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Former DEC Employee Remembers Ken Olsen

Former DEC employee Dick Green, far left, at a company awards party in the mid-1980s.  (Courtesy Dick Green)

Former DEC employee Dick Green, far left, at a company awards party in the mid-1980s. (Courtesy Dick Green)

BOSTON — Ken Olsen, who has died at the age of 84, was certainly a titan in the computer industry. But he was also a personal titan to most of the employees at the company he co-founded in Maynard, Digital Equipment Corp. They knew Olsen for his humility and the culture of fun and excitement he created.

Former employee Dick Green remembers the first time he saw Ken Olsen. On one of Green’s first days on the job, he saw a bunch of guys in suits along with another guy in khakis and a work shirt.

“Looked like someone in maintenance,” Green says.

Then a few days later, Green was being shown an introductory video for new employees.

“And the guy who was speaking was Ken Olsen,” Green remembers, laughing. “It was the same guy! Here’s this guy, he looks like a janitor walking down the hall and he’s the president of the company.”

Green found out DEC was no ordinary company. Without a top-down style, it wasn’t about following protocol or saving money, Green learned. It was about having fun and getting the job done.

File photo of Digital Equipment Corp. co-founder Ken Olsen (AP)

File photo of Ken Olsen (AP)

“Solve the problem,” Green says. “And worry about everything else afterwards.”

One time Green couldn’t figure out how to fix a broken computer. So he looked up the phone number of the product manager and called him.

“And basically, this guy talked to me for three hours,” Green remembers, “telling me everything I never wanted to know about his product.

“I mean, can you imagine in the corporate world today of some lowly tech calling up a product manager? That’s just the way the company worked.”

Ken Olsen gave DEC that culture. When people came over from IBM to work for DEC, Green says they thought they’d died and went to heaven. Everyone felt like they belonged.

“There were long hours, many all-nighters and we weren’t getting rich,” Green says. “But I couldn’t wait to go to work everyday.”

He says if you never worked at DIGITAL, as the company was later renamed, it’s hard to appreciate what DEC was like.

“If you were willing to invest some of your time time and effort,” Green says, “you could do anything in that company. It was something.”

It sure was. DEC was something.

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  • Bill Walsh

    My thoughts somewhat mimic Dick Green’s. I also couldn’t wait to go to work. Some of my
    stand out memories of Ken

    I was working late one night in the Large Computer Groups lab on 5-5 and this ” older
    man” stopped by and asked what I was doing. I responded I drafting up a module
    utilization chart for a DL10. He asked me how I liked what I was doing. I responded
    I don’t . I am a technician not a draftsman. The next day my Engineering Manager
    Bob Savell came to see me and said I heard you had a conversation with Ken
    last night. I didn’t do anymore drafting.

    One of the first employee’s that I knew to retire was the janitor for 5-5 in the Mill and guess who showed up at his retirement party, yes Ken.

    My next memory was in late 60′s and I was now an Engineering Aid which was somewhat
    like a junior engineer title. I had to pass a review by the chief engineers of the company
    to receive that promotion. The whole LCG Engineering Group was invited down to have tea and cookies with Ken. Everything started out fine then Ken proceeded to chew us out for the
    next half-hour with nobody daring to interrupt or respond.

    My last memory of Ken was his last day in the Mill. You could go up to the cafeteria
    and say goodby to Ken. I remember I asked him to sign my System Modules
    Handbook that I received when I first was hired. I knew at that point my time at
    DEC was also getting short. I told Ken I would do all over again even with the
    same results.

    Bill Walsh
    Badge 2689
    1966-1994

  • David

    I never worked for Digital, but I did work for one of the follow-on companies that grew up with Digital’s culture, and I had a few conversations with KO through a friendship.

    His style really did change the world, the way engineering was done. Engineers were devoted to quality of product, to consistency of behavior, to lack of surprises — because engineers ran the company, and were tasked with designing computers that we wanted to use, we knew that if we took the time to get things right and the way we wanted them to be, our customers and everyone else would appreciate the consistency, bug-free quality, and care.

    Unfortunately, that east coast devotion to people through good products was overtaken by a west coast style of engineering, where profits and time to market come first. Terribly unfortunate. Terribly frustrating for every user. Tens of billions of dollars of waste every year.

    KO, we all look up to you and the model of computer engineering you built, and wish you well.

    David

  • David

    I never worked for Digital, but I did work for one of the follow-on companies that grew up with Digital’s culture, and I had a few conversations with KO through a friendship.

    His style really did change the world, the way engineering was done. Engineers were devoted to quality of product, to consistency of behavior, to lack of surprises — because engineers ran the company, and were tasked with designing computers that we wanted to use, we knew that if we took the time to get things right and the way we wanted them to be, our customers and everyone else would appreciate the consistency, bug-free quality, and care.

    Unfortunately, that east coast devotion to people through good products was overtaken by a west coast style of engineering, where profits and time to market come first. Terribly unfortunate. Terribly frustrating for every user. Tens of billions of dollars of waste every year.

    KO, we all look up to you and the model of computer engineering you built, and wish you well.

    David

  • Rich

    Yes, I remember DEC. Those were good times and great people. That’s me, Rich, in the back center of the picture with Dick on the left, Glen next to him and Tom on the right with Kevin next to him. Three of our wives were in the front row for the picture.

    Digital awards banquets like the one we were at in the picture were always good times for coworkers and their spouses.

    I never met Ken Olsen but I feel like I knew him from working at his wonderful company. He will be missed by many.

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