• Montana Press

Capitol Watch: Behind the Tech Empire that Launched Montana’s New Governor

Updated: 6 days ago

Last month, Greg Gianforte became Montana’s 25th governor. Born in 1961 in California, he grew up in a suburb outside of Philadelphia and was active in high school as class president, a football player and a young computer entrepreneur.


He attended college at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, where in 1983 he received a B.E. in Electrical Engineering and an M.S. in computer science. He spent his early adult years in New Jersey learning the ropes of the emerging tech world before moving to Montana in 1995, where he continued to grow his professional career and perfected ideas that helped reimagine the digital landscape of America and transform the traditional workplace in Montana.


While the Governor is now the face of conservative and Republican Montana politics, he is also very much a self-described businessman.

Stevens professor Bruce McNair recruited Gianforte to work in the AT&T Bell Labs headquarters in New Jersey after Gianforte graduated from college. As a professor and also a Stevens graduate, McNair knew well the university’s rigorous programs and expectations.


When Gianforte completed both his bachelors and masters in four years, the new graduate’s ambition made him a top-choice candidate for AT&T's Bell Labs.


McNair explains that he always asked a candidate for AT&T Bell Labs to describe where they wanted to be in five years.


“We don’t want people who are going to muddle through their career, but Greg had a pretty clear view of, you know, where he wanted to go,” McNair recalls.


Founded in 1925, AT&T Bell Labs (now owned by Nokia) was known for its technological excellence in the communications field. The many inventions to come out of Bell Labs include the transistor, the laser, and the photo-voltaic cell.


When Gianforte arrived at Bell Labs, he worked as part of an engineering team for a project called StarLAN. He helped create what became known as the first of the world’s Ethernet cables, essential for providing wired connections for the internet.


While at Bell Labs in the mid-1980s, the future governor met his wife, Susan. She had earned her undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering from Cornell University, a masters in Mechanical Engineering from Cal-Berkeley and an MBA from New York University.


According to Bruce McNair, after spending a few years at the labs Gianforte grew restless with the slow-paced work environment and decided to move on.


“You know, they [AT&T Bell Labs] try to do things meticulously and sometimes it takes a long time to do it,” he says. “I think he just got impatient, wanting to make things happen faster.”


Gianforte stayed in New Jersey for nearly a decade after his exit from Bell Labs. In 1986, he created Brightwork Development Inc., a software company that created network management applications, including anti-virus software.


Michael Randazza, a former sales manager at Brightwork, explains that along with anti-virus applications, the company also made network management tools. Brightwork’s anti-virus product was geared to enhance Novell NetWare, a dominant product for networking computers in the 1980s.


In a past interview, Gianforte shared a story from his early work with Brightwork when sales were struggling. He purchased a large billboard outside of Novell’s headquarters as a way to advertise the company to Brightwork with a simple message: “Don’t just network - Brightwork.” The stunt worked and shortly thereafter Gianforte secured a master distribution agreement with Novell.


Randazza describes Gianforte as a hands-on boss who worked long hours and lived close to the office. “You know, he and I were both young, and I think that we just overworked; we overworked it together. We were always the first ones in, and the last ones to leave.”

Gianforte was someone always wanting to make something better, Randazza remembers.


While he was ambitious and had expectations, his company didn’t have the stereotypical “hard-driven sales” environment Randazza had previously worked in. Gianforte was ambitious, he says, but he had “classy ambition.”


“At that point, you know, he didn’t want to step on people’s toes or anything. But he did want to drive and get ahead,” Randazza recalls.

Bootstrapping

Gianforte often pushes and promotes his practice of “bootstrapping” and even co-wrote a book titled “Bootstrapping Your Business” in 2005. In a Bloomberg column that same year, he listed his “five rules the Bootstrapper lives by.” Two of them are repeated:

1. Sales is the top-priority job.

2. Don’t spend beyond your means.

3. Don’t be cheap.

4. Don’t spend beyond your means.

5. “There is always another way.”

Gianforte’s business practices often took advantage of the reputation of more successful companies. In a 2003 article in The Guardian titled “Faking It,” about the “suits and enthusiasm” behind some start-up tech industries, Gianforte spoke about the success of his billboard in front of Novell’s headquarters.

Gianforte’s “bootstrapping” was criticized by some of his RightNow employees since Gianforte sold Brightwork for $10 million and started RightNow shortly thereafter.

