. He wanted to learn to knit too, but his mum wouldn't show him. And what of the great cliche question: how has wealth changed him? He leans over and whispers softly: "There's no difference, no difference."