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A Tribute to Innovation: Ken Olsen

February 08, 2011

Companies often have a distinct personality that can be traced to the founder. Today we see it with innovative companies, such as Apple and Google, whose success is due in part to uncommon loyalty. In the past that was also true of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). Among the dozens of former DEC employees I've known, none has uttered a negative comment about his time working for Digital. And my experience has been that DEC employees were some of the best and brightest people I've encountered in the industry. Much of that is undoubtedly due to Digital's founder, Ken Olsen, who died on February 6, 2011.Ken Olsen was a force in the industry and he helped shape the history of computing for several decades. He was one of those iconic figures who influenced computing by their intellect, strength of personality, goal-directed behavior, or all three. Ken Olsen was in the unique class of creative people who brought about major innovation, if not a sea change, in computing.

There's a list of companies that will be forever linked to founders who've been universally recognized as innovators in the high-tech industry. The companies include HP (co-founders Bill Hewlett, Dave Packard), CSC (Fletcher Jones, Roy Nutt), 3Com (Bob Metcalf), Oracle (Larry Ellison), Apple (Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs), Microsoft (Bill Gates, Paul Allen), Sun Microsystems (Andy Bechtolsheim, Bill Joy, Vinod Khosla, Scott McNealy) and Google (Larry Page, Sergey Brin).

Those innovators planted seeds that grew into important companies, in part because of the corporate cultures. Companies that put a premium on talent, foster innovation and treat employees well often benefit from strong employee and customer loyalty. So it was with Ken Olsen and the company he founded that sparked a major paradigm shift in computing.

Ken Olsen launched DEC during the mainframe era of computing. It was a time when the only game in town was big iron housed in government, corporate and academic computer centers. That era has sometimes been described as the days of "IBM and the Seven Dwarfs" because IBM had captured a 70% market share. A question often heard when programmers met was "How big is your System 360?" or "Are you an OS shop or DOS shop?" (Both were IBM mainframe operating systems.)

Computing was mainframe-centric before Ken Olsen started the ball rolling with commercially-successful minicomputers; first the PDP-8, later the PDP-11 and PDP-15. Minicomputers made it possible to distribute computing power throughout an organization instead of having only a centralized data center. Most computer centers operated according to a 'closed shop' model. Only computer operators had hands-on experience with the room-sized computers that were predominant during that era.

Hands-On Programming The mark of dedicated students who took Computer Science classes in the 1960s was late night and early morning sessions in the computer center. That was when you got easier access to keypunches and faster turnaround when you submitted programs for compilation, linking and testing.

Leaving the halls of academia and moving into industry did not necessarily provide relief from those late night sessions. In the closed-shop era, it was not uncommon that production jobs had priority over running software development workloads. When production jobs ate up the available computer time during the day, programmers often had to resort to working late nights and early mornings in labs and computer centers. At times that was the only alternative for being able to compile, link and test enough to meet a project schedule. Sometimes co-workers spoke of programmers as ghosts because they were only seen in the office for brief periods between projects.

When software developers worked on projects with tight schedules but without adequate access to machine time, morale suffered. Companies lost skilled technical people who looked elsewhere for work. Years of constantly changing work schedules and too many overnight debugging sessions put a strain on marriages and families. But even single programmers experienced burnout and opted to change professions.

But Ken Olsen helped change all that with the minicomputer. For programmers it was like being a child getting a birthday present. The minicomputer provided a hands-on experience and pushed us towards an interactive model for computing - and software development!

For that reason many of us remain eternally grateful to Ken Olsen. He was an innovator whose minicomputers, such as the best-selling PDP-11, made programming fun again.

From the mid-70s to the early '90s many of the clients for whom I developed systems had bought DEC computers. I used a lot of technology from DEC and companies that sold to the DEC user base: PDP-11, VAX, DECnet, DECsystem-10 and different DBMS products (DBMS-10, Ingres, Oracle). By the 1980s, Digital had grown to be larger than all of the other computer companies except IBM. A common saying in the 1970s was that when you went into corporate facilities you'd find DEC computers in engineering, the lab or shop floor, but you'd find the financial systems at corporate offices ran on IBM hardware. The argument was that you'd never see Digital overtake IBM until DEC had a computer that was an alternative to the IBM mainframe in the market of systems installed at corporate data centers. In the mid-1980s one of my projects was for a company that was replacing an IBM mainframe at its corporate HQ with a VAX 8600 cluster. It seemed that, having overcome that final hurdle, DEC would go on to challenge IBM for primacy in the computer industry. But the emergence of the PC and local area networks slowed DEC's momentum. Not recognizing the magnitude of that market shift proved to be Ken Olsen's undoing. Digital's spectacular growth ended and it was eventually merged with Compaq and HP.

In 2008 Ken Olsen was the honoree at the dedication of the Ken Olsen Science Center at Gordon College. A video tribute by people who knew him well was recorded at that time. Watching the video (above) will remind you why Olsen and DEC were a dominant influence on the computer industry for decades.

RIP, Ken, and thanks.

Ken Olsen bio at the Computer History Museum

History of the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC)

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