“It is wrong to assume you have to go out and develop a product before you can call yourself a business,” he said in the article. “Selling the concept [first] was the best form of market research we could have done.”


According to a 2008 interview with Gianforte, Novell seeked to return $100,000 worth of product, but, “fortunately our contract did not allow them to do so. From that point on we were able to use the fact that Novell was distributing our product as a point of credibility when calling banks and larger corporations around the country. It gave us the start we were hoping for.” Former Novell employees did not respond to requests for comment.


In the early days of Brightwork, Gianforte also faced at least one issue with employment discrimination. A Raw Story article outlines a lawsuit filed against Brightwork by John Cardinale who claimed he was fired due to his multiple sclerosis in 1991. Cardinale, an “effective and diligent” salesperson, was told his position was being eliminated but another employee was hired in his place. The lawsuit was eventually settled. Cardinale did not respond to requests for comment.


In 1994, McAfee, a security-software company, purchased Brightwork for $10 million. Gianforte stayed on as North American VP for the company. In 1995, however, he decided to move on and take his family to Montana, a place he’d fallen in love with during trips to the state as a young man.

RightNow in Montana

After settling down in the Bozeman area, Gianforte started RightNow Technologies, a customer-relationship management (CRM) software company, with his wife, Susan. While tech companies were uncommon in 1997 in rural America, RightNow attracted significant customers, from local businesses to government agencies.


A still from an interview Gianforte did with ThinkEntrepreneurship.com in 2009 where he talks about bootstrapping and his personal journey in the tech industry.

Doug Warner, a former RightNow software developer and product manager, worked at RightNow from 1999 to 2012. With undergraduate degrees in computer science and psychology and a masters in psychology, Warner pitched his ideas about artificial intelligence (AI) and search functionality when he interviewed for the company. He was more than halfway done with his PhD in computer science, but decided to take the job offer.


As one of the company’s first employees, Warner grew close with the Gianfortes, even staying at the family’s home when he went to interview for the job. While RightNow was a groundbreaking venture for the future of high tech in Montana, sometimes the company’s biggest roadblocks were Montana itself.


Warner laughs today about driving to Billings to move a computer server because the internet service in Bozeman wasn’t always reliable.


Warner explains that RightNow started as an email stock-ticker service, a service that kept people up-to-the-minute with stock prices. The company then morphed into doing customer-support emails and developed a “Frequently Asked Questions” (FAQ) system. RightNow, says Warner, “reimagined how this FAQ system could go from being very static to very dynamic.” Essentially, this allowed businesses to function without a physical support team. Eventually, RightNow’s CRM model grew to encompass three tiers of products: automated support, automated sales and automated marketing.


While RightNow initially installed their software on a customer’s network computer system, the organization eventually morphed into one of the first CRM companies to embrace cloud computing, Warner explains. This was a breakthrough, since “cloud” computing uses a network of remote host servers (computers) to store, manage and process data on the internet instead of on local servers or personal computers.


As a software developer himself, Warner says that one of the many innovations he co-invented for RightNow was an “emotion detection” product.


“This technique would automatically classify a customer message on a scale from unhappy to happy based on the language they used,” Warner says. “The very unhappy people could automatically be routed to a manager, the happy people could receive an automated ‘thank you’ and everyone else could go through normal channels.”


Warner recalls that, after having the patent originally rejected by the patent office, Gianforte came up with the idea not to focus exclusively on the emotion capture in a customer but rather how to make use of that emotion.

Warner explains that, generally, while tech is considered to be unemotional, when people interact with support departments, emotions are expressed. For example, Warner says there’s usually a level of unhappiness when someone has to reach out to a support department for help.


“That invention had pretty significant impacts,” Warner recalls. “You know, [there were] hundreds of millions of user sessions that we were using to mine this data and present information to people. So it was really rewarding to be able to take some of these very theoretical concepts that were written up in obscure academic papers, and then convert them to production-level software that was used across 33 languages and dialects.”


Warner also became a product manager after spending seven months in Australia and New Zealand for RightNow, which developed offices around the globe. As a product manager, his role was to sit between the technical and business parts of the company. In his roles as a software developer and product manager, Warner focused on AI and search engines.


Evelyn Rusli of the New York Times noted in a 2011 Business Insider article that RightNow’s primary product was CX Suite, “a platform that allows companies to engage with their customers through the Web, social media and contact centers. [B]usinesses can track and manage conversations on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook related to their brand.”


