Today, many people at universities and high tech companies work and play in a vast interconnected electronic environment. As a writer, I am fascinated not by the whiz-bang technology that makes this possible, but rather by what people do with it and the kinds of relationships people build with one another as a result.
Soon these resources should become available to the general public. The vast, government-subsidized network -- Internet -- is going to be privatized and eventually opened to individual consumers. Already, some people are investing in expensive alternatives that provide some of the same kinds of services.
Perhaps a few anecdotes, based on my experience on the Internet, can help show how these new capabilities can be useful and fun, and what this change in human relations might lead to.
A popular board-game called Diplomacy fills many of these requirements. It involves seven players, each of whom represents a European country; and it is won on the basis of negotiating skills, rather than chance. (The game map which has such country names as "Serbia" and "Ukraine," looks much more contemporary today than it did a year ago.)
At the time the Monitor article appeared, my son and I were involved in a 17-player variant of Diplomacy over Digital Equipment's worldwide computer network. The other players were scattered around the U.S. and Europe. Most of the players had never met one another and knew nothing about one another except what they learned from the private electronic correspondence that flowed rapidly and regularly among them.
The board game allows 15 minutes between moves for the participants to talk to one another privately and make deals. A complete game typically takes less than 12 hours.
Over the network, we had a week between moves, and the negotiations and alliances became far more complex and interesting. The moves themselves and messages from the moderator were posted in a "notes file," a common file space which everyone could access. Secret alliances of more than two players set up separate notes files to speed their negotiations with one another. False alliances were also formed -- where two or more parties invited one or more others under the pretext that they would work together long-term, but with secret agreements and separate discussions on when and how to "stab" the invitees. This particular game (CHAOS III) lasted about four months, led to the generation of many hundreds of pages of very creative persuasive writing, and ended in a three-way tie.
While not intended as an educational experience, this game was far more effective than a course in negotiation skills for managers. It also helped me learn how to make full use of notes files and electronic mail as a business tool -- to help people at remote sites work together as a team, and to arrive at agreement on strategies and policies with a minimum of face-to-face meetings.
In the process of playing, my son and I learned a lot about how people behave in the electronic environment. My son, Bobby, who was 15 then and is a National Master in chess, was the real player. I acted as the go-between, connecting to the network by modem to relay the correspondence he wrote on our word processor. It was interesting watching him learn how to influence and persuade adults on the other side of the world who had no idea who he was, or what his age was. The sex, color of skin, culture, and physical looks of the participants also had no effect on the course of the game. All that mattered was the words transmitted electronically: how cogent the arguments were, and how well they were expressed.
This experience is what brought home to me clearly that the network is a levelling mechanism, helping create a more democratic workplace today at Digital Equipment. And probably as networks like this become more generally accessible, the same effect should spread to large parts of society, around the world.
When shocking events occur in remote parts of the world, first-hand accounts are rapidly disseminated over the Internet -- not what the New York Times chooses to publish, or what the television networks use to fill the time between commercials, but what the student with a PC in Sarajevo sees through his window as the shelling continues in his neighborhood. Events like the massacre at Tianamen Square, the Gulf War, and the civil wars in Croatia and Bosnia have triggered huge volumes of traffic on the Internet -- Much of it opinion from the uninformed, but interspersed with nuggets of true insight and clear first-hand description. And the senders of these messages from the heart of the trouble spot can use the Internet to stay in touch with what is happening elsewhere in the world and how the rest of the world is reacting to and responding to their crisis. They can also be answered directly by electronic mail, and can sometimes forward messages to and for their neighbors.
On the Internet, one of the forms this sharing takes is through "newsgroups." Like notes files, newsgroup software makes it possible for individuals with common interests to post their messages to a group rather than an individual. This group correspondence builds and maintains a sense of community among people who happen to be geographically scattered. Newsgroups are also useful for scanning the latest news about subjects of concern to you and immediately following up on opportunities that surface. In addition, they serve as an important resource when you have an obscure question and need an answer quickly.
A few personal examples:
1) My daughter, Heather, needed to write a paper for school about a woman mathematician. She had no names to start with, and librarians were stumped by the request. I posted the question in the newsgroup sci.math; and within two days, I received replies from 60 individuals from around the world. Many of the people who answered were in universities; some were professors. They provided the names of over two dozen prominent women mathematicians, brief bios of many of them, and very complete bibliographic references.
2) The daughter of a friend at work had to get a recipe from Nepal, as a school assignment. I posted the question in soc.culture.nepal. (Yes, the Nepalese have their own newsgroup). Within a day, I received a recipe from a student at the University of Western Australia, and the phone number of a student from Nepal who was attending MIT.
3) A friend of my wife's works for the U.S. office of a Norwegian fish company. They were finding that sales of salmon to restaurants in the Boston area were hampered by the fact that the fish had not gone through kosher inspection at the point of origin. She wanted to locate a conservative Orthodox rabbi who could perform such inspections in Norway. I posted to soc.culture.jewish and also to a Digital Notes File called BAGELS and within a day I had the name and number of two individuals who could do the job. One works out of New York and flies around the world; the other, who lives in Norway, now does the inspections for them.
"I have a unique set of chess games that might be of value to research in artificial intelligence or to developers of chess-playing software. I have been saving my son Bobby's games as word processing files since the very first rated game he played in Oct. 1984. There are now 680 rated games on file -- a continuous record from 9-year-old raw beginner to 14-year-old master. I believe that analysis of these games could provide valuable information about how one can learn and improve rapidly at chess. In the best of all possible world, I could foresee a valuable collaboration. "
I soon got a reply from Bob Levinson, assistant professor of Computer Science at the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC). Funded by the National Science Foundation, his chess-playing program, Morph, was a departure from the "brute-force" programs that have recently captured the headlines for their accomplishments against human grand masters. Those machines use high speed circuits to search deeply through many possible lines of play. Morph on the other hand "learns from its mistakes." It's already a competent player, and it gets better from its own experience, rather than from humans specifically telling it how to evaluate a particular position and what move is best in such-and-such a case. He was interested in using Bobby's games to "train" Morph, and having Bobby act as a consultant on the project.
I was able to send all the games (about a thousand pages of text) very quickly over the Internet. Since then we've sent him Bobby's new games as they are played -- about 200 more. And Bob Levinson and Bobby have carried on an intermittent dialogue about the project through electronic mail.
This summer Bobby will have an account on a computer at UCSC which he will be able to access over the Internet (using the "telnet" command) from the word processor in the basement of our house in Boston. That will enable him to play a more active role in the project. And in the future (as soon as he learns the C computer language), Bobby could actually write code for the project, working on-line at a distance of 3,000 miles.
The importance of this capability was made clear to me at a press conference with Russian officials at DECWORLD in Boston. The Chairman of the State Committee on Informatics and the director of a top scientific institute in Moscow described the current crisis in Russian science.
Jump-starting the free-market economy has led to an exchange rate that means a typical Russian scientist earns the equivalent of about $200 -- not $200 a week or even a month, but $200 a year. Naturally, with the end of restrictions on emigration, the temptation to leave for lucrative employment in the West is tremendous. And those scientists who stay now find themselves isolated from the world scientific community.
Before, thanks to government subsidies, scientists could travel to conferences and had access to all the latest scientific literature. Now, because of economics, they are cut off. A year's subscription to a western technical journal can cost the equivalent of one year's salary. And round-trip airfare to New York, to attend a conference, costs the equivalent of four years' salary.
Communication is the life-blood of science. Without it, Russian science will fall behind the rest of the world and become second-rate, unable to make significant contributions, and unable to prepare succeeding generations of top-level scientists. This would be a loss not just for Russia, but for the world.
"What about the Internet?" I asked. For the last couple years I have corresponded with a friend in Moscow over the Internet. I presumed that those who had access would be able to use it like we do here, as a gateway to tremendous libraries of information and a link with the worldwide scientific community.
But the telecommunications infrastructure in Russia is antiquated and unreliable. Messages from the Internet can get through, but it takes a day or two for them to arrive and, typically, a third are lost due to technical difficulties and inefficiency. And the more sophisticated capabilities, such as access to distant computers, either aren't available or aren't practical because of the slowness of response.
