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Jun
09

In Memory of Digital Equipment Corporation

DEC-BadgeI mentioned that I worked for DEC to someone recently and they had no idea what I was talking about.  Granted, the person was young, but he was an adult.  Funny how the second largest computer company in the world in its time, and the inventor of the mini-computer could be so quickly forgotten. When I joined DEC in 1981, revenues were well below the peak of the roughly $14B they would hit in 1989.  In fact, I think they may have been about $3B.  Digital was still basking in the glory of the VAX, which was released in the late 70s, and was totally disrupting the old mainframe business dominated by IBM.

DEC’s headquarters was in an old woolen mill in Maynard, Massachusetts, not some shiny steel and glass structure in Silicon Valley.  That is part of what made it cool to work there.  In its own way, the place was sort of the Googleplex of the time and the company was innovative, fast-moving and a blast to work for.

Like any company, DEC did a lot of stupid things.  Let’s face it, the company doesn’t exist any more which probably means it made at least a few key mistakes.  One thing it did profoundly well, though, was recruit new talent.  The company was full of smart people that attracted other smart people.  The company also made a committed effort at making its computers available on college campuses around the world.  In a time where university computing meant punch cards and big black boxes, DEC hooked young engineers and scientists with interactive computing.  For those of you who can’t imagine life without a GUI, you probably have trouble understanding the magnitude of this change.  It was huge and made loads of young people (like me) want to work for the company driving this sea change.

This marketing fed the company’s almost insatiable need to hire and grow in the 80s.  In fact, the company grew almost uncontrollably (there’s one of those key mistakes).  As such, there never seemed to be many good managers around (I was fortunate to work for a good one – thanks, Alain).  For renegade employees willing to work hard, the environment was unreal – all the resources you could want at your disposal.  For those who wanted to slack off, though, there was always a place to hide.  We called it, “retirement for the young.”

The group that I worked in was an especially good one.  It was in DEC’s semiconductor engineering facility in Hudson, MA.  In those days, DEC was pouring money into semiconductor physics, manufacturing and software tools for the development of processors.  I was fortunate enough to be in a small team of really smart people that always kept the bar high.  The group created some incredible stuff back then, in fact, some of the underlying technology we created is still in use today in one form or another.

When I was hired, I was a software guy who had just been through two failed startups – one because of someone else’s mistakes, one because of my own – I’m a slow learner.  Within a year or so at DEC, though, I was running the internal chip design course and designing my own microprocessor (the rectangle on the badge above is one of the chips).  That was the kind of huge opportunity that was available in the company if you wanted it.  It was easier back then to make such a domain leap, of course – wire widths weren’t measured in wavelengths of light, but with a tape measure.  You could practically draw the physical layout with a crayon.  The important thing was that someone like me had the chance to make that kind of move.  It just doesn’t happen often today.

I left DEC in 1984 to start Viewlogic Systems with four other guys that I worked with.  Viewlogic was a big success and a great experience, but it was really difficult leaving DEC.  Many of the things I learned there influenced what I did when building new companies – mostly positive things, I think.  I’m sure it’s just my fond memories of the place, but I think that DEC had a huge impact on how we look at and run technical businesses today.  It’s too bad that it isn’t remembered more (or at all) for the hugely positive affect it has had on many of today’s leading technology companies.  It was even one of the first venture-backed companies in the US having taken $70,000 to start up in 1957.

I can only hope that some day people who worked at one of the companies that I have been responsible for will have similar positive memories of their experiences while employed there.  If so, much of it will have been influenced by my own great experience at the once great company, DEC.

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 June 9th, 2007  
 Will  
 Computers, Misc Thoughts  
   
 11 Comments

11 Responses to In Memory of Digital Equipment Corporation

  1. I never worked at DEC, but I own them a great deal. 90% of my business is based on VMS, which is now owned by Hewlett-Packard (http://www.hp.com/go/vms). Yes, I have several VAX systems, and also Alpha and Itanium, which are the successors to VAX.

    I hope you’ll be happy to know that VMS (now called OpenVMS instead of VAX/VMS) is on version 8.3 and the beta of 8.4 is around the corner…

  2. I never worked at DEC, but I own them a great deal. 90% of my business is based on VMS, which is now owned by Hewlett-Packard (http://www.hp.com/go/vms). Yes, I have several VAX systems, and also Alpha and Itanium, which are the successors to VAX.

