Monday, February 7, 2011

Ken Olsen - RIP

I just got news that Ken Olsen has passed away. It makes me sad. It makes me recall his influences on my life.

In 1981 I was getting my MBA at night while working as an engineer at Leeds & Northrup designing local area networks built to the joint Xerox/Intel/DEC Ethernet Specification. I had my sights set on becoming a product manager, and figured I needed to understand why people buy. I started looking for a sales job and ended up going to Digital Equipment Corporation. I went for a couple of reasons. First, they had a policy where they did not pay sales people commissions so they would act in the best interests of the customer. That felt right to me. Second, the people were amazing. Third, they were growing very fast and there was a lot of opportunity. When I joined revenues were about $1 B, and when I left 11 years later they were over $13 B. Pretty fast growth for back in those days...

Once I got inside, it was amazing to see the culture. It was a combination of people trying to make each other successful, where individuals were empowered. There was a one page document that everyone had that laid out the very meaning of the company and defined the culture. Everyone there could summarize it in the same four words - "Do the Right Thing". And you knew what that meant - it would make your mother proud of you. It would make Ken proud of you.

Ken was a larger than life figure. Everyone in the company called him "Ken". The casualness was still new and refreshing back then in corporate America. By the time I got there, Digital had developed into a Matrix organization. While this was popular, I think Ken set it up purposefully to try to give more people more responsibility and try to avoid the Top-Down model.

During my time there a flurry of new products were created across the entire spectrum of hardware, software and networking. Innovation flowed because people were encouraged to create startups right inside the company.

I had a wonderful job for several years servicing the duPont Experimental Station. A place with 3,000 PhD's on what looked like a college campus inside a barbed wire fence using computers in new and interesting ways. It developed into a big customer on the cutting edge. Due to the culture, I was able to help introduce some of the DEC engineering teams to new ideas and got to be in the middle of a couple of interesting new developments like the deployment of a campus-wide Local Area Network as well as one of the first VAXClusters. Both were considered the largest in the world at that time. Ken actually came down to visit us once and I got to attend some meetings between the top research management at duPont and Ken. I then got to drive him back to the DEC office.

He talked about how the company had grown so large and complex and in some ways he wished we could focus on only a couple of products so everyone would know what the company did - employees, customers, the market. But he felt that he needed to let people have responsibility and with that there was a degree of chaos and change. He liked all the innovation. I could sense that he struggled with the idea of breaking the company up so that the many innovations could be unleashed from the growing corporate bureaucracy.

A few years later, it became clear that Digital had missed new waves of computing that were springing up. There were actually Digital people and products in each of those areas - UNIX was first created on DEC PDP computers and the VAX was the leading UNIX computer at the time. The Robin was originally loaned to Dan Bricklin to write Visicalc - the app that made the first wave of PC's appeal to business, however the Digital manager did not let him have it for long enough and he wrote it on a PC.

This left Ken with a legacy (although I prefer this one from 1988) much like Scott McNealy and Sun. A cruel reminder of the pace of change in this industry.

I credit Coach Gulden, my college coach, with teaching me the value of teamwork. I credit Ken with teaching me and countless other Digital alumni the value of sharing responsibility, helping to make others successful. And knowing that doing the right thing IS the right thing.

Thanks Ken.

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