Long-term, they have to rebuild their telecommunciation infrastructure, which will take many years and huge investments from western governments and businesses. But immediately, to preserve and revitalize serious top-level science in their country, they need high-speed links between key institutes in Russia and the Internet. With such links, Russian scientists could stay in touch with other leaders in their fields and keep up to date on the latest developments at low cost. And opportunities would rapidly open up for them to do significant work for foregin businesses at a distance, over the network. That way western businesses could benefit from their knowledge and talents, and the scientists would be able to earn western currency while staying in their homeland.
Yes, work at a distance is more than a curiosity and a game -- for Russia today, it is a necessity.
Sometimes participants who live close to one another arrange for face-to-face social get-togethers. Then when they move back to the electronic realm, their messages take on a more personal tone. But when it comes to critical judgement, the network still seems to foster impartial candor.
Many of the joys of the Internet come from the fact that everything doesn't have to be structured and organized. You don't have to ask and wait for permission from some authority. In many cases, you can simply exercise your imagination and initiative, within the the bounds of good sense and good taste.
When my son Bobby wrote a high school history paper on "The Role of Bobby Fischer as a Cold War Symbol," I thought that maybe some of the people who read rec.games.chess might be interested in reading it. So I posted a brief note there asking if anyone would like me to send a copy electronically. (He had written it using our word processor at home, so it was a simple matter to transfer it up to the network and send it.) About 70 people from all over the world asked for it. A couple dozen replied directly once they had read it. Most were complimentary and grateful. Some pointed out minor inaccuracies: a typo in a date and a footnote number omitted from the text. One person took issue with a peripheral statement in the footnotes and started a discussion on that in the newsgroup. Bobby fixed the mistakes, acknowledged them in the newsgroup, and offered to send the revised copy to any who asked.
In other words, in the electronic environment, it is possible for an article or paper which deals cogently with a topic of general interest, to undergo informal peer review on the network, to be forwarded and copied many times all over the world, and to be shared freely by all who are interested.
As a variant of that approach, some electronic "publications" are all-inclusive and unedited, consisting of electronic correspondence on a common topic that has been gathered automatically or by a moderator, for redistribution to a list of "subscribers." In some cases, individual messages are redistributed separately rather than combined.
Kidsphere, started by Professor Bob Carllitz at the University of Pittsburgh, uses this capability to resend to everyone who has asked to be put on the list any message sent to the main Kidsphere address. These same messages are also posted as a newsgroup (for those who prefer to read them that way rather than as mail). In practice a huge community has grown -- K-12 teachers and students all over the world sharing useful tips and the wonders they have uncovered in exploring the vast and rapidly growing resources of the Internet.
A community of enthusiasts from a wide variety of academic disciplines, Kidsphere participants on a typical day might include a high school teacher from New Zealand getting his students involved in a weather project; a biology teacher from England looking for courseware she could use on a Macintosh; or a third-grade teacher in Detroit looking for electronic penpals for his class. They tell how to use the Internet to freely access the catalogues of major libraries around the world or how to log in to public files at NASA in Huntsville, Alabama. They also promote the projects of their students, who are starting their own electronic newspapers or need practice writing in foreign languages.
The enthusiasm and the diversity of interests is awe-inspiring, and the volume of the messages (an average of about 50 a day, some of which can run many pages) is simply too much for any one person to absorb.
Projects overlap. One effort helps another. People who run large computer centers let their machines be used as repositories for information and software and provide free and open access to anyone on the network anywhere in the world.
For example, many of the world's greatest books are now in electronic form, sitting in open files, intended for anyone who wishes to copy and redistribute them anywhere, at no cost. In about two minutes you can copy the entire King James Bible from a computer on the other side of the continent.
The most orderly and disciplined effort to make great works readily available in this form to libraries, schools and individuals is known as the Gutenberg Project. Their selections include the 1990 Census, Roget's Thesaurus, and the 1991 CIA Book of Facts, as well as such literary works as Moby Dick, Paradise Lost, and Wuthering Heights. Other systems have the complete works of Shakespeare. New books are being input and carefully proofread every month by dedicated individuals who donate their time and effort to this cause.
But the real source of my enthusiasm is far
more impractical. I like to look up at the shelf above my
personal computer and know that in those floppy disks I have
Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Aesop's Fables, The Heart of
Darkness, The Federalist Papers, The Declaration of Independence
and The Constitution. Somehow, irrationally, I sleep better at
night knowing that electronic copies of works like these are
scattered throughout the world, and that they can be sent in
seconds to thousands of new destinations. It gives me a sense of
comfort to think that as long as there are free and open
international computer networks, book burning is a futile
As you begin to explore the Internet and its possibilities, look for opportunities to interact with others, not just static facts. The real benefit will come from the contacts you make with other people, from what you learn from one another.
Participate in mail lists and newsgroups and Web-based forums and chats. Link up with other schools and other students and teachers to create your own on-line learning environment.
As technology advances, you'll begin to use the latest high-tech capabilities -- all the neat audio and video and multi-media effects. But don't lose sight of the main purpose -- connecting people to people. And remember that the interaction need not be limited to on-line activities -- once you get a good dialogue going, you may well want to set up related face-to-face meetings as well.
From what I remember of Holderness and from what I've seen as my own children have gone through school, much of the learning experience takes place outside the classroom. You learn through the informal contacts you have with other students, with teachers, with friends and family, from the school-within-the-school that you create from your choices of who to associate with and how and when.
With the Internet, you are no longer limited to what is found within the boundaries of your physical school or your home or your hometown. You can easily form contacts and build relationships with people of all ages, from all walks of life, from all cultures, from all parts of the world. Take advantage of this opportunity. Choose wisely. Act creatively.
Remember that the technology, in and of itself, does nothing. Rather it makes it possible for you to shape your own world-within-the-world. And, if you believe strongly about any issue or wish to pursue in depth any field of study, you can become a player, rather than just a spectator in the world at large.
In such an environment, people feel free to speak up not because they are experts, but rather because they want to understand. They express their suspicions, inklings, instincts, guesses, seeking discussion that will help refine, correct, and validate their thoughts. And they also learn to learn in an environment that has no authority figures and no grades, the same sort of environment they'll be in after they get out of school.The Internet is your event. The Internet happens and you can make it happen, rather than just have it happen to you.
From Internet-on-a-Disk #9, Feb. 1995.We see today -- while it is still in its early stages -- that the Internet enables new behavior and new ways for people to interrelate. If we are indeed products of our environment, will this new environment shape us in new ways? Might human nature "progress"?
Personally, I doubt that our basic human nature is "perfectible." Rather, I believe that the human potential for good and ill, for creativity, for reason, and for random senseless violence remains relatively constant over the centuries. But there are aspects of human nature which may never have been exercised before because there never before existed the technical means for their expression.
In other words, the human potential for the exercise of mass destruction existed before the invention of the weapons that made it possible. The potential for people to temporarily submerge their identity and their individual reason in large-scale crowd hysteria existed before the invention of mass communication media. And the potential for large-scale reasoned discourse, for thousands or even millions of people to arrive at mutual understanding and consensus through dialogue existed before there was any means to allow ideas to be spread instantaneously in a global forum where they could compete on the basis of their merit.
I contend that the Internet today reveals positive aspects of human nature, and in particular the nature of people working together as a unit on a global scale, that we have never seen before. It isn't likely to change the nature of man; rather it allows us to express aspects of our potential which previously were hidden from us.
Before the coming of the Internet, the only image we had of large numbers of people working together was the image of the crowd and the crowd-like mass hysteria that can be induced by modern one-way mass communication, where one person's nightmare becomes projected onto the many and becomes their nightmare as well.
We had come to presume -- from the examples of history and the writings of novelists and philosophers --- that an individual in isolation -- Thoreau alone on a hillside -- is more likely to be good and rational than any large group of people. People together become a crowd, enforce conformity, and sometimes become an unreasoning mob that acts out wild unconscious impulses that the isolated individual could have kept under control. We see the boys in Golding's Lord of the Flies working themselves into a savage frenzy, and we are dramatically led to recognize the beast which is in us all.As Robert Penn Warren once said, "Things exist in you without you knowing it." But those unknown "things" may be good as well as evil. And today the culture of the Internet reveals vast and unexpected human potential for unselfish collaboration.
The Internet which has captured everyone's imagination over the last year is an anomaly.
The World Wide Web and point-and-click browsers are so easy to use that even people who normally shy away from PCs take to this new environment immediately.
But while the Internet traditionally was extremely interactive -- every user potentially interacting with every other user through mail and newsgroups and chat and other utilities -- the first users of the Web simply retrieved information, not interacting with anyone at all.
