The passing of Ken Olsen caused me to think about how much pioneers like Ken did for the industry, and how much our industry has changed over time. As we enter yet another generation of computing (Cloud) I find it interesting that we really can’t associate it with any one individual. There is no doubt, however, that Ken Olsen was clearly the father of the 2nd generation of computing (minicomputers). What is even more interesting is how much Cloud Computing employs many technologies that evolved from the mainframe and minicomputer eras.
I joined DEC in 1984 and, for the next three years, had almost a surreal experience working for such a wildly successful company. First and foremost, DEC was all about having the best architecture, technology, and products. People may remember that DEC initially didn’t even pay commission to sales people so they wouldn’t be tempted to exaggerate capabilities. It was a time of simply amazing resources applied to technology and a time when, even as a junior engineer, Ken considered our time so valuable that we had helicopter service between the DEC facilities and the airport to avoid the traffic (I crack up now thinking about it, as my last trip to Hopkinton involved driving a rented Toyota.) As you can see, I have really progressed in my career!
I was fortunate (for being at the very bottom of the org chart at that time) to actually spend a good amount of time with Ken. At the time we had made the decision to build some of the first enterprise RAID products and then some of the first array products designed for non-DEC platforms. These StorageWorks products ultimately came to completely breakaway and lead the mid-range storage market. Even the brand still exists with HP today (although not the market share!).
As I interacted with Ken, I was amazed both with his passion for technology “goodness” and his passion for what we were building with modular storage. We had built some of the first hot-pluggable storage array systems out of snap-together components and Ken loved the simplicity and modularity so much that it became a driving force across the company. He later founded a company called Modular Solutions to further these efforts.
DEC, to me, had an almost internal VC culture under Ken where teams would be allowed, and often encouraged to develop competing products. I often felt like some of the toughest competitors were not IBM or HP but other DEC teams. This internal competition was sometimes fun, always challenging, often brutally competitive and sometimes downright dysfunctional. In the end, it’s hard for me to judge whether it actually helped or hurt.
The fact that DEC no longer exists should not diminish the value that DEC and Ken brought to the industry. In fact, the list of companies that have led the market across generational computing and technology shifts is essentially zero. Many have survived but there are always new winners across each successive generation. As I think back to my (few) programming days I still am amazed by what DEC accomplished. In my opinion, VMS is still the best OS ever created!
Hat’s off to Ken – the industry we enjoy today exists, in part, to his efforts.