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Leadership / Strategy

The man who sniffed out the snake oil leaves the stage: Farewell, Mr Olsen

Ken Olsen
Ken Olsen (credit Gordon College)

For Olsen, like Jobs and Gates and Ellison, is/was one of the true originals, guys who didn’t just break the mould, they helped re-engineer all the moulds that have come after them.

If you’re not familiar with the name ‘DEC,’ then you weren’t part of the whole amazing mini-computer revolution of the 1960s-90s, don’t know there was a time when IBM had a substantial rival that wasn’t HP, indeed the latter was in the Championship, computer-wise, and have never had the thrill of working on a VAX or even a PDP-11.

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Olsen’s CV centred on creating the company that achieved all of that, Digital Equipment Corp (hence DEC), the firm he led for most of his adult life – he was born in 1926 and set up DEC with his colleague and friend Harlan Anderson in 1957, retiring from ‘the Mill,’ as DEC’s first HQ was known, in 1992 – it is believed as a result of pressure from the board, which sold the firm after trying to figure out what to do with under Robert Palmer let it drift for six years.

After service in the US Navy in World War II, Olsen went to MIT, where he worked on one of the first transistorised computers, before working on what must have been the world’s first flight simulator.

Olsen’s impeccable engineering credentials never left him, indeed he acquired a number of patents in his own right in foundational areas of computing like magnetic core memory and the reason so many of his staff (and customers) loved him was that he never lost his love of that.

His Wikipedia entry, indeed, goes so far as to claim that his valuing of innovation and technical excellence spawned and popularized techniques such as engineering matrix management that are broadly employed today throughout many industries.

But he was also an ace business man, winning the accolade of being named by financial magazine Forbes in 1986 as "America’s most successful entrepreneur" (a book written about his achievements of building up DEC to the Number 2 computer company on the planet labelled him the "Ultimate" such business leader, by the way).

But it has to be said that the latter part of his career was in many ways ludicrously marked by the press picking up on his controversial (at the time) likening to UNIX as ‘snake oil’ – thus, something being peddled somewhat unscrupulously as the answer to all one’s ills, possibly without sound scientific reasons to justify the claim.

Soon Olsen became known not for the things he’d allowed his people at DEC to do as the man who ‘hated’ open systems, and it was indeed thus that this writer first came across him.

Olsen loved his VMS operating system and sincerely believed that for commercial applications it was superior to UNIX. In hindsight, it’s also clear that there never was such a thing as one UNIX anyway, and the only reason Linux won is that the others were all proprietary to such a degree that they were never really open at all. So who was the dumbo there?

Olsen had his faults, don’t get us wrong – he was resistant to change, never got the PC thing at all, and possibly believed in himself knowing more what was right for his customers than was always true.

But as an innovator, engineer, company builder, visionary and pioneer, he needs an honoured place in history, and of course the parts of HP that come from Compaq, that swallowed his once-mighty outfit in 1998, and that are any good, owe something to him even today.
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