With the addition of forms capability, you can now interact with the information provider -- asking questions, commenting in brief, and even placing orders. But there is still none of the collaborative interaction among users that in the past was the life and excitement of the Internet.
Yes, a controlled, direct, one-to-one connection between a company and a potential customer fits the traditional model of a business. And companies coming onto the Internet over this time have been trying to extend their traditional operating modes, with metaphors of electronic storefronts and electronic malls.
But this is just a transitional phase. Collaboration and group interaction can be extremely powerful on a global scale, and those capabilities will be coming very soon to the World Wide Web -- first as adaptations of older Internet capabilities (like newsgroups) and transplants of other networking tools (like notes files).
These new collaborative tools will make it far easier to create not just repositories of multi-media information, but rather true communities of common interest, where people congregate to share their experiences and insights, as well as to learn and to shop. These tools, combined with intelligent search capabilities, will open new business opportunities. Open villages or communities on the Internet will welcome all, and build and maintain audience loyalty for the benefit of related businesses as well as the users themselves. And businesses will be able to form closed and temporary communities, making it easy for small dispersed groups to work closely together as teams for the duration of a project; also enabling the quick formation and smooth running of virtual companies.
We hear a lot today about "interactive television." Compared to the Internet, that's a misnomer.
When television people talk about interactivity they mean giving the individual the ability to say yes or no, the ability to choose a particular product and pay for it on-line, and the ability to make local changes within the broad framework of a game or other entertainment product. In their model, a small number of mega-companies provide the information, the entertainment, and the choices for a large number of consumers.
With the Internet, anyone can be a publisher/broadcaster. At the simplest level, using email to distribute an electronic newsletter (like this one) or contributing to a newsgroup, you can reach thousands or tens of thousands of people at little or no cost. Then you can benefit from the responses of those who choose to react, and the reactions to those reactions, in threads of thought and discussion and debate that may range far from the original proposition, or may provide totally unexpected insights.
At the individual level, the Internet promotes the free exchange of ideas and grass-roots democracy. Anyone of any age or gender or race or nationality or wealth can have a say, and ideas can clash and develop based on their merit.
At the business level, the Internet promotes the free exchange of products and services. Any company, regardless of its age or size or location or wealth can bring its wares to the marketplace where they compete freely and on an equal basis with the oldest and largest and wealthiest.
Over the next year, with the spread of Internet capabilities to the home and as collaborative tools become available for the Web, the Internet could act as a social and political catalyst as well as a communication medium.
Already the Internet is playing an important role in government. Large amounts of useful information are being made available to the public at no cost. Much of this information was previously expensive and difficult to get hold of; now everyone with access to the Internet can get right to the source, and do original research, without having to depend on the mass media, and can then publish the results and open discussion on the Internet, once again without having to catch the attention of the mass media.
In the last few months, the White House and House of Representatives Web servers came on line, with mechanisms for feedback and clear and simple mechanisms for navigating through the vast amounts of Federal government information that is available on line. And, as a public service and also as a demonstration of the capabilities of the Web, Digital Equipment put the California election on-line -- providing detailed information about all the candidates, including those from the smallest of parties on an equal footing with the two major parties.
The Internet makes it virtually impossible to control the flow of information and hence played a role in the collapse of Cold War dictatorships. Now it can help spread true participative and informed, town-meeting-style democracy in countries like the U.S. that have called themselves democracies for many years.And at the same time, on the commercial side, it can foster foster free trade of goods and services and open competition on a global scale.
People often ask: What are the demographics of the Internet? Where do these people live? What do they do for a living? What kinds of things do they buy?
That's a traditional set of questions. Many successful retail businesses have been based on good answers to such questions -- enabling them to decide exactly where they should set up shop or who they should send direct mail advertising to.
From that point of view, the Internet is very difficult to understand because of the enormous rate of growth, and especially the shift from its education and research origins.
With increasing commercialization, the demographics of the Internet are changing -- not just the numbers but the kinds of people who are out there as a potential audience and marketplace. An audience that is willing and able to buy attracts businesses, and competing businesses creatively do their best to attract audiences; so both business and audience keep growing in an ever-widening spiral.
In the swirl of today's activity, we can see societal, economic, and technological forces leading to the growth and change of the Internet. But if we step back and try to visualize where all this activity is leading, we can begin to see the Internet as a cause rather than just an effect -- the Internet as a force with the potential to change society and economics. And what might be the direction of that change?
I believe that commercial use of the Internet has the capacity to transform the world -- giving people new and broader choices of where and how to live and work. Putting it simply: once the audience and business on the Internet reaches critical mass, we won't need cities anymore.
In other words, the growth of commerce on the Internet could have the kind of impact that the great advances in transportation brought. History lessons hammer home how transportation technology led to the growth of cities and determined where they would lie, and then led to the growth of suburbs. It sounds so deterministic -- here's the confluence of major rivers, here's where the caravan routes or the major highways cross, etc.
Use of the "information super highway" metaphor implies that the same kind of determinism might apply in the future. The implication is -- invest heavily to get the fastest possible communication lines, and you will bring the world's business to your territory. Singapore seems to have that model in mind as it invests to develop the world's best telecommunications infrastructure.
Yes, some companies will go out of their way to locate offices where the telecommunications are best. But that is a very short-term advantage. Out of necessity, the rest of the world will come up to speed very quickly, and meanwhile compression and other technology advances will produce effects similar to those brought by greater speed, but making it possible to do much more with ordinary telephone lines.
More importantly, the Internet is not a highway. It takes you nowhere. Rather it brings the world to your desktop. It enables you to get information from anywhere and to do business with people anywhere, without concerning yourself with where they are.
As the audience available on the Internet grows, we see the beginnings of a global distributed marketplace. It doesn't matter where people live -- all that matters for companies with goods for sale is that the people are connected. And vice versa, it doesn't matter where the companies are located -- all that matters is that the companies are connected. So people don't have to move where the stores are if they want to buy. And companies don't have to move to where the people are if they want to sell. And in some businesses which have heavy information or software content, people can use the Internet to work at a distance. This means that people don't have to move to go to where the jobs are; and companies don't have to move to go where they can find a skilled work force.
The combined effect of these changes could be that companies and individuals have a greater degree of choice about where they locate and how they operate. Talented young people need not gravitate to cities or emigrate to "industrialized" countries.
Students at colleges in rural Mexico who today have access to the Internet and are creating their own Web servers are developing the skills and knowledge to create businesses on the Internet that can compete in a global electronic marketplace from wherever they choose to set up shop. They will not feel compelled to move to Mexico City.
Similarly, scientists can now choose to stay in Russia, rather than emigrate to the West. A few years ago, science students, professors, and researchers in Russia saw a bleak future ahead of them. Runaway inflation, salary scales out of line with the world market, the difficulty of obtaining foreign currency, and the high cost of technical journals and of international travel made it virtually impossible for them to get the latest information about scientific developments in the rest of the world. This meant a choice of staying in their native land as second-class members of the scientific community, or emigrating to the West.
Thanks to the Internet, those who stayed can now participate much more fully in the global community -- obtaining much valuable information for very low cost and being able to take part in global discussions. And in an increasing number of instances it is possible for them to get work assignments from companies elsewhere in the world, which involve doing work or submitting it over the Internet, which means they can live where they want to live and get paid at salary levels that previously would have been impossible.
Up until now, this has only happened on a small scale. But the potential is tremendous.
Giving people a real choice of where and how they live could transform the world. No longer will a handful of "industrialized" countries act as a magnate attracting talent and capital from all over the world. No longer will cities grow out of control.I see the knowledge worker of the future as Thoreau with an Internet connection. He sits on a mountain top, leaning against a tree, and with a mobile computer in his lap. The Internet is a social tool putting him in touch with people of like mind around the world; it's a global library that gives him access to the works of the great thinkers of all time; and it's also a business tool, providing him with the livelihood he needs to enjoy his mountain retreat.
My videotape is a quick look at what is happening today with Mosaic and the Worldwide Web. It avoids talk about highways and distance, and tries to show the immediacy of a user's experience.
Mosaic brings the world to your desktop. It makes the resources of the Internet feel like an extension of your own mind.
And if you have something to say or show, the Worldwide Web lets you open up and invite a global audience to share your creations and follow the threads of your thought.
This environment feels like the grand concourse of a global mall, where millions congregate to learn and share experiences and to do business.
