Saying good bye to Ken Olsen

Saying good bye to Ken Olsen

Summary: Thoughts upon the passing of an industry giant.


I was saddened to learn of a great man's passing. Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation (now part of Hewlett-Packard), passed away at 84. I had been following the discussion of his long illness in several Digital Equipment alumni forums and find myself recalling meeting him on several occasions, presenting to his team once and 16 years with the company.

He fostered a "can do" culture that pushed the limits of technology in all directions. He was also known to say things such as "Do you know how many technical manuals we could print for that amount of money?" when marketing people did their best to increase industry awareness, interest, desire and build business. He never seemed to understand that there was a sea change happening in who made the decision to purchase IT products.

Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) was an amazingly inventive company under Ken's guidance. It could be said that the company invented the concept of personal computing with its PDP-8 line of minicomputers. It can also be said that it also founded the concept we now call "virtualization" with several of its products including:

  • its line of terminal servers (access virtualization),
  • distributed application frameworks (application virtualization),
  • clustering and high availability solutions (processing virtualization),
  • network servers (network virtualization),
  • storage servers (storage virtualization)
  • and distributed systems and network management functions that were the predecessors of today's management tools for virtualized and cloud environments.

The company contributed heavily to the creation and maintenance of what is now known as the Internet through its work on The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET).

Digital missed several opportunities by sticking to its own line of thinking and ignoring what customers were requesting including:

  • Personal computers — DEC was late to the PC party because Ken thought that people didn't want to be their own systems administrator. When DEC did join the party, it came out with three incompatible products: the x86-based Rainbow 100, the PDP-8 based DECmate 100 and the PDP-11 based Professional 350.
  • Operating systems — it is clear that CPM/80 and MS/PC-DOS were derived from the experience offered by DEC's OS/8 and RT-11 operating systems. DEC had several chances to make RT-11 an industry standard and chose, instead, to "keep it to itself."
  • Open systems — although a part of DEC was heavily involved with the creation of UNIX, that operating system was always seen as a competitor for DEC's own PDP-11, VAX and DECSYSTEM 10 and DECsystem 20 operating systems rather than an opportunity to gain new customers and address their requirements. The thought behind UNIX drives today's Linux systems as well.
  • Networking — DEC's DECnet was is arguably better than TCP/IP and might be seen as better even today. It could have become an industry standard.  DEC decided to keep this jewel to itself and now it can be considered an interesting footnote to computing history.

I could go on and on about the successes and failures of Ken Olsen and DEC.  I worked for DEC for 16 years, 12 years of which were the best working environment I have ever experienced. I also had the experience of being sent to speak at a trade show to represent the company after being told that my group and my position would be gone when I returned. I must admit that I spent a good deal of the time at that show trying to find another position rather than presenting DEC's messages. I also found that DEC's management was more interested in my research and my assessment of what the results meant after I left to join IDC.

Good bye Ken. I'll miss you and am very thankful for all of the things I learned and experienced during my time with your company.

Topics: Servers, Virtualization, Storage, Software, Hardware, Operating Systems, Networking, Linux, Hewlett-Packard, PCs


Daniel Kusnetzky, a reformed software engineer and product manager, founded Kusnetzky Group LLC in 2006. He's literally written the book on virtualization and often comments on cloud computing, mobility and systems software. In his spare time, he's also the managing partner of Lux Sonus LLC, an investment firm.

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  • RE: Saying good bye to Ken Olsen

    I grew up near Maynard, Mass, where Digital was headquartered. There used to be a sign on Rte 117, as you entered Maynard that said: "Welcome to Maynard, minicomputer capital of the world."
    • RE: Saying good bye to Ken Olsen


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  • Ken is/was an American hero

    11 years at DEC. Best years of my professional life.
    KO was a super guy and wicked smart.
    He created an entire industry from out of nowhere.
  • RE: Saying good bye to Ken Olsen

    Here's to DEC. Often imitated. Never equaled.
    My favorite five years in the business. Did Bell Labs and IBM.
    Nothing else compared.
  • RE: Saying good bye to Ken Olsen

    @vaxgeek - Interesting you mentioned Bell Labs. I left the Labs for Digital because (unlike the Labs) Digital did not care what college degree you had. What DEC cared about was how good your idea was, and how well you executed it. - maddog
    • RE: Saying good bye to Ken Olsen

      @maddoghall Thanks for weighing in Maddog. It's been far too long since we last had a chance to chat.

