Last year, The Computer Museum History Center at Moffett Field in Mountain View,
California received four tractor trailer loads filled with artifacts
from and about Digital Equipment Corporation (a.k.a. Digital or DEC)
90,000 pounds of computers, tape drives, disk drives, manuals,
line printers, software, museum displays, etc.
After months of sorting out the techno-booty, with at least some of the materials
ready for viewing, C. Gordon Bell, former DEC Vice President of Engineering,
often referred to as the father of the minicomputer and a trustee of the Museum,
asked that a Digital retrospective event be organized. I was asked, as a Digital
and DECWORLD '92 alumnus, to help in the effort, and I recommended that the event
The primary goal of the event was to have fun sharing stories of the
heyday decades of Digital Equipment, but there was a second goal, namely,
to collect, index, and archive the stories so that students and professionals can
retrieve them from The Computer Museum's cyber museum, and can better understand
the cultural roots of this key part of the computer industry's astounding growth, and
learn about "what made Digital great."
This is one of many programs conducted by The Computer Museum History Center in
which important historical information is gathered, and it is the
pilot for a series of events that will capture the thoughts and contributions of the
computing pioneers and early industry participants, so that more than the technology
itself is preserved.
This in turn fits into Museum's efforts to emphasize the preservation of and education on
the artifacts and stories of the information age, making it a unique resource for media
researchers, historians, scientists, industry professionals and students, as well as
everybody who has been affected by the technology revolution. The museum fulfills its
educational mission through lectures, research resources, personal access to the
collection, a web site with a searchable database, weekly tours and special events like
This event, which was held on June 16th, with informal get-togethers before and
after on the 15th and 17th, was a gathering of shakers and movers from Digital
Equipment who shared stories with the 200 mostly-fellow-Digital-alumni crowd
about DEC's history and culture from 1957 through the early 1990s.
The History of DECWORLD
I was with Digital for 13 years, including 1983 when the first DECWORLD (then
called DECtown) took place. It was an event for the worldwide salesforce, at
which Ken Olsen (founder and CEO of Digital) and his key executives took turns sitting
in the "town" gazebo answering field peoples' questions. Ken liked the setup so well,
that at the last moment they kept it open for an extra week to let customers visit. I
worked with a sidewalk painter in Boston (Sidewalk Sam) to design a sidewalk
painting welcoming the salesforce to Boston.
That event was preceded by a sales managers' meeting called "Symposium '83,"
which was a DECtown type of event for worldwide sales managers. It was so
successful that it was decided to do it again for the entire salesforce.
In one way or another, I was involved in every DECWORLD thereafter. The one
that got the most publicity was DECWORLD '87, for which Digital chartered the
QE II and another cruise ship, and tied them up to the Boston World Trade
Center piers to supplement the overbooked hotels in Boston. My involvement
culminated in being a member of the core Program Team for the final event,
In total, I think there were about five DECWORLDs sponsored by DEC...'83, '85, '87, '90
Why Do People Still Care About Digital?
Technology alone did not always dictate a company's success. Although Digital
Equipment Corporation invented the minicomputer, introduced the
first operating system with integrated networking, and was the cocreator (with Xerox) of
Ethernet among many "firsts," most people acknowledge that DEC's four decades of
extraordinary success were primarily the result of a culture that empowered employees to
achieve extraordinary things.
Does anybody still care? After all, Digital Equipment Corporation was absorbed into Compaq
Computer Corporation more than three years ago; it doesn't exist anymore. A DEC alumnus,
Richard Seltzer, summed up the reason that DEC still matters, "Compaq acquired Digital;
DEC was not for sale."
Speaking as one of the many Digital alums who was at DECWORLD 2001, I feel that Seltzer's
summation says it all. I spent 13 years toiling in and around Maynard, Massachusetts,
where DEC's corporate headquarters was situated, called "The Mill" because it was a 19th
century woolen mill, and I was in complete awe of what Digital, my company, accomplished.
Under the leadership of founder Ken Olsen, Digital introduced minicomputer hardware and
operating system and networking software that changed the world, not just the world of
computing, but the planet and how we live and prosper on it. This is the legacy that was
left to the world by Mr. Olsen, always called Ken by his employees, and a bunch of
energetic engineers, sales people, marketers, and administrative people.
A good deal of this success was generated by the unique Digital culture in which people
enjoyed freedom to develop ideas in their own ways. Early Company employment ads stated,
"At Digital we define half the job, you define the other half."
During the planning of DECWORLD, F. Grant Saviers, former Digital Vice President commented,
"The employees of Digital had a lot of fun, made some money, grew up, won and lost, and
changed the world of computing."
DECWORLD 2001 was a gathering of nearly 200 DEC shakers and movers who came from as far
away as Australia, and that in spite of the fact that Digital Equipment Corporation hasn't
even existed for several years. (As one indicator of how much "buzz" this event created, I
even heard from one person that she overheard a DECWORLD conversation (in English) on a
street in Korea.)
The content of and interaction at DECWORLD told us why they came. DECWORLD 2001 was a
gathering of many of the people who contributed to the spectacular achievements of DEC,
people who wanted to share their memories of the heyday of DEC and renew and maintain the
friendships formed when they were changing the world.
DECWORLD 2001 was not a reunion, any more than the present obsession with the stories of
veterans of World War II is a matter of curiosity. The Computer Museum History Center
wants to collect, index and archive the memories of Digital veterans to make them available
to students in the future who want to understand the meteoric growth of computing during
the second half of the last century. Every minute of DECWORLD 2001 was video taped,
including one-on-one interviews with many of the attendees. These will be stored and
indexed in the Museum's cyber museum for retrieval now and in the future.