The Internet has long been a great way to meet people -- to hear all views and to have your say. It has been a pioneer environment of sharing and caring, where strangers often help one another, with no expectation of payment or reward.
Today, some people on the Internet are frightened by the rapid growth and change and the coming of commerce. They talk about a land rush, and barbed wire, and the end of the open range.
But the Internet is not a limited, fixed space to be carved up by competing commercial interests.
Rather, it is a different dimension, where you can be everywhere at once, without moving. Every individual and every company that connects to the Internet expands and enriches it, and at the same time becomes part of the Internet and is changed by it.
Let's welcome the growth and grow with it. Let's help shape a future that continues to amaze and inspire us all.
From Georgia to Palo Alto,
from Oslo to Singapore,
from the Vatican Library to dinosaurs in Hawaii,
from Talk Radio to missing children,
from Bio-Informatics to the World Bank,
from Wired Magazine to Mother Jones,
from current weather maps to the latest supreme court decisions,
a vast array of information is being made available in attractive,
easy to use form, and for free over the Internet.
A global electronic mall is under construction.
People congregate here, interact here, find the information they want here.
And here, too, they are beginning to conduct business.
Here the smallest of companies can search and shop on a global scale
for the best resources and products at the best prices.
Here those same small companies can market their own abilities and
products in a global marketplace.
This means a new array of risks and opportunities.
In the future, you will be forced to compete with distant companies you never encountered before,
and you will be able to expand to new markets at low cost.
Here new business models will evolve quickly, with new kinds of partnership and collaboration,
new ways of working together and serving customers
and making money.
Digital is here already as a leader in the field.
Today, customers and partners who are on the Internet can access press releases, info sheets, software product descriptions, Systems and Options Catalog, white papers, performance reports and customer-oriented publications. They can read them on-line, or download them and print them.
We also make it easy for customers and partners to connect directly to Alpha machines on the Internet, and to test dirve them, at no cost.
And, with our Electronic Store, we are beginning to sell over the Internet as well.
With this capability, we serve those customers and partners who are on the Internet already,
and we gain the experience to better serve them in the future.
What's ours is yours. What we learn, you learn.
Come take a look at the future we can build
IBG reported to Bill Strecker, the company's technology guru, and had its headquarters in the same building in Littleton, Mass., as Sam Fuller's Research Group. Researchers at Digital's labs in Palo Alto, CA, and Cambridge, MA had played important pioneering roles in the development of the Internet, long before the Web. Back in 1977, when ARPAnet consisted of just 60 nodes, Digital was the first computer or networking company to connect. In 1985, Digital became the first computer company to register an Internet domain and also created the first corporate Internet mail gateway, this gives every email user in Digital full access to the Internet. By 1986, they had created the first Internet "firewall," protection against attacks by hackers. When Web browsers finally became available for PCs, in October, 1993, Russ Jones (who later became one of the first members of IBG) posted the company's product literature on the Web, thereby creating the first commercial Web site from a Fortune 500 company. By January 1994, Digital's researchers had put the City of Palo Alto and the Future Fantasy Bookstore on the Web, as early experiments of how the Web could be used by local government and small businesses. That same month, Richard Seltzer and Berthold Langer (both future IBG members) created a brief video tape "A Glimpse of the Future" which helped alert not just Digital internal audiences, but the industry as well, of the business potential of the Internet. Thousands of copies of that tape were distributed by NCSA (the folks who had developed Mosaic, the first popular Web browser) and computer companies around the world. For that video, they received the first Internet Marketing Award at Internet World in May 1994. (You can now see and hear this video, "A Glimpse of the Future" online broadband (256K), dialup (56K); requires RealPlayer. You can read the script at http://www.seltzerbooks.com/glimpse.html).
For at least a year before IBG was formed, Brian Reid, head of Digital's Western Research Lab, had repeatedly and eloquently stressed the importance of the Internet to Digital's survival and the fact that the time was right and resources available for Digital to become THE Internet company. In February 1994, Brian, together with three other Internet advocates from Digital -- Alan Kotok (senior consulting engineer, later IBG, and now associate director of the World Wide Web Consortium), Steve Fink (marketing, later IBG), and Gail Grant (from Palo Alto) -- visited Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the Web) in Geneva to learn about CERN's plans for the Web so they could better assess the Web's business potential.
In his book, Weaving the Web : The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee describes this meeting as a turning point:
"Alan had been pushing DEC in the direction of the Web ever since he had been shown a Web browser, and management had asked Steve to put together a team to assess the future of the Internet for DEC. Steve explained that they would be largely redesigning DEC as a result of the Web. While they saw this as a huge opportunity, they were concerned about where the Web was headed, worried that the Web was perhaps defined by nothing more than specifications stored on some disk sitting around somewhere at CERN. they wanted to know what CERN's attitude was about the future path of the Web, and whether they could rest assured that it would remain stable yet evolve.
"I asked them what their requirements were, what they felt was important. They felt strongly that there should be a neutral body acting as convener. They were not interested in taking over the Web, or having some proprietary control of it. But they really wanted a body of oversight to which they could become attached. They wondered if CERN would do this.
"For me this was a listening meeting. It was important input into the decision about what to do next." (p. 78)
In May, a virtual team led by Gail Grant put together a Digital exhibit at Internet World in San Jose. In August, Richard Seltzer wrote an Internet speech for delivery by Governor Weld of Massachusetts and Governor Cambell of South Carolina at the National Governors' Conference in Boston, and Jim Gettys (from the Cambridge Research Labs) set up a live demo that was the first time that most of these governors had seen the Internet. And that same month, Sirrka Jarvenpaa, a visiting professor at the Harvard Business School, began interviewing for a case study "Digital Equipment Corporation: The Internet Company", which she and co-author Blake Ives published in October and which was used by dozens of business schools in courses about Internet business for several years to come. And that same month as well, after much discussion, the Internet Business Group was formed, with Rose Ann Giordano as vice president.
In the interim, a few people who had been strong Internet advocates and innovators and who were impatient to get started left the company to pursue other opportunities. For instance, Win Treese and Andy Payne from the Cambridge Research Labs, and Gail Mann from the labs in Palo Alto left for Open Market. And NT marketing guru Ed Cuoco left for Vermeer, which later became Microsoft's FrontPage (see High Stakes, No Prisoners by Charles Ferguson).
From the beginning, IBG acted as the core guiding force behind a much larger virtual team, depending on Internet enthusiasts and experts throughout the company. But the company was in serious trouble, laying off many people and reorganizing repeatedly as it tried to adjust to a changing marketplace. Hence, one of the first tasks for IBG was to do what it could to save those virtual team members from being laid off by groups that didn't understand their importance to the future of the company. So over time, within the limits of headcount budgets and periodic transfer/hiring freezes, a number of virtual players became IBG employees.
The virtual team also included many "partners" -- small startups, who turned to Digital for advice and support, at a time when no one was making money on the Internet and it was not yet clear that anyone would or how. One of the first of these partners was Netscape (originally called "Mosaic Communications), with Digital becoming their first OEM in November 1994, within a month of the launch of their first browser. Developing relationships with these new companies often presented political challenges, having to deal with pre-existing Digital programs and partners and balance close, long-standing relationships with companies like Microsoft.
Internet technology and business was developing at such a pace that the playing field and the messages changed significantly about once every six months. And marketing efforts were punctuated by major trade shows -- particularly, Internet World in the spring and fall -- through 1995 and 1996.
IBG's goal was to move quickly like a startup, and have a product out the door within six months, packaging third party software with Alpha hardware. The engineering efforts started in "virtual mode", with the company's first packaged Web server system (a turnkey combination of hardware and software) developed under the direction of the Education Group and then taken over and marketed and further developed by IBG. But IBG soon assembled its own small engineering team which guided and developed such pioneering products as WebForum (now SiteScape Forum, probably the first commercial product designed for threaded discussion on the Web), and a family of security products, including firewalls and a "tunnel" (the first commercially available Virtual Private Network [VPN] product). And the research labs, inspired by Brian Reid's leadership, continued to generate innovative technology and showcase projects, the most successful of which was AltaVista (brainchild of Louis Monier, Mike Burrows, and Paul Flaherty), publicly launched as a research project in December 1995. (In 1996, Richard Seltzer from IBG wrote the book The AltaVista Search Revolution, which was published by Osborne/McGraw-Hill).
