In 1971 John F. Burton was working his way through his junior year at Boston College as a bartender. One evening while behind the bar, he engaged in a conversation with a salesman from International Business Machines Corp., who fascinated the young man with details of the fast-expanding computer industry. With this inspiration and his natural interest in high technology, Burton was soon working part time for the man, selling computer systems. He hasn't stopped since.

In September, Burton was promoted to president and chief operating officer of Legent Corp., a Vienna-based supplier of systems software. He formerly served as Legent's vice president for corporate marketing and general manager of the Software Management division.

Burton joined the corporation in August 1989 after his Boston-based company, Business Software Technology (BST), which he founded in 1984, merged into Legent. He viewed this merger as an inevitable step in the increasingly competitive and consolidating software market. "Software vendors now need larger critical mass to sustain marketing and research," he said.

Burton's first link to his present employer came in 1985, when he forged a technical relationship between Morino Inc. of Vienna and BTS, with Morino eventually marketing one of his products. After Morino merged with Duquesne Systems Inc. of Pittsburgh to form Legent in March 1989, Burton's firm became a natural target for acquisition.

Following the deal, BTS became the base for Legent's Software Management division, with Burton at the helm. Over the next year the division became Legent's fastest-growing component, more than doubling its revenue to $14.6 million.

Burton's promotion, which brought him to Legent's Vienna headquarters, was clearly a reward for a job well done, yet it was also unexpected, he said. "I had no intention of moving to the Virginia area," he said. "I was born, bred and schooled in Boston and I didn't think I'd ever have to relocate in order to do what I wanted to do."

Despite his ties to New England and having to move his wife and two young daughters from a new house, completed just four months ago, Burton seems excited by the change of scenery. "The Virginia-Washington area houses one of the fastest-growing hotbeds for software, and it's not just targeted toward the Pentagon and the government anymore," he said.

Burton, 39, is considered a veteran in the computer industry and his goals for Legent are lofty. "Our intent is to be one of the premier service software companies," he said, noting that Legent is already the third-largest producer of IBM systems software. To meet that challenge, Burton feels the company must adapt to the changing realities of the industry.

"The software industry is maturing. Ten years ago it was simply a technical business, but now there is both the challenge of building quality software along with marketing and selling," he said. "Legent has always had great technology, but awareness of Legent in the marketplace has not been up to par with the technical capabilities."

Legent produces software primarily for information services divisions of major corporations, including General Motors Corp., Allstate Insurance Co. and Sovran Financial Corp. "We provide software for the technical user," he said. Foreign sales represent 45 percent of the company's revenue, although they do not currently have any businesses outside the United States.

Although Burton's focus is on the marketing and expansion aspects of the business, "I've always been academically interested in the evolution of computers in business," he said. It has been quite an evolution. "The first thing I was selling," he recalled, "was a mini-computer-based system for $75,000 that did about 5 percent of the work of today's most rudimentary PC."