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.
“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.