Meanwhile, the company went through one reorganization after another, and the role and reporting relationship of IBG was redefined again and again. In 1996, IBG spun off the AltaVista Group, and the software engineering team moved over.
As IBG succeeded, the Internet became increasingly important to the company's business, eventually pervading all of its activities. Late in 1996, the group moved to Marlboro, Mass., and by the end of 1997, it had been dissolved, with many team members going on to run Internet-related activities in other organizations throughout the company. In 1998, just as Digital's business was turning around, the company was sold to Compaq, and many former IBG members left, going on to play important roles in dozens of companies throughout the industry.
-- Richard Seltzer, August 2000
Alan Kotok, 8/29/2000 -- My comment on the whole article is that it misses the point that most of the efforts to develop internet software of our own were stifled, with essentially all the emphasis (and money) put on promoting Alpha servers. Thus the group never developed a credible engineering organization. As an example of a squandered opportunity, I point out Millicent. In 1995/96, the "advertising" mode of paying for web content was not established, and there was certainly a fighting chance for a micro-payment system such as Millicent, but the Digital response was too little, too late.
Dan Kalikow, 8/31/2000 -- Perhaps you could somehow allude to the IBG being primarily a vehicle that DEC created to use the web to flog its hardware. I and some others (probably including you) realized that another big future of the web was gonna be web application software. So I (with help from Jeff Black and others) presented the biz case to Bill Strecker that we should start an Internet Software Business Group. That's what it was called, until AltaVista ran away with the brand-name.
Joan Blair, 8/31/2000 -- Richard, that's quite a document on the history of IBG. I have some footnotes. I was the Product Marketing Manager for the first turn key packaged web server. This was the product developed initially for the Education Market and then expanded to suit all markets as we saw the opportunity grow. The Internet Alpha Server was the first hardware product to incorporate the Netscape browser. It was the first Internet product from Digital. We actually delivered an Internet Alpha Server in advance of the Sun Netra.
Fred Isbell, 8/31/2000 -- Thanks Richard -- do I see a Harvard Business School Case Study in the making? I Hope so -- the lessons of trying to be entrepreneurial in a big company, of being way ahead of your time, almost too early; of not being paid adequate attention to because senior management did not necessarily "get it".... My favorite conversation at the time was about the Internet not being a market, but transforming computing and the world as we knew it .....and we came up with the line "The Internet Changes Everything" ... and then seeing Sun and others run with the ball, even using some of our same words! Starting with "The Internet Is Ready For Business" and "Catch The Wave"; then "Real Results For A Virtual World" (as the guy who coined the tagline, I have a poster from Internet World Boston hanging in my basement....), then the bland "DIGITAL Internet Business Solutions" and an attempt to brand "AltaVista Internet Solutions" to make it a little cooler....the ~2 years after the dissolution of IBG and before the Compaq acquisition, where the Internet effort was distributed into several groups... then the acquisition by Compaq and the initial meetings in Houston....but I'll stop there before I get too angry ......
A couple of updates -- for me, I was brought in in early 1994 to do Internet Competitive analysis (before Gartner and IDC and others had even hired their analysts in this space!), general marketing and an evolving focus on strategic marketing including analyst relations .... don't forget my infamous Internet World Canada Keynote speech in 1997 .... then marketing manager for Intranet Solutions for the DIGITAL Solutuions Marketing Group, which was transfered over to the Services Solutions Marketing team, which morphed into eCommerce Solutions Marketing for the Compaq eCommerce Solutions group, which morphed into eCommerce Marketing for Compaq Professional Services. I'm now marketing manager for SAP's Small Medium Business team and ironically working with 7 ex-DIGITAL alumni I worked with in the FABS group prior to IBG!
Rose Ann Giordano, 9/1/2000 -- I've made a few comments, corrections if you'd like to incorporate. Those were great days and in spite of difficult times, we accomplished a lot. We were out there early and pretty much called the market correctly - ISPs, Intranets, then Internet Commerce. Pretty obvious now - not so obvious in 1995. Of course, you were our "soul" of the Internet.
Dale Rensing, Dale.Rensing@compaq.com, 9/5/2000 -- Upon returning from a two-year hiatus from Digital (I left the Networks group in 1995 to go work for a small networking company, Proteon), I obtained a position in the Server group as the liaison to IBG. It was in the last days of IBG in 1997. I had the pleasure of working with many of the folks in your alumni list... Mark Conway, Dudley Howe, Don Young, Jim Miller, Mark Holohan, Marc Nozell, Susan Wright... just to name a few. These wonderful folks really knew the Internet, and I really enjoyed working with them. Unfortunately, the group was soon dissected into three disparate groups - Intranet under Steve Fink, ISP under Dudley Howe, and eCommerce under Charlie Liberty (until Laura Farnham became the VP for that group). Whereas I had previously had to spend time with one group, my time now had to be divided between three, and that just was unworkable.
I've essentially maintained my position as Compaq took over control of the company. We've been through a number of reorgs since then, and unfortunately have lost so many of the original IBG members. Your web page is therefore invaluable, as it preserves much of the history that is lost as folks leave. I've already forwarded on your URL to the new organization so that they may benefit from the knowledge found there.
Please send my best out to all my friends in the former IBG. This was indeed a unique organization with a great set of expertise.
Per Hjerrpe, Per.Hjerppe@compaq.com, 9/27/2000 -- I read your history of IBG and thought that you might interested in the early ARPANET history and Digital.
I have really nothing to add except that IBG did very well in the ISP market in AP [Asia-Pacific] as we were the first company to focus on ISP's as a business. SUN didn't see this as a market till much later.
I think it's also worth mentioning the ISP lab in Nahsua, which we used as a proof point about Digital's understanding of the ISP market.
A very significant fact is the early support of IPv6 and IPv4 in Alpha UNIX and I believe Brian Reid was a very active proponent of IPv6. With the advent of internet support for mobile phones and the 3G mobile infrastructure IPv6 has gained in importance and acceptance.
Mary Lee Kennedy, email@example.com, 9/27/2000 -- This brought back lots of great memories when even though it was "tough" it was so exciting to be doing something new and innovative. BTW, in a broad sweep, I head up the internal corporate portal (MSWeb), the knowledge architecture, and information services/library. Its a great job but I have to admit to missing the crowd in your alumni page.
Jeffrey Harrow, Jeff.Harrow@compaq.com, 9/27/2000 --
Sigh, 'twas a sad reading; the list of names brought back fond memories. I hope your independent business is doing well Richard, and that your vision and energy are being rewarded.
For my part, as you know, I continue to do the RCFoC (www.compaq.com/rcfoc) which is doing well - it's overall circulation is now over a half-million per week, and I continue to enjoy the challenge of helping people understand the new technologies and how they might apply them. I've also been speaking at increasingly interesting forums, such as COMDEX, Disney/Discover Magazine, The Economist, etc. So it remains fun.
Thanks for including me in the list -- if only we had all collectively been able to push Digital over the Internet hump...
Stephen Stuart, firstname.lastname@example.org, 10/3/2000 --
Interesting. I would argue that the most successful spin-off of the labs was PAIX, not AltaVista, but that's somewhat tangential to the focus of the piece on IBG. There certainly was a lot of good stuff going on back then - it continues to amaze me that Digital managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Things are going well now at MFN [Metromedia Fiber Network]; plenty of work to do building a global optical Internet network, and hard to find people in the valley (no big news there).
Deb Shaw, Deborah205@aol.com, 10/16/2000 --
I felt very sad when Digital became Compaq. You know for years when I was putting the pc products on AOL, CompuServe and Ziff, I kept trying to get DEC to exploit the free space we where given. They just didn't get it. IMs, we had VAX Phone how many years ago? They just didn't get it. We had Altavista and could have done as well as Yahoo. They just didn't get it. What a shame.
Anyway, I "got it" left and have been truly blessed coming to AOL but I remain very grateful to Digital for teaching me all that they did.
Hope all is well and of course you always "got it" so you will do well. :)
Dudley Howe, email@example.com, 4/26/2002 --
I was cleaning out my office and came across your book “AltaVista Search Revolution”. It reminded me of my intention (now years old) to get in touch with you. So here I am.
I left Compaq about nine months ago and have been semi-retired since. It was getting pretty grim there. I was running corporate strategy and as a result, I had a good view into the future of the computer industry and of the company. The view was pretty bad and I decided that I’d retire rather than spend the rest of my career laying good people off.
I’m living in Texas in a beautiful town outside of Houston called the Woodlands. The kids are both going to college locally and Katie has become a southern bell.
