I was saddened to hear that computer industry pioneer Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), died on Sunday, a few weeks shy of his 85th birthday.
Under his 35-year leadership as CEO, Ken Olsen built Digital from US $70,000 in seed money in 1957 to become the world’s second-largest computer company with upwards of $14B in sales and 120,000 employees in more than 95 countries. In 1986, Fortune magazine named Ken “America’s most successful entrepreneur.”
Following Ken’s vision, starting with the PDP-1 in the 1960s, Digital created an entirely new segment of the computer industry with its small, powerful, and high-quality “minicomputers.” The minicomputer quickly became an alternative to the multimillion-dollar mainframe and gained favor in laboratories, academia, engineering, and other industries.
Beyond the size and price differential of the mini, DEC pioneered the concepts behind interactive computing and set industry standards in programming languages, operating systems, network architecture, application software, peripherals, component and circuit technology, manufacturing processes, business practices, and more (but alas, not marketing).
One quote I read on a ZDNet blog remembers it this way: “Modern, digital natives could not possibly understand how world-changing interactive computers were. You would type something and the computer would actually respond. Rather than giving your card deck to an operator, interactive computing immediately established a relationship between user and the machine.”
Having spent 17 years of my career in software at DEC, it is these other innovations that I remember the most. Development at DEC, actually called “software engineering” was just that, engineering. We had real architects and real architectures, real designs, real plans, and real processes for carrying them out. I’m constantly amazed at the lack of architecture, design, and engineering that I frequently see at companies today, and which don’t compare to what we did at DEC 30 years ago.
Many of you remember the VAX (Virtual Address eXtension) computer and the VMS (Virtual Memory System) operating system. The VAX architecture evolved from its initial model 780 to the 750, 730, 8000 series, 9000 series, MicroVax I and II, VAXStation, etc., all running the same operating system and same applications. Soon memory space started to get scarce and, in 1986, DEC came out with the 64-bit VAX Alpha processor, VMS supported both 32 and 64 bits simultaneously, and all the same applications ran on both. Now that was an architecture. I always wondered what the big deal was when Windows finally did the same thing just a few years ago.
The concept of “eat your own dog food” was standard operating procedure at DEC. We did our jobs using DEC software on DEC hardware. Although I sometimes joked that VMS was the world’s best operating system for building operating systems, we really learned a lot about quality by following this principle.
Of course, DEC will also be remembered for failing to keep pace with the changing computer industry, and despite all of his accomplishments, Ken will be remembered for a few guffaws. In 1977, he is infamous for saying, “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home,” though in fairness, he was referring to having the computer run the house, with automated doors, faucets, and such. And when open systems were all the marketing rage, another famous quote was “Unix is snake oil,” which perhaps it was at the time, but an important trend was clearly missed. Ultimately, Ken stepped down and passed the reigns on to a younger generation, but DEC was never able to regain its leadership position.
Nowadays, if you meet someone (like me) who used to work at DEC, in addition to reminiscing about the good old days and some grumbling about its decline, we really learned about architecture and how to build quality stuff. Thanks, Ken!