Leading with the Intellect
Remembering Digital’s Ken Olsen
My boss, Doug, had witnessed another member of our unit make insulting comments to me during a unit meeting. He asked me into his office the next day to compliment my restraint.
“I would have expected you to retaliate in the meeting, you really are maturing.”
“You’re joking, right? Follow me.”
He eyed the large grocery bag under my arm with heightened awareness, sensing the menace. I took him to the main entrance of the Field Application Center in Farmington Hills, MI. It was about 1:00 PM, and many people were returning from lunch, their cars streaming back into the huge parking lot.
“I need to get my range,” I said, emotionless.
With that, I pulled my water balloon launcher out of the bag. It had a ballistic nylon pouch with another nylon strap underneath. It was powered by doubled lengths of surgical tubing. To fire it, I loaded a pre-filled sphere in the pouch, held it fast with my right foot, and stretched the straps well over my head, slipped my foot out, and whoooosh!
The first balloon sailed hundreds of feet into the air, and exploded 80 yards away on top of a dirty Chevy.
My boss was astonished. People scattered like crazed rats spooked by a flame.
“What are you doing? Are you insane?”
“As I said, getting the range.”
I loaded another orb and let it fly. This one landed right near a bank of empty spots. More people dove for cover, their suits taking collateral damage. They were looking all around, not suspecting the missiles were being launched from the main entrance to the building.
“You can’t do that here, you might hit someone!”
“I sure hope so. Ah, here he comes now.”
With that, Mark had driven into the lot, and parked right beside the spot I had just bombed, blissfully unaware of the lunatic loading another balloon in the launcher. He was just locking his car when the bunker buster dropped five feet from him, soaking his pants and the remainder of his drive-in lunch he clutched in a bag.
My boss retreated quickly to his office, not knowing if I might turn the evil device on him next, as I was perfectly willing to do. In the parking lot, Mark looked all around him, not realizing the distant cackling loon at the front entrance was the assassin who’d attacked him.
A few nights later, I was with my boss’s, boss’s, boss, the Area Software VP. We stood near the bar at Greenfield Village in Detroit, awaiting the start of some lame awards benefit. Bob turned to me with beer in hand.
“You scared a lot of people the other day in the parking lot, I’m told.”
I saw the grin at the corners of his mouth as he dropped his guard for a second.
“That? Hey, I could’ve filled them with paint.”
He chuckled, and eyed his beer. It was in a chilled stoneware mug.
“I love these mugs,” he said wistfully.
I pushed open the exit door from the bar, and saw his car out in the lot.
“Here’s what we’re going to do then,” I grabbed his shoulder and resolutely pointed him towards the door. “I’m going to bump this door open, as if by accident, and you’re going to slip out with the mug. After a minute, I’ll open back up. You’d better have deposited it in your trunk by then, or you’ll be branded a common thief.”
He looked at me with an expression that was an amalgam of disbelief, disdain and just a hint of ‘maybe I can pull this off.’ I gave him no time to ponder it. I kicked the door open a couple of feet, and out he went. No better way to diffuse my actions in the parking lot than to implicate the Area VP in petty theft.
I’ve never been big on titles or authority, a key element in moving through a big company. Yes, obsequious behavior can be the ticket to advancement, as is the ability to convince someone that your ideas are particularly insightful. The very good managers have something special in that regard. There are a great many sycophants who spread risk over a wide field of people, and are able to trumpet marginal accomplishments while sweeping small failures under the rug. But gaining competitive advantage in these times requires risk, and selling risk up the food chain isn’t easy. Ask Jack Welch, Lee Iacocca and, love him or loathe him, Donald Trump.
The next time you sidle up to a big boss in your company, ask him/her a few disarming questions. Watch how that person responds to you. The good ones will make you feel as though you are the most important person in the room at that moment, and, at just the right time, perhaps a little too short for you, they will gracefully exit to work their magic on the next person.
I’ve looked at companies employing state-of-the-art automation to try to gain competitive advantage, and always try to find out who the catalyst was in making it happen. The good companies always have one. The companies who plod along are those ruled by committee and risk diffusion. So, when I walk into a plant somewhere and see robots, RFID, wireless tablet PCs, and lots of other bleeding-edge innovation, I applaud. Someone put their bacon on the line here. Who was that person?
I once had such an opportunity to speak with the first CEO of Digital Equipment Corporation, Ken Olsen. Now, people have taken shots at Ken over the years since he was deposed by the Board in the early 90s, but what I saw in this man was a simmering raw intellect, very bright luminescent eyes, and a very big dude (maybe 6’3” or 6’4”). I came to the realization that this guy was not some slick marketing guy, he was a very sharp engineer. To him, innovation and invention were second nature. He didn’t speak in the colloquialisms of elite management, and could pop open the backplane on a super minicomputer, instantly identify each part and quote its specs.
Sure, K.O. as we referred to him, did make some bad calls. One out-of-context quote haunted him. In 1977 he said, “There’s no need for any individual to have a computer in his home.”
Okay, what they don’t tell you is he was referring to computers being used to detect and log events such as food placed in or out of refrigerators and plan meals and such, but most people look as the excerpted quote in their own metaphorical context; that Olsen didn’t embrace PCs, or at least not fast enough for DEC ever to gain ground once lost.
Olsen also contended that proprietary operating systems and networks were the way to go. This was, of course, proven to be wrong; but at least he wasn’t afraid to make those calls.
K.O. stories were legend. His desk was rumored to be a simple folding table; the type you’d see at an ice cream social. It became known as a “K.O. desk.” His offices were in a converted wool mill, and throughout all of Digital, there were no assigned parking spaces for management, or anybody else. Why? Because Ken supposedly said, “If you want a good parking space, come to work early.”
The mighty Digital Equipment Corporation had grown from a garage operation to the second largest computer company in the world (second only to Big Blue), largely on the leadership and an abundance of mental horsepower. Many of the things Digital brought to the dance in the 1980s were groundbreaking and visionary. The VAX series of computers ruled the midrange CPU market for years, and DECNET was ahead of its time for networking. The VT100, though ugly, was a terminal that you could kick down the stairs, hoist it up on your desk, plug it in, and away she goes.
However, there was a lot of bloat in the company. The aforementioned Field Application Centers and the mahogany-laden Application Centers for Technology were beautiful ideas; but when budgets started to tighten, questions were asked as to who would fund these, and all were quickly closed and their staffs relocated or dismissed.
DEC’s 130,000+ employees were whittled down to less than half of that, and the gamble that Olsen’s successor, Bob Palmer, had made on the DEC Alpha machine collapsed under its own proprietary weight. You know the story after that. Compaq buys Digital, HP buys Compaq, and HP, once the blood enemy of DEC, now owned what remained of the once redoubt-able computer giant.
But many, and I was one, respected Ken Olsen as a straight shooter, even if he missed the target. He didn’t have a political bone in his body, and that may ultimately have contributed to his demise at DEC. The company is gone now. I don’t know where Ken Olsen is these days, but my guess is his mind is still bubbling with ideas waiting to get out.
Randy Hice is the president of the Laboratory Expertise Center. He can be reached at email@example.com.