"We will be making the materials gathered during event available to the public and
scholars," said John Toole, Executive Director & CEO of the Museum. "The synergy of the
people being together brings out anecdotes, facts, perceptions, artifacts, and experiences
that could otherwise be lost. As one of our many ways of preserving computing history,
DECWORLD 2001 is a landmark."
The event's planners expected that commentary would run the gamut from
praise through critical analysis. Presumably, many of the alumni who took
the time and spent $125 each to attend would widely praise their former employer, extolling the
great accomplishments and ignoring the shortcomings that are also an
inevitable part of a fast-moving environment with so many high-powered movers and shakers.
But there was generally an honest assessment of the painful and often amusing growth throes
of the company.
It was termed a "constructive anarchy" by Donald Gaubatz, former Digital Vice
President, and a "controlled anarchy" by Irwin "Jake" Jacobs, a colorful Vice President in
DEC's early years.
But Gaubatz, Jacobs, and others saw the anarchy as freedom. Called "matrix management" by
organizational scholars, the openness and flatness of the Digital organization seemed to
foster creativity. "We were given an opportunity to create," commented alumnus Bud Hyler,
now a well-respected marketing consultant. Robert Ticknor, another alumnus, called it "the
best environment in which to learn and grow."
There were numerous references to an often quoted and copied Ken Olsen philosophy - "Do the
right thing." Eleanor Stone, a former manager in Digital's training organization, stated,
"When I did not know what to do...'above all, do the right thing.' Somehow I knew what
"We Always Tried To Do It Right"
"Whatever we did at DEC, we always tried to do it right," said Ike Nassi, DEC alumnus and a
trustee of The Computer Museum History Center. But the panel discussions at DECWORLD 2001
made it clear that DEC didn't always succeed in the effort. There were reports of early
PDP (programmed data processor) systems that shipped with boards missing, or systems in
which boards and other components did not fit in the chases. In many cases, Digital's
highly talented and technical field sales force reconstructed the computers to make them
There was discussion of other controversial Digital decisions over their 40 years in the
forefront of the computing industry. While UNIX was developed on a Digital PDP system,
Digital was a belated supporter of the so-called standard. They were even offered the
opportunity to buy and literally own UNIX for just $10,000...and they declined.
Digital's faltering entry into the PC arena was also touched on. Ed Kramer, former DEC
Vice President of Marketing, lightly commented that DEC embraced the paradigm to the extent
that Digital announced three PCs at the same time, none of which were compatible with one
another. These were the Rainbow, the DECmate (for word processing), and the
Professional 350. They didn't enter the Windows-based PC market until several years later.
Rose Ann Giordano, a former DEC executive who will retire from Compaq at year's end,
recalled the traumatic day at DECUS (Digital Users Society) when she and Senior VP Win
Hindle were charged with the duty of announcing the demise of Digital's high-end 36-bit
computer family. The DECUS management hired two security guards to protect Giordano and
Hindle after the announcement. The 36-bit systems, called the DECsystem 10 and
DECsystem 20, were more of a religion than a computer, according to Giordano.
Stan Olsen, badge number 3 and brother of President Ken Olsen, touted Digital's
simplistic, but effective marketing effort. "We called them programmed data processors
(PDP) because the information technology (IT) people were the only people authorized to
buy computers, and we couldn't penetrate the IBM stronghold in that department." Digital
sold their hardware and software to engineers and technical managers who were not
authorized to buy computers, but could buy programmed data processors.
Digital was also famous for its 8 1/2" X 5 1/2" fat handbooks including everything you
could ever want to know about a given system or family of systems. Competitors often
thought these were useless devices. To the contrary, insisted Olsen. "Brochures were
always 'filed,' he said, "either in a pile on a desk, in a file cabinet, or in the circular
file under the desk. Not so with solid handbooks. Their colorful spines with Digital's
logo and the system name were proudly displayed for years in bookcases behind the
decision makers' desks."
"Digital marketing" was often thought of as an oxymoron, both internally and externally,
but DECWORLD 2001 proclaimed that we shouldn't be so fast to draw that conclusion.
Digital Non-Commissioned Sales Organization
Digital was extraordinarily successful for nearly four decades. Joe DiNucci, former
Western Regional Manager for Digital, addressed another controversial uniqueness of
Digital, its non-commission sales organization. Joe insisted that commission is the
ultimate motivator, but that his organization was remarkably motivated and successful
In the early years, the direct sales force was motivated by the stock option incentive. Joe
pointed to his "$3,000 Ferrari." He sold $3,000 in options in 1982 for enough money to buy
a Ferrari automobile that he still owns.
In the later years, Digital did move to a commissioned sales force, but the Digital pride
and culture were still major factors in their drive.
Digital Was Unique
With all its failings like late deliveries, product failures and others, as well as with
the reported internal "anarchy," DEC is still looked back upon as a major contributor to
the explosive growth and success of the computing industry. Without the PDP systems, the
larger DECsystem 10s and 20s, Digital's 36-bit processors; without VAX (Virtual Address
Extended) and the smaller MicroVAX computers, and without the VMS operating system and the
remarkable DECnet networking architecture, most areas of the world economy and scientific
research would be many years behind where they are today.
Keep an eye on http://www.computerhistory.org/
for the details of DECWORLD 2001.
Lou Greer started his high-tech career in 1962 as an account representative with IBM, where he configured, sold, and installed punched card equipment and System/360 computers. He product-managed disk and printer systems products, before joining Digital Equipment marketing in 1980. He retired from Digital in 1993 and became Vice President of marketing for Network Computing Devices. Since January, 2000, he has been a marketing consultant to emerging high-tech companies (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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