RightNow offered companies the ability to streamline their branding and implement customer service in new ways. The company pitched its products to show how clients like businesses, government agencies and universities could benefit from customer support products and gained diverse, high-profile clients like Ben and Jerry’s, the Social Security Administration, Nikon, John Deere and British Airways.

Nuts and Bolts of

Artificial Intelligence

A major concern surrounding information technology companies having access to personal data is the resultant lack of consumer privacy; some scholars insist that surveillance capitalism is deepy detrimental to functioning democracy.


According to Shoshana Zuboff, professor emerita at Harvard Business School, “surveillance capitalism” is the "unilateral claiming of private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data. These data are then computed and packaged as prediction products and sold into behavioral futures markets," or “business customers with a commercial interest in knowing what we will do now, soon, and later” who also exploit consumer sentiment.


In order for AI to work, RightNow and other platforms do in fact rely on consumer data. However, Warner points out that, from the AI side, users of a client website would remain anonymous since they did not usually have to log in to websites and any personal identifiable information found was segregated into another server. Warner points out that from the AI standpoint, the goal was to get the right information to customers and clients without the demand of having a human present that information to them. He says that from the beginning, RightNow also had to convince customers and clients that data collected was safe in their system.


“If you’re on Social Security, looking at ‘How do I get my benefits?’” then you might also be interested in ‘How do I get a replacement card?’” Warner explains. “So we would notice those patterns of behavior and extract that out of those sessions.”


Warner relates this to someone buying a computer mouse on Amazon and Amazon then suggesting various items people also bought along with computer mouses, such as mouse pads. At RightNow, FAQ’s worked in a similar way.


Historically, Warner explains, people stored their own data. Currently, due to data hacks and sheer volume, many worry about the safety of their own data in a world dependent on the cloud. The Pew Research Center found in 2019 that “81% of the public say that the potential risks they face because of data collection by companies outweigh the benefits.” 81% also feel they have a “lack of control” over data collected by companies.


In an interview with CRM Buyer in 2004, Gianforte says of RightNow, “We treat the data that we store on behalf of our customers as if it were our own. And we recognize we have a critical responsibility to them to preserve the security of it.”


Warner says that at least under Gianforte’s leadership at RightNow, the company assured clients that there was no way for a client such as Ben and Jerry’s to see sensitive information from, say, the Social Security Administration due to the fact that separate systems were being created for each company. At the time, RightNow contrasted with other cloud-computing companies that put clients on the same database.

The Evolution of RightNow

Andrea Smith, who worked in sales at RightNow from 1998 to 2005, also was one of the first people hired at the company. Her sense is that RightNow stood out because the software was simple, flexible, and usable for a wide assortment of customers. Smith says she was able to see the company and its customer-base grow along with the entire Bozeman community.


“Greg has truly changed the landscape for what it looks like to work in technology in Montana,” Smith says. She has taken what she learned from RightNow, “like bootstrapping” and implemented it in her own business she now runs with her husband.


Doug Warner, however, notes that Gianforte’s “bootstrapping” was criticized by other RightNow employees, since Gianforte sold Brightwork for $10 million and started RightNow shortly thereafter.


“Greg likes to tout it as bootstrapping, but he was bootstrapping with millions of [Gianforte’s own] dollars,” Warner said.


Christine Kahane, who worked for ID Branding, took RightNow on as a client to rebrand and create a new website for them in 2007. Kahane, who was the account director, recalls the branding looking militaristic and campaign-like.


A part of her role was to see what kind of audience was attracted to RightNow and how branding impacted customers. Moving forward with the new design, she and her team wanted to capture the distinct personalities of RightNow users and embed who they wanted as customers in order to attract those people. It was nearly impossible to nail down a design or website, however, because RightNow had such a wide array of clients. Her company struggled to figure out what kind of customer they were creating the website for.


“We were trying to build all these values for RightNow but we couldn’t… there was nothing that they jumped on that said ‘Yes, this is it!’ because they couldn’t agree,” Kahane says.

Kahane says she intuited this could have been because leaders in the company couldn’t agree with one another. She says at one point she was asked to moderate a group of engineers who were at a stalemate. Eventually, she was asked to sit in twice a week on calls to mediate their progress.


“We can only be as successful in branding as they could be successful in aligning internally,” Kahane says. “Which I feel never happened.”


Kahane explains that for the website, it’s normal to have three to four "persona" audiences, or specific customers like banks or hospitals represented but with RightNow, it became nine to ten persona audiences. That made it hard to give RightNow the impactful and relevant statement of the brand.


