DEC is dead. Long live DEC

by Wojciech Adam Koszek   ⋅   Feb 2, 2013   ⋅   Menlo Park, CA

Another chunk of the corporate history. This time about DEC.

This position was the next one in terms of hi-tech classics. DEC is the company that had put significant ground work for many further accomplishments. If there were no DEC, there would be no PDP.. computer line, and if there was no PDP, who can know if UNIX would have ever been developed?

Looks like number of accomplishments coming from DEC are mostly due to the culture and value of culture company has put into it’s core philosophy. Was DEC a geeks dream? From the introduction it looks like. Ken Olsen’s company is being described as the place, where over all costs (something that had lead DEC to a failure), the interesting technical works was put in front of everything. Customers weren’t as valued as they should be.

However the value of technical talent was recognized. DEC went and attracted people like Gordon Bell.

Also Dave Cutler is mentioned! (if you haven’t yet read an excellent “Showstopper”, you should–you’ll get a lesson software engineering done the Windows NT way.)

The biggest thing in management at DEC was “responsibility”. Sounds like there was no micro-management going on, and people were just made assigned to tasks and they were meant to solve all existing problems, and to be able to report every single detail of progress on tasks in no time. Otherwise, you were making boss UPSET.

DEC had a very interesting policy. I’ve heard recently about a company where there are no teams and no “interpersonal groups”. You get familiar with the company, you decided what is interesting for you, and you push your desk on wheels there and start working on this thing.

DEC maybe wasn’t like that, but it sounds like it was similar. Once you got hired, which was because of the rigorous process quite hard, you were known to be a good employee. Failure with execution of your functions meant your position isn’t matched correctly with your skills.

This makes me think…

The thing that makes DEC stick out too, and made it feel like an Open Source project is that whatever you proposed, you were responsible of doing. You propose–you do. Sounds like something that could possibly prevent people from brainstorming and proposing ideas, which I don’t quite like. Yes, sometimes I criticize things which I could possibly fix myself, but sometimes problems aren’t seen (brought up and established as ‘problems’) till other people mention it.

Another interesting thing is that people at DEC seemed to have lots of lots of fun, since Schein mentions people at DEC Alumni meetings all claimed time in the company was great.

The thing that isn’t possible nowadays (or at least which I haven’t experienced) was that people with no skills could get hired and get “taught” in the job. Schein himself claims he was an engineer with no sales experience, but was hired as a sales person and had to learn everything by doing.

Within DEC’s DNA was innovation and responsibility, but also, what is somewhat related to the previous paragraph, something that author calls a paternalism. Basically people at DEC were hired nearly for life, and when things were going wrong, good people were pulled from all other the company to perform critical tasks, no matter what their skill set was.

Next thing which I feel was the case was that DEC had some ratio of “old school MIT research&development” approach. Engineering was not only about making things that existed as a “prior art”, but they kept developing things unknown to “science”.

DEC failure is credited to the extreme growth, done mainly to be able to compete with IBM. People hired ~30,000 over two years to accomplish.

Interestingly, Ken Olsen overlook lots of details, like predicted microprocessor significance on the computer market. Books says it’s Gordon Bell who actually had had his graph showing where DEC would have been, had it not proceed microprocessors.

DEC legacy includes Ed de Castro (Data General), Bernie Lacroute (Sun Microsystems), Dave Cutler (of Windows NT hall of fame), Gordon Bell (Microsoft), Grant Saviers (CEO of Adaptec), Carol Bartz (CEO of Autodesk), Sam Fuller (head of research at Analog Devices).

Quite an amazing place it must have been..

“Talent code”
“Delivering happiness”

Subscribe for updates

Once a month I send updates on the new content and hints for software engineers.

Liked it? Share it!

About the author: I'm Wojciech Adam Koszek. I like software, business and design. Poland native. In Bay Area since 2010.   More about me