    I hope you’ll be happy to know that VMS (now called OpenVMS instead of VAX/VMS) is on version 8.3 and the beta of 8.4 is around the corner…

  3. Stanley,

    VMS was cool – took a lickin’ and kept on tickin’. I had heard of OpenVMS, of course, but I didn’t realize that HP was still supporting it. Who uses it these days? Is it legacy apps?

    While I liked VMS a lot (for what it was) it was the operating system on DEC 10s that was really way ahead of its time. What was that called anyway?

    Thanks.

  4. Stanley,

    VMS was cool – took a lickin’ and kept on tickin’. I had heard of OpenVMS, of course, but I didn’t realize that HP was still supporting it. Who uses it these days? Is it legacy apps?

    While I liked VMS a lot (for what it was) it was the operating system on DEC 10s that was really way ahead of its time. What was that called anyway?

    Thanks.

  5. One of the people on comp.os.vms (the newsgroup for VMS) says that “Legacy means it works”. VMS actually is expanding (installed sites growing by 10% per year), and is in all the mission-critical places: stock exchanges, lottery ticket tracking, 911 systems, military/government, phone systems, etc. Its concept of clustering is still the Gold Standard against which other solutions are compared.

    The DEC-10 system was called TOPS-10. There was a follow-on, TOPS-20.

  6. One of the people on comp.os.vms (the newsgroup for VMS) says that “Legacy means it works”. VMS actually is expanding (installed sites growing by 10% per year), and is in all the mission-critical places: stock exchanges, lottery ticket tracking, 911 systems, military/government, phone systems, etc. Its concept of clustering is still the Gold Standard against which other solutions are compared.

    The DEC-10 system was called TOPS-10. There was a follow-on, TOPS-20.

  7. I worked at Hudson for 5 1/2 yrs.

    I worked very hard there and actually made decisions. The worst management I ever saw. Nepotism, favoritism and loyalty were uppermost, competence never was.

    I worked on laser project for over a year, my manager never even knew what a laser was. When I succeeded, they took the project from me and made him the head, I got nothing for it.

    When my manager was angry at me, he made me email him every day when I came in and when I left. Was I a kid, no. I had a Ph D in physics and worked for 2 major companies prior to DEC. His qualficaions? He was a good chef. His wife worked there, they were in the clique.

    I left in 1992, the best decision I ever made. I went into sales and marketing and travelled the world. I knew DEC was going to fail. It deserved to.

  8. I worked at Hudson for 5 1/2 yrs.

    I worked very hard there and actually made decisions. The worst management I ever saw. Nepotism, favoritism and loyalty were uppermost, competence never was.

    I worked on laser project for over a year, my manager never even knew what a laser was. When I succeeded, they took the project from me and made him the head, I got nothing for it.

    When my manager was angry at me, he made me email him every day when I came in and when I left. Was I a kid, no. I had a Ph D in physics and worked for 2 major companies prior to DEC. His qualficaions? He was a good chef. His wife worked there, they were in the clique.

    I left in 1992, the best decision I ever made. I went into sales and marketing and travelled the world. I knew DEC was going to fail. It deserved to.

  9. Howard,

    I never experienced any nepotism, but all the other problems were there in abundance. It’s too bad. There were so many incredibly bright people there and so much potential. As usual, failed management was the problem, as your story clearly points out.

    A chef? Really? It’s all very sad, actually.

    Thanks for the comment!

  10. Howard,

    I never experienced any nepotism, but all the other problems were there in abundance. It’s too bad. There were so many incredibly bright people there and so much potential. As usual, failed management was the problem, as your story clearly points out.

    A chef? Really? It’s all very sad, actually.

    Thanks for the comment!

  11. Alonzondorantes

    I also worked for DEC. I worked in the product engineering lab and worked for bothe design engineers and tesh alike…Remember Jim Gorr…Leon Rozek…Dave Van derbeek (sp?)  I had a blas coming up with new ways to get test fixtures up and running on time for their test time. It was alwas a great challenge. I remember once  working with with Jim St Laurent to get a double sided board wired with #30 wire from one side to the other so that it could be used the next day,only to find that it had been put on hold!!!   Those were the days.The Alpha chip was it!!!  It was used in the Cray system. I have a lot of good memories of “the hill”.

    Al Dorantes