Denis Coleman '68, SM '70
Founder of winning companies from spell check to biotech
Denis R. Coleman ‘68, SM ‘70, cofounded Symantec, the maker of Norton antivirus software, but he didn’t stick around to watch it become the fourth-largest software company in the world. He had other companies to launch. “I’m a great team player, but I like to change teams,” says Coleman, who since 1978 has helped start 14 companies. And most are still going strong.
“The most fun was the spell checker,” he says. Coleman developed the first spell checker for a microcomputer and marketed it in 1980 through a company called Innovative Software while his day job was working for a consulting firm. “That launched me in entrepreneurship,” he says.
When Coleman invented a better way to check spelling, he also found a better way to make a living. The company that grew into Symantec started in his living room in 1983. He wrote code and led a team of developers who were creating the company’s founding QA technology; then he left the venture in 1988. “I helped them get going and then let them do their thing,” he says. And that’s what he continues to do today. His companies have developed pioneering technology in such diverse fields as optical character recognition, targeted Internet advertising, social-networking software, and, most recently, biotechnology.
This bent toward programming solutions started freshman year at MIT when Coleman took Course 6.251, systems programming. “There was a 7094 mainframe, and we had punch cards to run our computer program,” he says. Programming immediately appealed to him. Coleman earned his SB in 1968 and two SMs in 1970, in mechanical engineering and management, from MIT. Then he earned a PhD in management at Stanford University in 1975. And he never stopped programming. “I did about 30,000 lines of code for my newest venture,” he says. “I couldn’t resist.”
Coleman and his wife, Aletha, have two daughters, Allegra, 21, and Aislinn, 18, and live in Atherton, CA. In his free time, he plays golf. “A luxury of my profession here is that I play my golf on the weekdays, so weekends can be for the family,” he says.
Another bonus is freedom. “I can start when I want and stop when I want,” he says. “But not really. You don’t want to stop short of success.”
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