Microsoft: Ken Olsen’s ultimate success?

Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), passed away last weekend.  I’ll get to personal memories in a moment, but first I wanted to comment on his real impact on computing and the high-tech world we live in.  While DEC’s direct influence within the computer industry ended in the 1990s, the influence of its employees continues on today.  Look at the list of the most senior engineers (“Fellows”, “Technical Fellows”, “Distinguished Engineers”, and the like) at companies like Cisco, Intel, and Microsoft and you’ll find a disproportional number who came from DEC.  Microsoft has hundreds, if not thousands, of ex-DEC employees.  They’ve been responsible for some of its greatest successes, most notably Windows NT and its successors (Windows 2000, Windows XP etc.).  Microsoft Sr. Technical Fellow and former DEC Sr. Corporate Consulting Engineer Dave Cutler is still at it, helping drive Windows Azure.  And of course I can’t get away without mentioning that SQL Server 7.0 and its successors owe a significant part of their success to a few of us ex-DECies.   Cisco was founded by ex-DECie Len Bosack and his wife, and Len has talked about how Cisco’s first product was an Ethernet board for the DECsystem-10.  But Ken’s legacy is about more than the success of DEC, or the employees it produced and their subsequent successes.

In Bill Gates’ library, not far from Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex, sits a set of DECsystem-10 (aka, PDP-10) manuals.  Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is so passionate about the DECsystem-10 that he has long owned one and more recently started a living (meaning you can still use them) computer history museum with the DECsystem-10 and other DEC PDP computers at its core.  For the last 20 years most young people have gotten their introduction to computers, and their passion for technology, from the personal computer.  For the 20 years prior to that it was from using computers produced by DEC.  Most of what we know of in computing today has connections to DEC.  Java, Open Source, Ethernet, web search, Unix (and thus Linux), etc.  Storage giant EMC started out making memory boards for DEC computers.  One could write a book about DEC’s involvement (directly and indirectly) with the creation of the Internet.

Bill Gates and Paul Allen discovered, and developed their passion for, computing thanks to a DECsystem-10 they used in High School.  Without that DECsystem-10 it is very possible they would never have developed a passion for computing and started a software company.  Instead of creating Microsoft, perhaps there would have been a Jr. Gates joining his father at Preston, Gates, and Ellis.   So I think it is quite fair to give Ken Olsen some of the credit for Microsoft.

I’m another one of those whose passion for computing was ignited by DEC.  Although I was born into a computing family (my father was ex-IBM, and ran IT organizations throughout his career) and had exposure and access to computers literally from birth, it was using a PDP-8 running TSS/8 and DECsystem-10 that switched my career ambitions from Microbiology to Software Engineering.  After a couple of years working for DEC’s customers I fulfilled one of my earliest career ambitions and joined DEC,  initially as a software support specialist in the NY District.  A few months later I met Ken for the first time.  The NY District held its annual sales meeting (really a 2 day party) at one of the famous Catskill Mtn resorts, Grossinger’s.  Ken flew in to give the keynote and hung around for the cocktail party.  Somehow Ken, a tea totaler who would later use the results of a lawsuit that Wang lost to ban alcohol at all official DEC functions, managed to be gracious while chatting with (drunk) sales people and (tipsy) support people.  A small group of us must have spent 10 minutes trying to get him out on the basketball court.  We came THIS CLOSE to success.  I think he really wanted to go shoot some hoops, but didn’t think it was appropriate for the event.

The last time I was able to talk to Ken 1-on-1 (other than to say hello in the hall) was in the mid-80s.  Ken was trying to get DEC’s leadership to really understand how difficult it was to install and configure DEC systems, so he set up an offsite and gave each of his direct reports an assignment.  They had to order the hardware and have it delivered to an area of DEC’s  huge (largest computer manufacturing plant in the world) Westminster facility.  There they had to set it up and get the system configured and working.  While the original assignment required these senior executives to do it all on their own most ended up bringing along a technical person to help.  I was one of those technical people.  Fortunately I was able to actually attend Ken’s staff meetings during the offsite and see how his staff interacted.  Before the start of the wrap-up meeting Ken and I chatted for about 10 minutes about the problem and what I thought needed to be done.  About a minute later the meeting came to order and Ken just started beating the crap out of his directs.  You could tell who were the experienced hands and who was new to this.  Jack Smith, who owned both engineering and manufacturing (and might have held the COO title by that point) wasn’t phased at all (actually, he joked about it during the meeting).  My boss, who technically reported to Jack but had recently started essentially dual-reporting to Ken, was visibly shaken by Ken’s somewhat personal attack on him.  In the end it worked as Ken was able to fairly quickly drive everyone to agreement on a set of (then groundbreaking) decisions.   One was a recommendation I made during our 10 minute chat.  In my career I have often reflected on the dynamics in that meeting.  Ken created a culture at DEC that made leadership, even for the CEO, an exercise in herding cats.  Herding, even with pack animals, is not a gentle activity.  Cats take extra-large prods.