      Dan K
  • RE: Saying good bye to Ken Olsen

    Was a DEC customer for years (PDP 8 and 11, various VAXen). Met Ken once at DECworld. Most unpretentious CEO I ever met. Truly, he was an IT world changer.
  • Let's not forget Ethernet

    I too am an ex Deccie. and have great memories. I remember my sales training on the new Ethernet technology and being told it would revolutionize the office. I thought it might be hype but we competed with IBM's SNA and Token Ring and prevailed.

    Intel, Xerox and DEC combined to create a great networking technology.

    Ken fostered an environment where that innovation happened.
    Malcolm in St Louis
  • RE: Saying good bye to Ken Olsen

    My father Tony Wachs was in the Large Computer Group at DEC for many years, so most of my memories of the company involve the times they rented out Canobie Lake Park every fall for the employees and their families. But it's nice to see a remembrance of KO that includes his contributions to the industry instead of just being the man who thought that no one would want a computer in their home.
    Laura Wachs
    • I worked in house on the KA10, KI10 and KL10 systems with Tony Wachs.

      @Laura Wachs
      Your Dad was a great man Laura. I worked in Maintenance on the LCG systems while he worked in software on the Tops 10 operating systems. He was a knowlegable man who had to be replaced by a team of men when he went on vacation or had to go on a trip. He really knew his stuff and was great to work with. I knew him at both Maynard and Marlboro. May God be with you and yours Laura.
    • RE: Saying good bye to Ken Olsen

      @Laura Wachs - I actually worked with your father during my summer 1977 job with the Large Computer Group in Marlboro. It was a great experience.
  • RE: Saying good bye to Ken Olsen

    Yes I am truly grateful to Mr. Olsen as it was his company that started me on my computer career out of college. When working there as an intern security guard, I stopped him from parking in the Mill yard until he identified himself. How to make points.... he always remembered my name and said hello to me me. A totally terrific man....<br> Robert
  • Props to DEC

    For anyone who ever used both, Microsoft BASIC (aka MS BASIC or GW BASIC) was obviously a direct rip off of BASIC Plus on under RSTS on the PDP-11.

    I remember engineers buying PDP-8s as test stations, not computers, since the only computers they were allowed to buy were from IBM.

    DEC did as much as any other company, and a lot more than most, in saving us from IBM's vision of a world controlled by sysadmins and programmers with complete control over all data.
  • RE: Saying good bye to Ken Olsen

    As "ex DECies", my wife and I were also saddened. My wife summed it up well - "End of an era where hard workers were taken care of." Very sad and sobering truth!<br>ps - MA - 72-83 - ABSOLUTE BEST years of my professional life!
  • RE: Saying good bye to Ken Olsen

    13 Years at DEC - right out of University. There was always something "magical" about that company and I have always been amazed at how loyal to Digital our employees were. Incredible people, incredible products. KO was indeed an impressive man...
  • RE: Saying good bye to Ken Olsen

    Worked there for a few years before Compaq bought them out. It was the best place I have ever worked at (up until Compaq came in) and I still think of it fondly often.
  • Only 9 Years but they were great

    Digital led by Ken was a terrific place to work. We worked many long hours but we loved what we did and Digital management always looked out for us. I met Ken late 1 night working on the Vax 9000. I was surprised that he had taken time to know my name - Ken was a class act and the company he built was the best.

    With sadness
    • 19 1/2 years at DEC was great

      Much of my working life was spent at DEC in Chicago & Colorado Springs. I took eqrly retirement in 1992 when DEC started to fall apart. Worked for several other companies but none compare to DEC - wonderful working conditions.
  • Best place to work. EVER.

    I got my start in the computer industry working at DEC. I was a secretary. I told my boss I didn't want to be a secretary for the rest of my life. He asked me what I wanted to do. I told him systems management. I was doing systems management as well as my secretarial duties within a month. Throughout the various groups I worked in during my time at DEC (1984-92), there hasn't been another company that's come close to how incredibly *good* it was working at DEC.

    I was fortunate enough to meet Mr. Olsen not long after I started working at DEC (in Littleton, MA). He had a sense of humor, was very down to earth, had absolutely no issues getting down to the nitty gritty with the grunts (ie me) when it helped resolve a problem.

    Rest in peace, Mr. Olsen. The world's light has grown dimmer with your passing.
  • All but a memory now

    Many of these comments from rank and file alumni suggest a genuine appreciation. Could it be because the man gave more than he took, and believed in things beyond the all-encompassing bottom line?<br><br>How refreshing, especially by today's standards where principled leadership - and leading by example - no longer seem to apply.