Why SF?: An Interview with Alexander Falk, President & CEO of Altova

Alexander Falk
Photo Credit: Calvin Falk

Welcome to the newest install of Why SF? With each new interview, Underwords explores how “science fiction has affected the lives of a variety of creative and influential people.” In this interview, I talk with Alexander Falk, founder, President and CEO of Altova.

I first became aware of Alex when he and his family began renovating a historic house that was in desperate need of repair. My husband and I began following his blog and were fascinated by how Alex combined his love of technology with his desire to historically preserve as much of his family’s new home as possible.

As I got to know him in person, I learned of his career as a software developer/inventor/CEO, his love of science fiction, and his proactive work in helping to turn technological concepts into reality. When I began developing plans for WHY SF?, I knew that Alexander Falk would be a perfect person to interview for this series.

Please join me in welcoming Alexander Falk to Underwords. I hope you enjoy this interview and be sure to read our previous installments of WHY SF?

You’re the founder of Altova, a software industry leader, and the co-creator of the XMLSpy, XML Editor, and other key XML development tools. For people who are unfamiliar with the term XML, can you briefly describe what XML is for the low-tech among us?

XML stands for eXtensible Markup Language, which is an industry standard for structuring and describing data. It is mostly used by different applications to exchange data between different computer systems or software products. For example, when companies report their financial results to the SEC, they do so in the form of XBRL reports. XBRL is the XML Business Reporting Language and used to capture financial data in such a form that it can be easily processed by banks, investors, and government regulators. In a similar fashion, health-care related data is exchanged between doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies using HL7 – another XML-based standard for data exchange. And a lot of the web sites that people use every day – from Facebook to Google and from Twitter to Wolfram Alpha – often exchange data between one another in the form of XML messages.

What was it that attracted you to pursue a career in technology, specifically within the software industry?

I’ve been fascinated by computers ever since I was about 12 years of age. At that point in time my dad, who is a university professor for organic chemistry, was invited to speak at a series of conferences, colleges and universities across the US, and he took the family with him on a six week round-trip that started at Lake Winnipesaukee and ended in Miami with stops in New York, Salt Lake City, Reno, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Austin, and various other places.

This trip influenced my life in many more ways than my parents (or I) would have thought possible at that time. Firstly, I discovered my love for the English language and resolved then and there that I would only read books in their original English version rather than in a German translation, and I applied the same approach to movies, which I started watching only in English in one of the view cinemas in Austria that showed the original English reels rather than the dubbed German version. Secondly, I fell in love with the vastness, beauty, and diversity of the USA. And thirdly, during that trip I was able to see some pretty exciting computer simulations, including what we would now think of as crude and primitive line-graphics on a low-resolution mainframe terminal at Texas A&M university. The most exciting simulation was that of a Star Wars X-Wing fighter flying along the channels of the Death Star and trying to deposit the bomb into the correct shaft to free the Rebel Alliance from the Empire.

Upon my return to Austria, I started getting into computers fairly soon thereafter, teaching myself BASIC programming from a few books. I then quickly proceeded to getting started programming on my dad’s Apple II in his research lab, on the TRS-80 at our high school, as well as on a friend’s Commodore PET.

Being introduced to something revolutionary like a computer can be a transformative experience when you’re young. However, when kids are asked what they want to be when they grow up, most of them don’t say “software developer.” What did you dream of “being” when you grew up?

When I was very young, I wanted to be a firefighter. I remember getting a red fire truck for my 2nd or 3rd birthday and that was awesome. Soon thereafter, I decided that I wanted to succeed Mr. Spock in becoming the next science officer on the Enterprise. He was always working with the shipboard computer system, so I guess being a software developer is not that far removed from being science officer on the Enterprise – especially not nowadays as we run around with tablet computers and talk to our personal assistants on our smartphones. And, of course, the beauty of social media is that I can now follow Leonard Nimoy, George Takei, and William Shatner on Twitter and Facebook and actual interact with them. LLAP.

I think Spock would be honored.

Social media definitely seems like a step or two away from using a Star Trek communicator, minus the “like” button. What is it about science fiction, whether in print or film, that captures your imagination?

I’ve always been fascinated by ideas, memes, concepts, and visions about the future. What excites me is the possibility to explore the potential ramifications of a new technology on society, on humanity, and on the individual through the vehicle of a story-telling. It allows us to think about, to discuss, and to ponder the potential implications of advances in science and engineering before they actually happen. This, in turn, can prepare us to better deal with the reality of some of these technologies as we approach a scientific breakthrough.

