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James Reinders

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Convex's Graveyard of Tombstones

May 31, 2009

With more sad news these past few weeks, as high-tech companies of bright ambitious people fall victim to a bad business climate, I was reminded of a visit to Convex some time ago.

A few years before HP acquired them in 1994, I visited Convex Computer Corporation in Richardson Texas. It was a remarkable group of people making successful supercomputers. I worked for Intel's Supercomputer Systems Division at the time. Despite my respect for what they were doing and my excitement at the prospect of meeting them, one thing really irked me about going there. The thing on my mind was their graveyard. Rumor had it - they had a graveyard of tombstones to celebrate their success over fallen competitors.

On that day we had a great meeting with exciting and smart people and afterwards we retired to their cafeteria for lunch. As we ate lunch, I had to ask about the graveyard. They were genuinely surprised that I knew about it - but were more than happy to take me just outside the door near us to see it.

There is was - well over a dozen names in concrete... etched in tombstones such as ETA Systems, Multiflow, and more.

I was stunned. It seemed cruel. Before I could express my shock - they told me that these were reminders. Reminders that even the very smart people in these companies faced struggles they did not overcome. They told me that it reminded them of the need for more than a great strategy and smart people, you have to actually execute it successfully. Otherwise - you'll become a tombstone too.

Sadly, I didn't keep track of folks in Convex. My career took me other places.

I wonder - does the graveyard still exist? Did anyone ever document it? Photograph it?

If it still existed, there would be more names these past few weeks. Smart people, strategies, products - but it didn't work out.

It fits with a philosophy drilled into me where I work (Intel) - "only the paranoid survive." Which translates to some people better when I say "assume your competition will excel, and work to beat that."  Others simply say "never underestimate the competition." Which ever makes sense most to you - believe it.

At Convex - they had a graveyard of tombstones, representing companies they respected, with people they respected, that didn't survive. As a reminder along the same lines  to execute your strategy and deliver or be run over.

Convex succeeded through acquisition by HP. They didn't disappear like many others, they didn't have to get a tombstone. 

Does the Convex graveyard live on?  Do others remember it?


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