I’ve been doing some consulting, mostly focused on the Internet and telecommunications market.
Anyway, drop me a line and let me know how you’re doing. The time we all spent together in the Internet Business Group was the happiest of my career and I miss all those people. I’ve kept in touch with some of them and I’d like to correspond with others… so if you have contact info I’d like to get a hold of it.
I've recently joined a consulting firm out of
NJ called Taratec Development Corp. as a senior consultant. I'll
be opening the Boston office. Our primary business is Biotech -
providing computer systems validation and government regulations
consulting on 21CFR11. We also consult on knowledge management,
information management, LIMS (Laboratory Information Management
Systems), MES (Manufacturing Equipment Systems), and e-learning.
If you know of anyone who has experience in validations and
government regulations, please have them send me their resume as
I will be hiring up to 10 people over the summer to work in the
greater Boston area.
Selected members of the virtual team. While these folks were never official part of IBG, they played very important roles at the beginning, when few people inside and outside the company had a clue of the Internet and its potential. I'm sure there are many others who should be listed here.
Copyright ©1999 Richard SeltzerI want to preserve these insights and memories and promote dialogue about DEC and what was unique and memorable about the experience. Hence, with permission from the writers, I began posting a selection of comments.
DEC is what employees and customers called the company, in spite of edicts and branding campaigns.
Digital made computers and became the second largest computer company in the world.
DEC made loyal, fiercely competitive and entrepreneurial employees. People at all levels built their own jobs by what they did and how they did it. "He who proposes does," was the corporate truism. "Do the right thing," was the number one company rule. You didn't wait for a corporate plan to trickle down, you did what you believed needed to be done. "It's easier to ask forgiveness than permission." Corporate meetings encouraged risktaking and individual initiative, rather than obedience. Managers were held accountable for their mistakes, but were moved, not fired, and were given the opportunity to come up with new initiatives which they could then lead.
For four decades, Digital had its ups and downs (mostly ups, until the end), as the computer industry rollercoastered along.
Other computer companies pleased Wall St. by laying off workers in lean times, then hiring when business picked up. But DEC valued its employees not just for the work they did but for their ideas and initiative. A down time was an opportunity to catch your breath and reorganize, to try new ideas, to genereate new businesss that would be ready for the next inevitable upturn.
At its peak Digital was a multi-billion-dollar, multi-national company, a head-to-head competitor with IBM, acknowledged by many to have the best technology in the industry. It was a common joke that its best products were "well-kept secrets," that it used "stealth marketing," that they were often beaten by inferior products which were better marketed.
At its peak DEC was 130,000 employees who directly and indirectly served tens of thousands of fiercely loyal customers. Remember, rule number one was "do the right thing," not "say the right thing." Marketing was no where near as important as products and service and filling customer needs. The message didn't get out to everybody about what they did and how well they did it, but their core customers knew. The company and its customers stuck together through up times and down. And the innovative demands of leading-edge customer-partners kept DEC's people challenged and often led to creative product and service breakthroughs. Often it seemed that DEC was in business not for the money, but for the challenge and the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction that could come from doing what was very difficult to do and doing it well, and doing it the way you knew it should be done.
Sometimes Digital, the corporate entity, the publicly traded company, seemed at odds with DEC, this chaotic assemblage of creative individualists. But both Digital and DEC had the same leader -- Ken Olsen. And he and his company thrived not despite, but because of the unique management style that allowed such diversity and apparent chaos.
At the top, Ken defined his role as that of a gatekeeper -- the ideas came up from below, fought for by the people who had conceived them and who tested them with pilots which might be funded without corporate approval. These people owned their projects and were willing to stake their careers on them. And the teams that worked on them were also devoted -- feeling they owned pieces of the project, and sometimes working ridiculously long hours, not because someone told them to, but because it was the "right thing to do." After internal competition had taken its course and made it clearer which were the fittest to survive, Ken picked the winners -- the projects that would get the corporate resources necessary to make a major difference in the marketplace.
Computer technology ages quickly. The innovations in computer engineering that were the basis of Digital's corporate prominence in the 1980s are now mainly of historical interest -- as forerunners of what we use today.
But the human engineering of DEC -- this unique corporate culture, fostering self-motivated creativity, pride, loyalty, and competitive spirit -- is of enduring interest and value.
DEC with its internal entrepreneurship and competition, with its heavy reliance on a massive internal computer network for communication and teaming, was in many ways similar to the Internet today. Managing in that environment was similar to managing a virtual company today -- or a company dependent on many complex and tangled partnerships. As a manager, you were given responsibility without authority. You needed to make things happen but, to succeed, you had to enlist the help and support of other people and groups over which you had no managerial control -- you had to convince them that what you needed done was the right thing to do. What to outsiders might have sounded like a hollow phrase, "do the right thing" was an important tool for resolving disputes between individuals and groups, and for enlisting the help you needed to pull together teams and to succeed in your work.
Compaq bought Digital. DEC was never for sale.
I may be more jaundiced about DEC than you are. In addition to the qualities you mention in your introduction, I think of "boat people" wandering the halls, "tin-cupping" (which may be the Venture Capital side of intrapreneuring), the South Boston Politburo who never grasped global reach, the protectionist provincialism which clung to IVIS not to mention NOTES without permitting their expansion, the managers who were matrix managers (my first boss kept Machiavelli's The Prince in his desk, my second kept Mao's Little Red Book)...
on the other hand, I've got to give credit to any corporation that would hire me.--which was Joe Santini and Del Lippert in Ed Services in 1984....
From: Tim Horgan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I have tingles going down my spine, and tears in my eyes. Your last sentence is one of the most powerful I've read in a long time. What a great piece--you've summed up the DEC I knew and loved for 18 years.
Tim Horgan, CIO Magazine
From: Meyer Billmers
I think it's great! The last line says it all.
And, FWIW, although the internet may cause products to recycle every 3 months, it's precisely that commitment to the customer, not to marketing, that made us great within DEC and promises to make SiteScape great too. It's hard to put a value on that these days, and yet I believe the value is still there, and people appreciate it. Try calling Microsoft with a problem, and see if you get to talk with a senior developer, who will stay with your problem day and night until it is solved. I don't think so.
DEC was never for sale. Neither was Microsoft ; there was never anything like it to sell.
From: Alfred C Thompson II <email@example.com>
That's a positive step. I've very excited about your project and hope it works out. I like the idea that you have a view from the trenches rather then the typical views which are either completely from the outside or from top management.
I love it. The last line, "Compaq bought Digital. DEC was never for sale." almost brought a tear to my eye. It is so true.
You may want to contact Stan Rabinowitz BTW. He was a top engineer in Spitbrook. He left in 1986 and gave a famous fairwell address in the Babbage Autotorioum called "I was hired by DEC but I'm leaving Digital."
Regarding the expression "He who proposes does." I often heard it pharased "he who proposes disposes" in engineering circles. How something sounded was often more important then its grammatical correctness. The phrase "any noun can be verbed" tended to drive the tech writers crazy but engineers loved it.
Do you know the story of the binary ASCII "sign" outside ZKO? It once said "DIGITAL SOFTWARE ENGINEERING" but was changed to "CUSTOMERS WIN WHEN WE DELIVER" to the disgust of the engineers who worked there.
Alfred C Thompson II, Teacher, Life Long Learner, www.tiac.net/users/act2/
I read the introduction and I thought I was going to cry. I don't think I will ever have that "experience" again in my lifetime. I will certainly look forward to the book.
Just a couple of nits though (the editor in me): According to Mark Steinkrauss, at its height, Digital had 137,500 employees 'that it could count.' (translation: there were tons of contractors, consultants and the like that were everywhere). Some will say that Digital had to many people, to many ideas and too little focus.
Also, I thought Digital was a global company and not a multinational. There is some distinct difference between the two (I don't know what it is specifically but I hear it brought up at meetings in Compaq). Compaq is regarded as a multinational and not global -- which Deccies claim is one reason why Compaq 'doesn't get it.' This may be an interesting point for the later chapters of your book.
From: Eli Lipcon <Lipcon@aol.com>
Richard, I read your article with interest. It struck me as a "glass half full" view of the world, placing the company and Ken in particular in a somewhat more positive light than I view it in. In my view, what isn't said, is that Ken and the company were in the right place at the right time; did, no question, have great products, but in many ways succeeded in spite of itself. I remember the market crash of 1987 and how after the DOW recovered and DEC stock did not, beginning to realize that if we had been entitled to take credit all those years for the great success of the company, then we had to be accountable for the years of losses and failure. Maybe we had never really been as good as we had thought we were after all!