While not every imaginary SF invention is possible or even probable, I think that the symbiotic relationship between SF authors and cutting edge scientific research cannot be understated. Given your answer above, are you thinking that science fiction literature is like a sandbox in which SF authors try out new ideas and concepts that researchers might someday pick up for development?

Yes, to some extent SF can provide that kind of sandbox environment and let authors try out new ideas without budgetary constraints or being hampered by the actual laws of physics. However, I personally find the sociological impacts of technology a much more fascinating topic, and exploring those in a SF sandbox can have an impact not just on researchers but also on society and how we deal with new technologies once they emerge. For an example just think back to Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park (1990) and what an impact it had on the discussions about the ethical considerations with respect to cloning, especially around the time when Dolly the sheep was born as the first mammal cloned from adult cells on July 5, 1996.

We are  influenced by any number of things when growing up. How much influence (if any) did reading science fiction have on your interests, your education, or your career?

I would say that my love for science fiction has definitely turned me into a “typical geek” in my teenage and young adult years, and I am, in fact, proud of having been one. My kids would say that even today I am still a geek, even though I now am CEO of a multi-national company. SciFi has undoubtedly been extremely influential on my education choices – obtaining a college degree in semiconductor physics – as well as on my career in software engineering. And to this day I closely monitor advances in technology, computer sciences, as well as physics and often blog about them.

Your blogs are fascinating. The one that really caught my attention was the detailed, nearly day-by-day blog you wrote when you renovated your house, restoring it to its past lustre and bringing it into the 21st century–literally. What inspired you to restore your antique house with such high-tech upgrades?

Before I go into the details, let me just say that the house was truly in a disastrous state of disrepair when we bought it in 2007. Most people would have just torn it down. However, the house had good “bones” in terms of its framing. We were also able to save the trim in just one room in the center of the house. But we had to essentially do a full “gut job”, so in our restoration we went with a fairly modern interior design and trim in all the rooms except the central ballroom, where we meticulously restored all the saved trim. Therefore, using a fairly high-tech approach to the new portions of the house felt like it was the right thing to do.

As for the motivation of why I would want to go high-tech? There are really three reasons for this:

  1. I just love technology, gadgets, high-tech gear, and the like, so it was natural that I would build some of them into the house;
  2. We built the house as a “green” house and achieved LEED For Homes Silver Certification, and in order to make the house energy-efficient, we employed some smart-house functionality that helps us conserve electricity. For example, when the thermostat in a room calls for cooling, the smart-house controller will first deploy the shades or curtains in the room (depending on time of day and whether the sun actually hits the windows) before it will turn on the HVAC system in cooling mode; and
  3. I was, of course, also influenced by the press coverage of Bill Gates building his new house as a smart home as well as by the novel “Gridiron” by Philip Kerr, which was published in 1995. Based on those ideas I had previously retrofitted some smart house technology into our former home in 2004, which was an excellent lesson in terms of what not to do. I really learned a lot from the failures of that project and avoided many of those pitfalls when we did the system for the new house.

Speaking of your house, you have a fabulous library. Do you have a favorite novel or novels that have stayed with you over time?

Perhaps at this point is should not come as a surprise that most of my favorite books are indeed science fiction novels. Those that have stayed with me over time and that I have indeed perhaps even read a couple of times by now, are cornerstones of the genre as well as some strange outliers that are perhaps not yet sufficiently appreciated for their contribution to the advancement of SF literature. These are just a few of my favorite novels or series (in no particular order): the Robots and Foundation cycles by Isaac Asimov, the Ringworld series by Larry Niven, Solaris by Stanislaw Lem, the Well of Souls series by Jack L. Chalker, Neuromancer by William Gibson, the Night’s Dawn trilogy by Peter Hamilton, the Illuminatus! trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, the Lensmen cycle by E.E. “Doc” Smith, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, the Dune series by Frank Herbert, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, K-Pax by Gene Brewer, and many others – there are just too many to enumerate them all here due to space constraints.

Science fiction comes in all shapes, forms, and sizes. Who were/are some of your favorite authors or literary heroes? What is it about these people that captures your attention and respect?

Obviously, with respect to favorite authors, the previous list includes many of them already. Perhaps I should add Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, and Robert A. Heinlein, as no list of notable science fiction authors can possible be complete without them. Interestingly, I have never really focused much on the heroes of the novels I read. I enjoy reading science fiction primarily for the ideas, the concepts, the technologies, and the memes–for thinking about the impact technologies have on society. In my mind, the people are just actors that move along the plot and I often forget about them fairly quickly. Some of the exceptional heroes that stood out and notably captured my attention are Nathan Brazil, R. Giskard Reventlov and R. Daneel Olivaw, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Ender, Louis Gridley Wu, Paul Atreides, and, of course, Spock.

