Remembering Ken Olsen (1926-2011): A Sense of Pride and a Sense of Humor

2/8/11

While we are remembering Ken, I couldn’t help sending this picture of a poster that appeared in my office one Monday morning about 30 years ago that illustrated Ken’s sense of humor that most people never saw (see photo at bottom of this post).

This is something we shared, along with the concern about wanting to have beautiful computers and cabling. Unfortunately, I don’t have the text on the back of the poster that listed 20 reasons for the messy cables—e.g., “engineering said ‘marketing made me do it,’” and “we don’t ever want a customer to say that our cables are too short.”

Ken loved to work on the cabling and power supply problems for the DEC computers, a problem he and most every other company has never solved. He delivered a lot of the crisply burned out power supplies that customers sent him to my office.

Cabling has only gotten worse.

However, as a Ford board member, he claimed that he was able to get them to have a beautiful engine compartment and cabling (after he became a board member).

There are other things to recall as well. There’s the story of him wanting to redesign the famous, large, Yellow Ethernet cable just as we were to announce it!

I tend to remember all the humor and moments of irony that we shared while building computers at DEC.

Personally, I believe one of his longest living legacies will be the founding of The Computer (History) Museum(s) that started in Maynard, moved to Marlboro, then Boston for 15 years, and has lived in Silicon Valley for the last 15 years.

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[Editor's note: The author spent 23 years at Digital Equipment Corporation as Vice President of Research and Development, where he was responsible for Digital's products.]

Gordon Bell is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft’s Silicon Valley Laboratory. Follow @

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  • Mary Pimentel

    Ken Olsen was truly a great man. Treated his employees as we were family. DEC surely was one big family. My husband and I had the pleasure of working there for nearly 17 years each. Fond memories pop up all the time of the company and people we worked with. Thank you Ken for the memories. Rest in Peace. Thank you Gordon for posting this piece, it also brought back even more memories.

  • http://eganwriter.blogspot.com/ Janet Egan

    Thank you for the memories, Gordon. Ken Olsen was a great man. Everything I know about how to be an engineer and do the right thing I learned from working at DEC. Ken used to say “There will always be a Digital in Maynard.” And, while Digital is long gone, with all the startups and innovations that came from ex-Digits the whole world has become “the greater Maynard area” so maybe he was onto something.

    P.S. You used to call me FORTRAN Girl.

  • Graham Morland

    Nice memories. I was with Field Service for 12 years from 1972. We would often refer to marketing and engineering as the “blind leading the blind” when it came to cables and power design. So when installing these spider legged marvels we found solicitous ways to tell customers how excited they would be with the elegant circuitry design, software capabilities, and ingenious functions designed into the systems. It was a great ride and DEC will always be top of my favorite company list.

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  • Peter Mitchell

    I started in the “Mill” on April 15, 1979 at 2:20 pm working in the board shop making Mr. Olsen’s multilayered circuit boards along with the many other PDP boards just below his office on Main Street. I have been through all the down sizing’s and purchases and had to retire from HP a couple of years ago because of an illness.

    Of the 31 years working for DEC-compaq-hp DEC was the best. It was the BEST because we had the most down to earth head of a company that any company has ever seen. His employees ALWAYS came first.

    From the Christmas turkeys to the fall family outings Ken Olsen was always there to make sure that his workers were able to celebrate the accomplishments of DEC.

    I would see this man drive up near the board shop almost daily when I first started at DEC in an old beat up rusted small pickup. Get out of the car and sometimes finish dressing while heading to his office entrance. When I asked who it was I was told the owner Mr. Ken Olsen.

    Another time after a DEC stock holders meeting it was the same thing. A fleet of limos with investors and other dignitaries came inside the Mill. Not Mr. Olsen. He came in the same old red pickup and got back into his suit while walking into his office entrance.

    Another time he pulled into the security gate at the Mill driving a new small size Lincoln. I said “Nice car. Get rid of your truck”. He said “I hate it. Ford is making me drive it all the time because I was appointed to the board.”

    He also would make time not only for his workers but for the workers families at times.
    He hardly spoke to the press but on one occasion he did give an interview to a person doing a paper in college. The person was my son. The interview lasted about 1 hour at his Stow office. My son will always remember that day.

    I would like to say thank you Mr. Olsen for the many good years at DEC. We have lost a great person and friend to many DEC’s.

  • sandy merritt

    I worked in Westfield and DecDirect in NH and met Ken a few times. The last time was in 1994 at Ken’s then new company. He went down memory lane with how he had driven to westfield to find a site for a plant near Barnes airport, and found the perfect spot after driving his (jeep) as I recall, through the woods and fields of the westfield Digital site. He was a gentleman and started a company that thousands of people still recalll as “the best place I ever worked. God Speed, Ken.

  • http://www.PatchPlaques.Com Leo Guglielmo

    I worked with the DEC family for 20 years. Those were the best years of my working career. All the people that worked, there, thought the company would bring them to their retirement. For me DEC fell short by almost twenty years before I could retire. I was so sad to have our company dwindle away, the way it did. I don’t think there will be anything to ever replace what we all lost, as far as our working community. Our company tried to hang on as long as possible…but things changed more quickly than our DEC culture could.
    God Bless you, Ken…for all you did, for everybody who worked at DEC.

  • Luigi Ugga

    I worked in french DEC Field Services for 13 years, my best ones.
    You were so smart, so honest, so trustful in people. A giant.
    You made your company the best place to work in the world.
    Your strong values were so pure. It was great to express the best of ourselves in the magic environment you created.
    Everybody was aware, at that time, something unique in a life was arriving in that place.
    Thank you for everything, Ken.
    We’ll never forget you.

  • Shava Nerad

    The older I get the more I see the influence of the DEC “diaspora” improving engineering companies here, and all over the world. A lot of the credit for the culture (with all its warts) that sent all that talent out with a can-do and can-do-elegantly credo goes directly to Ken’s credit.

    Shava Nerad
    formerly, Chief Software Engineer, IVIS Project, DEC

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