At orientation on my first day at DEC our District Manager told us that the way DEC does things is to treat each of us like we were running our own business.  We wouldn’t get much oversight, and we’d have to sink or swim on our own.  My immediate manager made it clear he wasn’t going to interfere much in day-to-day activities, but that he was always available to help when I needed it (and indeed he was, and was quite good at it).  Over the coming weeks I would learn that DEC (at least in the 70s) had little bureaucracy but was instead “organized chaos”.  Yes, those of us on the front line actually used the phrase “organized chaos” to describe the overall management style.  In management texts what DEC is famous for was being a pioneer in Matrix Management.  You can imagine how those two things go together.  If you have multiple bosses then how on earth could you have a hierarchical management style, or in fact impose much bureaucracy.  Instead it was up to each employee to interpret the potentially conflicting goals and direction from his two (or often more) reporting relationships.  The philosophy Ken espoused at DEC was simple, “do the right thing”.  This made sayings like “do it and apologize later” very real.  After all, if you are doing the right thing then you don’t have to worry that you didn’t actually get permission.  That’s very empowering. 

Another of Ken’s philosophies was that “the engineer is responsible for building the right product”.  He made it clear that engineers couldn’t just take direction from product management, marketing, and sales, build the product they called for, and then point fingers at them when the product failed.  The engineer had to really understand what it was customers needed and build the right product.  It is a philosophy I took to heart and have adhered to throughout my career.  It also was an early source of friction for many ex-DECies when they joined Microsoft.

If you read the book Showstopper, about the creation of Windows NT there is a passage about how Dave Cutler and the other ex-DECies pushed back on Microsoft’s concept of Program Managers.  Microsoft had essentially split the role of software engineer in two, a Program Manager who determined what the software should do and look like (e.g., wrote the functional specs) and a Software Design Engineer who did internal design and wrote the code.  In the Microsoft model the PgM is the one responsible for building the right product and the SDE is absolved of that responsibility.  When I read the passage in Showstopper I immediately understood the reaction of the ex-DECies.  How could anyone who had spent years in a culture where they were responsible for building the right product yield that responsibility to others?  And often far more junior others.  Those of us who grew up with Ken’s philosophy never could quite shake it at Microsoft.  If you look at the organizations where ex-DECies hold leadership positions the SDE discipline tends to have more control over product direction then PgM, unlike those organizations without a significant ex-DEC presence at the top.

Almost everyone knows about Bill Gates’ Internet Tidal Wave memo of 1995, fewer know about Ken Olsen’s “Tractor”, “Puke-Colored Foam”, or “MBA” memos (actually, I don’t recall the real names but those are how I think of them).  Of course they were written in pre-email days so they aren’t floating around the web (though if someone has scanned and posted them I’d love a link).  Tractor was about Ken’s visit to a Ford dealership to buy a new tractor.  He described the sales process and then compared it with trying to buy a computer from DEC.  It was a call to action to for a change in how DEC did business.  Despite one of Ken’s most famous quotes about computers in the home, Puke-Colored Foam, was about Ken’s experience having a DEC computer delivered to his home and how DEC really needed to change in order to address the home market.  For example, the computer came in a box too big to fit through standard house doors.  Ken had to open the box and remove the computer out in his driveway.  But the most amusing part of the memo was Ken’s reaction to the yellow foam the computer was packed in.  Yes, it was puke-colored.  But not for long.  MBA is in some ways my favorite.  As with most companies, DEC had started to hire a lot of MBAs (and specifically Harvard MBAs, so perhaps the memo was an MIT grad taking a stab at Harvard grads) and immediately place them into key positions.  Ken thought this was a mistake.  As with a number of things Ken said over the years, the memo was somewhat misinterpreted.  Everyone thought that Ken was just railing against MBAs.  A careful read of the memo showed that what Ken was objecting to was putting MBAs with absolutely no real-world experience in positions of authority.   Ken’s point made a lot of sense.  You’d never take a freshly minted PhD and make them head of a department.  Even after they have the degree they work their way up from junior pond scum to pond scum  and onward before eventually getting into a position of authority.  So why do companies hire MBAs who have never held a full-time job and put them in charge of departments or give them significant authority starting with their first day on the job?  It’s hard to communicate how insightful these memos were and how great an impact they had.  I guess you had to be there.  But walk up to any DEC employee of the 1970s, mention Ken’s tractor memo, and watch them form a knowing smile.

I think I’m done rambling, but not because there aren’t more stories to tell and more pointers about Ken’s influence on the computer industry.  I also barely knew the man.  But I did work for the company he founded for 18 years, 17 of those under his leadership.  He had a huge influence on my life and my career.  Ken will be missed.

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One Response to Microsoft: Ken Olsen’s ultimate success?

  1. Bob says:

    I hired on as a Decie and left a Digit.
    I can’t take credit for creating that sentence, but it speaks volumes to anyone who calls themselves a ‘Decie’.
    My wife had the great fortune to be a Mill Rat and I must say I had tears running down my cheeks as I sent her an email telling her I had just read about Ken’s passing. I could say more, but here come the tears again…It was truly the passing of a family member.

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