The culture was great in many ways, but it wasn't one which could endure.
I had lots of opportunity to compare and contrast the culture of DEC and NYNEX/Bell Atlantic. Believe me, the rigidity and structure of BA was very frustrating at times, but the discipline has allowed that company to manage
cost growth to under 1% per year with 3-5% revenue growth, which is why the stock price has basically tripled over the last five years despite lots of competitive in roads. This was something the Digital culture could never manage.
I've rambled on long enough. Digital was great, but the culture carried fatal flaws.
I suspect that Digital's strengths and weaknesses were entwined in interesting ways. What some saw as Camelot, others experienced as Hell. The same environment that sometimes inspired workers to long hours and creative feats, at the same time doomed many projects to failure in the marketplace. The internal competition could be brutal, and could lead to lots of duplication and wasted effort and misuse of resources. The flaws should be an important part of the story.
From: Fernando Colon Osorio <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I read the article with interest. You make some great points, however, the question that is left unanswered is: If it was so great - how come it disapear? Unless you can address this critical issue, it will be seen just as nostagia.
Indeed, that is the critical question.
If the editor goes for this approach to the subject, I'm going to do quite a bit of digging and track down a variety of viewpoints to try to put it all into some kind of perspective and try to make sense of it.
But I believe that could be well worth doing.
From: "Carolyn Unger" <email@example.com>
Richard -- I'll be interested to see where you go with this!
Unfortunately, I think my own personal experience was a whole lot "Digital" and not a lot of "DEC"!
From: Jay Owen <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I like it. Since I spent the last 16 yrs. at DEC in sales and marketing, I have a different perspective on the company that may be helpful. It complements your observations...
The market (not just customers) was always keenly interested in developments at DEC. With a telephone call and mention of DEC I could usually get a meeting with anyone that I needed to reach. It was always intriguing to me that our customers were fiercely loyal and incredibly demanding. Those who were "interested" always demonstrated a polite, though sometimes skeptical, demeanor. This is all relevant because the opening implies that persuasion was mostly internal activity. However, the accomplished sales and marketing professionals at DEC took the same messages to the street to prove the viability of their ideas.
Entrepenurial behavior wasn't bounded by DEC's four walls.
For example, DECtalk was initially built by a renegade group of engineers, linguists and a few marketing folks within the terminals group (no where else to put it). The product was promoted internally and to various external parties. This created the ground swell of interest that spawned numerous technical derivatives over the years.
Bottom line, I think "the market" was interested because they knew us personally.
Hope that helps.
From: Bob Mader <email@example.com>
"... Compaq bought Digital. DEC was never for sale."
I hope that your book is not going to have a tone of post-Olsen DEC (or Digital?) bashing. I agree with the essence of your introduction except for one thing. You refer to "DEC" in the past tense! In my opinion, "DEC" as you define it is still very much surviving in the current company. Sure, the VAX cash-cow glory days are history, but the people and the culture are still very much alive in many parts of Compaq.
Best of luck with your book. I will be looking forward to reading it.
Bob Mader, DEC, 1988-present
PS... some interesting slightly related history: http://www.eecis.udel.edu/~mader/delta
From: Anne Kreidler <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I love the energy and direction of the article. It feels like it could be the preamble to a book. You've captured the spirit of what I knew and loved.
My only caution is one of credibility (depending, of course, on your target audience). Many people in business simply see DEC as a huge failure. So, I find, as do most folks I know who interact in the business environment, that to brag about Digital can be construed as being blind to reality. The issue is credibility as perceived by those who weren't part of the whole, beautiful, human experiment.
So, not knowing where you are going with this article (preamble), I can only say bravo and be aware of the balance.
From: Dan Kalikow <email@example.com>
I have one cosmetic comment on your fascinating paper: the phrase "Human Engineering" normally connotes (at least to me, who once professed it) ergonomics or human factors. I think that perhaps a better term might be "An experiment in organizational engineering." Given the endpoint of the paper, perhaps a bit of foreshadowing might work? -- "An experiment in networked innovation."
To the content-oriented comments. Right on! And furthermore, I found your thesis *very* viable. Even though DEC was highly insular (to its ultimate detriment!), it was way more collaborative than I think Microsoft was through approximately that same time period. Everything I hear from MS leads me to believe that it was & still is an email culture, with all the secretiveness and lost info that that implies.
Whereas DEC, as you point out so trenchantly, was massively networked from early on, and that led to the sort of culture that later sprang up on the 'Net. Interesting that we had to drag them kicking & screaming from the DECnet intranet to the TCP/IP internet, but in retrospect it was a major (cliche alert) paradigm shift that we were pushing on them.
I think there might be another aspect to DEC's "massive internal network for communication and learning" to which you might not be giving enough credit for forming the culture -- DECnotes.
The presence of virtually free, universal and effective client-server groupware fostered efficient projects, sometimes competitive projects, and let them reach fruition far faster -- so that then, Ken & the top VPs could select the ones that would go to market. And always on the side there was ongoing discussion of "The DIGITAL Culture" in the DIGITAL notesfile, to keep the "Do The Right Thing" ethic alive and well, and to puncture Corporate pomposity more than I've seen it done anywhere, at least until the more recent days of the Web.
Like for example, to point out the sublime stupidity of crapping on a fine brand like DEC in favor of an obsolescent adjective like "digital," as if to say "We know you THINK that by using OUR name as an adjective, you can take our brand away from us. Well you can't." But they had. And since some of the major accelerants of the digital age came from DEC, we had only ourselves to blame. King Canute, presumably, was either drowned or bought out by the King above the tide-wrack. Our King Ken was kicked off the beach as the tide reached his waist, but Palmer soldiered on instead of withdrawing. But don't get me started...
From: Dave Griffin <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I've read your article about one and half times and I'm not exactly sure what to think of it.
On one level it stirred memories of days long gone at that company. I was there "only" 18 years so, from a certain perspective, I missed some of the glory days that you discuss -- but the afterglow of DEC persisted for quite a few years after the Digital began to assert itself. I liked what you had to say about it and I should probably think about it some more to see if there were any other critical bits or coincidence that fostered that unique working environment.
Perhaps because I joined in 1981 my view of the corporate history is less rose-colored. The cancer of "Digital" had already taken hold and it would only be a few years until people whom I had (and have) a great respect for saw the early warning signs and bailed out.
Comments from them like "I joined DEC, but I'm leaving Digital" echo a lot of the feelings you are trying to convey in the article.
What happened to DEC? How did it fade away? Was it size, the stock market crash of '88, competition, the complete lack of control of management? I'm hardly qualified to comment, but I'm pretty sure most of it came from within. I have a deep and great respect for Ken Olsen. I often stroll around this Mill where SiteScape is located and can't help but feel the echos of what he built here. But for all the accolades you proffer on the inner workings of DEC, there were still plenty of problems. Politics, like anywhere a few humans gather, was deep in the culture as well. I can point to quite a few less than well-reasoned decisions by Ken and others that kept DEC from becoming even more successful than it was. Maybe the point of the article is that, on balance, the human engineering experiment that was DEC worked more than it didn't -- and that's probably true -- but it wasn't perfect and it wasn't even pretty.
In the Digital lexicon "Do the right thing" had been pushed quite a ways down the list long before Compaq came a-knockin'....
If you are looking for a slightly better "hook", I might suggest that your analogy of the DEC and the Internet could go one step further.
Very early in Digital's history as a company (mostly due to its phenomonal growth) it became a *distributed company* -- and we're not just talking about a few remote manufacturing sites. This spreading of people -- first across New England, then eventually around the world -- was also like the Internet. Many voices from different cultures mingled to create the ideas (and the confusion) that was DEC and it fused together first by e-mail and then VAXnotes (e-mail played a much bigger role) over the world-wide network (at one time the largest private network in the world).
That it was swallowed by a company that, until recently, existed pretty much on a single campus has always been a source of personal confusion for me -- since I believe that such a centralized approach is inherently the wrong model for businesses. (But my bank account doesn't provide much evidence for those convictions.)
