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Death Of A Computer Industry Titan: A Conversation With Olsen’s Biographer

BOSTON — It’s not a stretch to say that Ken Olsen was a titan in the computer industry.

The company he co-founded, Digital Equipment Corp., was, at its height, the second-largest computer maker in the world. In Massachusetts, DEC was so big that it once accounted for an estimated one in every five jobs in the state.

Yet in this era of smart phones and iPads and paper-thin laptops, when electronic devices are such a fundamental part of our lives, it can be easy to forget how radically Olsen influenced the industry.

WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke about Olsen’s life and legacy with Boston-area freelance journalist Glenn Rifkin, who co-authored the 1988 biography, “The Ultimate Entrepreneur: The Story of Ken Olsen and Digital Equipment Corporation.”

Sacha Pfeiffer: The title of your Olsen biography is “The Ultimate Entrepreneur.” Nowadays, lots of people call themselves entrepreneurs. Lots of people are entrepreneurs. But what made Ken Olsen, in your view, worthy of the “ultimate” title?

Glenn Rifkin: Well, at the time, in the 1980s, Ken Olsen had risen to the level of giant in the industry, because what he did with Digital was create the bridge between the old mainframe days — IBM room-size computers behind glass walls — to the age we’re in today: the personal computer leading to all of these devices you just mentioned. Those three decades that Ken Olsen led Digital along the way were crucial to the evolution of the computer industry. And there’s no way to overstate the contribution that this guy made. He was truly a giant.

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

File photo of Ken Olsen (AP)

Bill Gates has even called Olsen a major influence in his life.

There’s no doubt. In fact, Gates will tell you that his first computing experiences were on Digital’s computers.

Tell us what kind of person Ken Olsen was, what kind of personality he was.

Ken was an enigma. He really had multiple sides to his personality. Not that many people could get close to him to really see. He could be a very kind man. The employees just loved him as a paternalistic figure. But he could be a bear of a guy, too. He could be angry, he could berate somebody in a public meeting and leave them just shredded on the floor. He had no qualms about that. So he was a very enigmatic character.

Olsen was Christian, and that’s noteworthy because, as I understand it, his Christianity guided him not only personally, but also professionally to a great degree. How so?

It’s very interesting, because he was both a scientist and a searcher for truth. He did believe devoutly, and the main tenet of working at Digital was a simple phrase: Do the right thing. No matter what happened in your interactions with other employees, with other customers, it was, “do the right thing.” And that, I believe, came directly from Ken’s beliefs.

And it sounds like Google’s motto, “don’t be evil,” comes from Ken’s “do the right thing” motto, in a sense.

I think there’s a certain link to that, as well.

Digital offered day care and other employee benefits considered progressive at the time. Were those offered in part because of Olsen’s sense that he had to do well by his employees? Or was his company just so wealthy that it could afford luxurious perks?

What he believed was that you wanted to create an atmosphere in which people would thrive, in which people would want to be at work long hours. People came in on weekends. The mill in Maynard, where Digital was headquartered, was a buzzing factory over the weekend. All of that definitely emanated from Ken’s belief that you could find fulfillment in your work.

What was the downfall of Digital Equipment Corp.?

The downfall came when Ken Olsen was unable to see the trends that were shaping the future of the industry. He was very stubborn about believing in the proprietary systems that Digital made. He couldn’t understand why anybody would want something as inelegant as a personal computer.

Ultimately, what will the balance be when it comes to how much Olsen will be remembered as a successful entrepreneur, and how much his name will be associated with failure?

Oh, I don’t think there will be any doubt — especially looking at the outpouring of affection for him today — that he will be remembered as a pioneer in this industry. The ending was sad, he was very bitter. However, I believe he will be remembered as the giant in the industry that he really was.

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