Alan Cooper

Alan Cooper

2017 Fellow

For his invention of the visual development environment in Visual BASIC, and for his pioneering work in establishing the field of interaction design and its fundamental tools


Born in San Francisco in 1952 and raised in Marin County, California, Alan Cooper has always taken the path less traveled. A rebellious teenager, he dropped out of high school, but eventually made his way to the College of Marin to pursue his interest in architecture. After an exploratory course in programming, it became clear that his future was in architecture—software architecture. After getting his associate degree and a COBOL programming job, he saw an advertisement for one of the first personal computers and conceived an idea for a new business venture.

In 1976, Cooper founded Structured Systems Group (SSG), a company Fire in the Valley authors Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine said created “the first serious business software for microcomputers.” In four years, Cooper wrote and shipped a dozen application programs. SSG became the archetype for many software startups in the early days of the personal computer revolution.

During the 1980s, after leaving SSG, Cooper invented, wrote, and sold three major software packages to prominent publishers. One of those was the visual programming front-end code named “Ruby,” for what became Visual BASIC. Bill Gates purchased it from Cooper in 1988, noting that it would have significant impact across Microsoft’s entire product line. Visual BASIC was deemed both a commercial and critical success, earning Cooper the moniker “Father of Visual BASIC.” Visual BASIC has influenced integrated development languages ever since.

In 1990 Cooper became fascinated with the challenge of making software products that were easy to use and understand. He and his wife, Susan, founded Cooper Interaction Design (now “Cooper”) to assist in what Cooper calls “interaction design.” In the design field, Cooper’s software development background was unique and, over the next few years, he invented many of the tools and techniques now standard in the user experience industry, including personas and scenarios, pair design, and possibility thinking. He calls this ensemble “goal-directed design.” In the 1990s, Cooper published two books on interaction design, About Face and The Inmates are Running the Asylum, which have become required reading for practitioners.

While Alan still leads Cooper as a director, he and his wife have moved to a former dairy ranch in Petaluma, California. Cooper has become a vocal advocate for sustainable and regenerative agriculture, not coincidentally pointing out the parallels between ethics in agribusiness and ethics in the software business.

In 1995 Bill Gates awarded Cooper the first of only seven Windows Pioneer awards in recognition of Cooper’s contributions to the success of the Windows operating system. In 1998 the Silicon Valley Forum awarded Cooper one of its first Visionary Awards for his ongoing contributions.