Kahane emphasizes that the folks she worked with at RightNow were kind and hardworking people who she felt weren’t reinforced for their work often enough. During the project, she met Gianforte once at an annual meeting where he gave a speech. She describes him as a “mystical figure.”

Oracle Takeover

By 2005, “on demand” or online-based software was gaining traction. Oracle Corporation, a massive computer software company known for database software, had a history of high-profile takeovers of former subordinates.


In a 2005 Miami Herald article, RightNow CEO Gianforte said, “I am the only guy in this (on-demand) space that’s not part of this dysfunctional family from Oracle.” In 2012, however, Oracle bought RightNow for $1.5 billion, according to a company press release.

“Oracle wanted RightNow because they had a history of denying the importance of cloud computing,” Doug Warner explains. “That company was entirely based on the premise, and in fact, had a huge history that most of its income was from shelfware, which is why we [RightNow] had that whole program that was so successful, to get people off the Oracle [shelfware] and start using cloud computing.”


“Shelfware’’ is a term for products customers had to install on their own, this meant the products could be installed incorrectly and would need regular maintenance. Cloud computing simplified the process by allowing services to be accessed in the online cloud, rather than installed on individual machines. RightNow had exactly the infrastructure of online cloud computing that Oracle wanted.


According to a Bozeman Chronicle article from 2014, at the time Oracle bought RightNow, “Economists saw a noticeable jump in earnings for Gallatin County and the state.”


“It was so large and it was a one-time event, that it showed up in the data for earnings, and has kind of a legacy effect,” Patrick Barkey, the director of the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research told the Chronicle at the time.


According to tax returns released in 2016 during his failed bid for Governor, Gianforte’s personal income had totaled more than $243 million since 2005.

From Tech to Politics

After Oracle acquired the company in 2012, RightNow produced not only former House of Representatives member Gianforte and now Governor Gianforte, but also Senator Steve Daines (R-Montana). Daines had been vice president at RightNow and became involved with the company after his family’s construction partnership built RightNow’s headquarters in Bozeman. Daines was first elected to the United States Senate in 2014 and was reelected in 2020.


When asked about Steve Daines’ role at the company, Doug Warner says that to this day, he does not know how Daines’ duties impacted RightNow. He says it was “creepy” to see Daines’s desktop empty without work, supplies or pictures, especially in a workplace that had such high expectations.

Warner said there were hints about politics at RightNow but he didn’t expect the company to produce two of the state’s most prominent politicians, both with very conservative views tied to religious beliefs.


According to Warner, the only time he saw religion seep into the workplace was when leadership would occasionally pray before meetings. Warner thought this was out of place. He says he does not think deeply held religious beliefs should be in government since the a separation of church and state ensures representation of a variety of religions.


“Greg is scary because he’s effective at his politics,” Warner says. “Daines is scary, because he’s an empty vessel waiting for somebody to direct him.”


Former RightNow employee Andrea Smith did not expect Gianforte to get into politics either but says she is looking forward to seeing what he does in his term as Governor.

“I truly believe that he went into politics because he believes he can make a difference,” Smith says.


Smith also brings up Gianforte’s conservative politics and religious beliefs and past donations to anti-LGBTQ+ organizations. When she knew and worked with Gianforte, she says his religion, politics and donations to controversial organizations were not apparent. When she worked there, says Smith, employees were given paid volunteer days where they could volunteer at a place of their choice in the community. Smith says she believes Gianforte’s history of donating to controversial organizations will not be part of his politics and that he will instead will focus on Montana’s economy.


“It just seems like he would never try to infringe on other people’s rights, you know, as a governor, so, if anything it’s the opposite. He’s trying to ensure everybody has rights,” Smith says.


Warner says Gianforte is a reasonable person one-on-one, but he does not think his belief systems belong in government.


“That’s the thing with Greg, he’s very intelligent and very effective,” Warner says. “He’s somebody who, when he puts his mind to something, he gets it done. No matter what. And as a politician, that’s one of the scariest things about him.”

—MacKenzie Dexter

dexter.mackenzie20@gmail.com

In this ongoing series, Montana Press will continue to present a biographical profile of Montana’s new governor, exploring his history and following his leadership of state government. Over 150 people connected with Gianforte have now been contacted in producing this series. Montana Press has reached out to Gov. Gianforte for comment but he has not responded to date.


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