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Mark Nelson

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Ken Olsen, RIP

February 08, 2011

Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, died Sunday, February 6 at the age of 84.

Looking back on the amazing arc of Ken Olsen's life brings home an important point about the pace of change in the technology business. When I graduated with a CS degree in 1980, DEC was on top of the world, and the minicomputer was the driving force behind a paradigm shift in business and scientific computing. A generation later, DEC was gone, picked up by Compaq in a fire sale in 1998, and sold for parts.

In that short period of time, DEC's minicomputer business was overtaken by changing technology. The corporate IT world we live in now is centered around networked PCs; if there is a legacy hunk of iron anywhere at the center of it all, it is likely to be a mainframe. The transcendental VAX 11/780, sitting on top of the world in 1980, was scrapped long ago. And Ken Olsen famously sat out the revolution, convinced it was not going to affect his business.

I think business leaders in today's environment are more likely to realize that sea changes in technology can and will force them to completely rewrite their game plans on a regular basis. Companies like Netflix, Apple, and HP seem to have incorporated reinvention into their DNA. And if the CEOs don't get it, their boards will replace them with someone who does.

There's a quip that shows up on tee shirts, bumper stickers, and refrigerator magnets from time to time: Maybe your purpose in life is only to serve as a warning to others. That may not the legacy of choice for a corporate titan, but perhaps it is better than no legacy at all.

Photo by Nick Richards

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