Thanks for the memories, Mr. Olsen

I hardly knew Ken Olsen, but I knew his company intimately.

I grew up with Digital Equipment Corp. My father joined the minicomputer maker in 1966 when it occupied a few floors in a massive, rambling old post and brick mill complex in Maynard, Mass. Ultimately, the company took over every building and every wing of the facility. Vast floor expanses, punctuated with evenly spaced wooden posts, lead to corridors that opened up into other vast expanses in other buildings coming in at all angles, with many different floors.

It was easy to get lost. I was six years old. And I did.

I loved the badges. Dad's number was 2062. Years later, when my mother came on as a secretary, her badge number was somewhere around 125,000 - and they went much higher before the wheels came off. It would be interesting to know the number of the last badge DEC issued.

In the 1970s my father's unit, Computer Special Systems, was building a batch processing system for Pillsbury. He was spending a lot of weekends at work, and I went to work with him on Saturdays. I was fascinated. He would set me up on a teletype machine (VDTs had yet to become popular) and help me write a simple BASIC program or, more often, run a Star Trek simulation game on the minicomputer and let me have at it. At the end of the job Pillsbury gave everyone on the team a box of products - including a Pillsbury Doughboy. That kicked around for a while.

My first mini

In the lab area of my dad's facility, where the minicomputer racks sat (engineers only!) there was a big pile of junked parts - bit switch panels, housings, keyboards, and various components of all sorts. I took some home each week and began building my own little PDP 8 home minicomputer. Take that, Steve Jobs!

Working at Digital had its quirks. At one point I was told, Olsen, a millionaire many times over, was driving a Ford Pinto to work. The seating at work was all cubes, with managers sitting next to workers. that was shockingly egalitarian in an era when most workers in traditional top-down hierarchical organizations sat in the vast middle while the outside windows were walled off by cherry-lined executive offices.

But DEC also had its biases. If you graduated from MIT (Olsen's alma mater) you were golden. My father did not, and says that he and others like him watched as graduates fresh out of school, with the right pedigree but no experience, were promoted around and above them.

They say that once you get your first job it doesn't matter what your alma mater was. Not at Digital. It was a meritocracy, but it also had its own class system, he says.

Flying high: The helicopter years

During college, at the height of the company's popularity on Wall Street, I worked a summer job at the Merrimack, NH headquarters (now occupied by Fidelity Investments) doing outdoor maintenance. It was a great job for a college kid - great pay, state-of-the art maintenance equipment, and lots of sunshine. Money was no object, so the grounds were always beautiful. There were decorative ponds, and the two helipads were so busy it was difficult to cut the grass there. You'd be in there with a lawnmower and they'd be hovering over you, waiting to land. Sometimes, with the mowers running, you'd feel the wash from the chopper blades before you'd hear them coming in.

The helicopter shuttles at Digital weren't just for executives: Anyone could take a helicopter to any facility. But there was a catch: It was first-come, first served and a round trip was not guaranteed. If the weather soured or you missed the last helicopter back you might be stuck 35 miles away in Maynard. Fortunately, they also had shuttle vans.

Digital's famed matrix management was an endless source of frustration for my father. As the company grew so did the internal management issues and bickering. Was it the structure that bogged down management, making the company less nimble? Who knows. When Gordon Bell left, dad says, he knew DEC's days were numbered.

Beginning of the end

When the buyout offer came Dad was still in his '50s. It was DEC's first offer, and the sweetest: DEC fully vested his pension as though he had worked until 65, gave him the option of taking the pension annuity at 65 or immediately as a lump sum, provided health insurance for he and his family for the rest of his life (Imagine!), and offered a very generous cash payout based on his more than 25 years of service.

He took the offer and never looked back. Within months his division was decimated by what would be the first in a long series of layoffs.

Dad took the lump sum, and invested it in stock mutual funds. It was the right move at the right time. He watched as it grew with the Dow from less than 3,000 to a high of 14,164 just before the crash. He did OK.

So thanks, Ken, for the memories. It was a great company and a great ride - even if I did take in the view from the passenger's seat.

Were you a Digital brat? I'd love to hear your story.

Note: I enjoy engaging in conversations with blog readers but it's difficult to keep track of ongoing threads from regular readers if everyone posts as "anonymous." To keep the dialog going please consider taking a moment to enter a regular identity "handle" with your posts. Keep the comments coming! --RLM

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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