Many early science fiction writers like Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov wrote about future worlds that seem ordinary to us now because of our scientific advances. For today’s children who dream of things that could be straight out of a science fiction novel, what advice can you give them to help turn those dreams into a reality?

Study hard, work hard, and never stop dreaming! I believe the best foundation is a solid education especially with a strong focus on mathematics and sciences. If you are good at math and especially the natural sciences, you can pick up many other things quite easily later on. You can add on legal knowledge, a financial education, and MBA, and many social sciences at a later point in time. Those can be learned from books, from courses, from evening MBA programs and can be added at any stage in life. But the fundamentals of math and sciences are generally learned while you are young and will provide the foundation for many additional skills.

We need a stronger focus on math and science in our educational curriculum and we need to focus more on making those subjects more exciting for children and young adults. One way to do that is perhaps by also adding science fiction for young adults to our English curriculum. Some of the young adult literature that I see my kids read in school is just too depressing for my personal taste.

No matter how improbable, what futuristic technology would you most like to see become a reality? Why that technology?

I love to travel, so the technologies I would most like to see become a reality are all related to teleportation. Be it the classic “Beam me up, Scotty” of the U.S.S. Enterprise, or the more elaborate Puppeteer network of Stepping Disks conjured up by Larry Niven in his Known Space series, teleportation has always been a favorite technology topic for science fiction authors. And its impact on society as a whole would be profound.

With respect to whether teleportation is actually possible or not: in the true spirit of quantum physics, one would have to say that it is both at the same time. All kidding aside, there has been a lot of very exciting progress in quantum teleportation in recent years, especially by the research group around Prof. Anton Zeilinger of the University of Vienna in Austria.

It would be amazing if something like teleportation were developed. At MIT they have come up with high tech inventions like wireless energy and nanites that deliver cancer drugs straight to the tumor. You never know what imaginary inventions might be possible tomorrow.

What do you think science fiction can add to a child’s development that other genres don’t do or don’t do as well?

I believe science fiction has the capacity to ignite a child’s or young adult’s imagination in ways that are truly unique and forward-thinking. On one hand it opens up the possibilities of a scientific career, and on the other hand it gets them thinking about the engineering challenges that may play a role in making some of the science fiction dreams a reality. Sadly, in most popular literature as well as in TV and movie depictions, scientist are all too often portrait as crazy, out of touch with reality, or power hungry. Nothing could be further from the truth. The only genre where scientists are portrayed as researches and scientific progress is portrayed at least as somewhat beneficial to mankind is half of the science fiction literature (dystopias excluded for a moment).

In his book The New Time Travelers, David Toomey examines the history of time travel science and the close connection of research inspired by science fiction. For example, Toomey writes that science fiction icon Carl Sagan actively participated in several scientific discussions with researchers that resulted in some new theoretical advances, which is not to say that time travel is “real.”

It is no surprise that we see a lot of technologies that were previously dreamed up by science fiction authors some 20-30 years ago start to turn into realities today. For example, take a look at Williams Gibson’s novel Neuromancer and then look at the multi-national corporations of today and the threat of cyber attacks against some of them. The same is true for Jules Verne and the NASA Apollo program. That is what inspired previous generations of scientists and engineers, and in a similar way today’s SciFi authors have the opportunity–if not even the obligation–to inspire future generations of scientists and engineers!

We cannot start to build these technological advances, if we don’t have the dreamers at the forefront of imagining things and coming up with the ideas that will fuel the ingenuity of generations to come!

Alex, thank you so much for the interview and participating in the Why SF? series. I’ve always felt that it is important to see the connections between literature and the real world, and you’re a true role model for a future young scientist who loves her science fiction or a writer-to-be who is working on his first SF novel.


Alexander Falk founded Altova in 1992 in Vienna, Austria; member of the W3C XML Schema working group that defined the XML Schema 1.0 specs; member of the W3C Advisory Committee; co-creator of the popular Altova XMLSpy XML Editor; established US subsidiary in 2001 and relocated to the USA; President & CEO of Altova; VIP member of the Kepler Society (Alumni Club of the Johannes Kepler University).

About Erin Underwood

BIO: Erin Underwood is the senior event content producer for MIT Technology Review’s emerging technology events. On the side, she reads, writes, and edits SF.
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