Good luck with the book,
From: Berthold Langer <email@example.com>
Overall I liked it a lot. I think it as a great summary of DEC vs Digital however, I think the title does set expectation of a deeper analysis around the experiment. I believe your last paragraph is a very good summary, however, I am sure it scares the heck out of any corporate manager trying to be successful in such an environment and certainly in todays environment of bottom line dollar successes.
I think the final line is brilliant.
In your paragraph starting with "At the top, Ken..." I would add that some/many times competing internally was more important than competing externally. At least I think that was the one point I thought missing after the reading of the whole intro.
Again, I would make it clearer what the experiment was. I like the idea of you writing a book about DEC vs Digital. I hope that this time more of you content stays in the book at the end. I still have the copy of the original AV book you submitted. It had much more long-term appeal and could have served as a case study for Internet spirit/entrepreneurship.
I am glad you allowed me to give you feedback and am looking forward to other chapters of your book.
From: Ken Alden <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I never liked working for Digital, only DEC. When Compaq bought Digital, they wanted the employees who worked for DEC to now work for Compaq. I think most of us who left on our own, were still looking for some way to return to working for DEC. Working for Compaq was even worse than working for Digital...
From: Karen Kolling <KatKolling@aol.com>
What I remember most about DEC are two things -
What a great CEO Ken was and person he is. In contrast to the after the megabucks self-centered CEOs that seem to be the norm today, Ken really cared about his employees and the company, and was totally unpretentious. Many stories abound such as someone running into Ken at the local supermarket buying Swanson tv dinners, or arriving at work before everyone else, or stopping to talk to people in the hallway and knowing every single employee. I remember once when the company was in financial trouble, we all accepted, including Ken, a freeze in our salaries instead of having some people laid off. What a guy - I'd go back to work for him in a second.
Secondly, I remember the great projects we got to work on. Really exciting, and everyone so enthused about them. Not like today in other companies when the only object is to make a buck and the heck with the product.
From: Bob Fleischer <email@example.com>
It was good, and I enjoyed reading it, but I wonder about how the "hard nosed" among us would respond. Clearly some things were wrong -- fatally so! But I don't think anyone really knows what was wrong, including Compaq. Compaq bought Digital because it wanted to be like Digital -- and they may be succeeding!
Bob Fleischer www.tiac.net/users/rjf/
From: Bob Farquhar <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I was delighted to see your name in the latest Digital-transition egroup mailing. Even more interested to hear you're writing a book about DEC.
The last line is dynamite. The rest of it, however, lacks feeling and direction. Particularly feeling, despite the fact that the latter is what DEC (not Digital) was about.
I'm running a dot.com startup, believe it or not.
Let me hear from you.
Best Regards, BobF
From: S. Jancourtz <Sjancourtz@aol.com>
I hope you plan to make it clear that in spite of the fact that DEC was a swell place to work (and believe me, I know, every place I've been since then treated its employees like shit)--it was that very quality that contributed to its downfall.
We let too many stupid, incompetent people draw paychecks for years on end and just shuffled them from department to department rather than firing them. (We NEVER needed 130,000 employees. At least 30,000 of those were just dumb sheep, showing up for work and generally geting in the way of the workers.)
I also hope someone goes into Ken Olsen's tragic flaw--his unwillingness to let anyone smart be in charge besides him. Starting in the early 1970s, he drove away dozens of brilliant middle managers and promoted mediocrities (like the Chip-Man, who invested half a BILLION dollars into Alpha chips instead of getting serious about networking, and left us out there to be swallowed whole by the Internet; like a VP of Sales, who insisted that we constantly RAISE prices "because IBM charged more" instead of LOWERING costs; and the whole bevy of Corporate Message Goddesses out of Marlboro.)
The last ten years I worked at DEC (81-91) were enormously frustrating. My smart friends and I could see the writing on the wall--the growth of PCs, the need to figure out how to sell stuff in great volume very cheaply, networking through cable TV--and we couldn't get anyone high up to listen or take a look. Ken Olsen's skepticism about the viability of personal computers made TIME magazine's "Ten Dumbest Remarks of the Century" list. Ken couldn't figure out how to hand his company off to the next generation of leaders. So he planted land mines, left the equivalent of the French World War I generals in charge, and just walked away. It blew up, and took us all with it.
Write your book, but take off the rose-colored glasses.
Unfortunately, I don't think you'll EVER get a book published unless you title it "Gone Without a Trace: How the Ultimate Entrepreneur took a $15B Company Back to Oblivion". Most of the people in their 30s that I work with never HEARD of DEC--and we're in the software business.
From: Jerry Beeler <email@example.com>
Alfred Thompson forwarded me the introduction to a book that you have in progress.
It truly "struck home". I spent 20 years at MotherDEC and for the most part loved every minute of it. For the first 18 years I felt as if DEC was paying me t have fun. The last 2 or three years were pure unmitigated Hell -- when it got to the point that I was pointedly asked to lie to customers -- I had to leave.
God, how I loved that company. When I left, I was the dubious title of the longest tenured sales person at Digital. No other person had been selling, nose-to-nose, day-to-day, as long as I had. There were no "breaks" for anything .. just selling. How I loved selling.
You are right -- Digital was sold. DEC was never for sale.
Jerry Beeler, (Former) Sales Executive
From: Judith Burgess <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I read in the DBM newsletter your introduction to the book you are writing about DEC. I love the line, "DEC was never for sale..."
I worked there 17.5 years. I grew up with so many people. It was so far from what it was when I started, that it was dysfunctional. I don't miss that. What I miss is the people and what we built together. It was a great company.
I am happy for the time I had and the flexibility I had to raise my two daughters. I am now adjusting to the culture at a major financial company where I started working in December.
Congratulations on your book and the interesting work that you are doing.
From: Fred Hurwitz <email@example.com>
I have read your introduction and submit the following for your consideration.
I was a DEC employee (and then Compaq one) for 25 years. The year I joined, the company did $260m in world wide product and service revenue. I provide this background only to solidify the point that I too recognize the traits you write about, as does every pre - 1986 employee I know.
Further, I too believe the culture of the company had a lot to do with it's success. The "product line" structure reinforced the experimentation and made it easy to pick the winners to fund.
We all know the common wisdom of what went wrong, missing the PC revolution. What has always been a curiosity to me is, why? Without going into detail, we had all the technology needed before Microsoft and Intel. We saw the risks to undermining our own business with our own technology. What we didn't see was the opportunity. Why? Was there something about the organization or the values that prevented this? Or was it that we had already meandered too far from our values?
Exploring these questions would interest me more than then a review of what I already "know".
I hope this feedback proves useful to you.
From: Rick Tagg <RTagg55448@aol.com>
My name is Richard Tagg. I was hired by Dec in 1977 as a material handler. I had somehow graduated from high school :) ....at the time employee's numbered around or should I say 72334, somehow I'll never forget my badge number.
After a few years of running payroll records to payroll from one building to the other (Pk1 to Pk3), I was asked by Randy Condon if I would like to work in Corporate Accounting, (it was $3.00 per hour more than I was making as a material handler) I said whats the deal? Randy said, you have to take some Accounting courses at the college of my choice and that Dec would pick up the tab, I said "I'M IN!"
Thus began my inner ability to Account for what ever Dec wanted me to Account for, the fact that I could type in excess of 100 words per minute would prove to be beneficial later on. (Thanks Ma and Dad for the piano lessons)
I moved through the ranks of clerical intermediate supervisory levels rather quickly and often said NO to entry level MANAGEMENT positions in order to avoid what I learned later was just POLITICS.
When I informed my manager that he had a month to replace me after 10 years of service he was more than concerned that I was the contact/person installing a new software accounting system, which at the time was rather complex to say the least.
So, I started a business of my own and still am self-employed (13years) today. What I learned on my own was a series of tools that had I known when I worked at Dec, would have certainly placed me in a V.P. position. Those tools that I learned include SALES, MARKETING, MANAGING, SERVICE, and the rest of everything you should know, should you be running your own business or business's.
Well, thats about it Richard, I enjoyed reading about how Compaq bought Digital and not Dec, I still have my personally signed Ten year Recognition Plaque, signed by Ken Olsen, I will never forget meeting him, nor working for him, nor training the Bently College Gradualtes of Accounting, how to Account, how to find what someone tried to hide/writeoff, usually in the 7 to 8 digit dollar amount.
I had a feeling when I left Dec that someday I would work for Dec again. If I do, Im glad to say that I would be able to contribute many new tools that I have learned over the past 13 years, added to the Accounting that Dec taught me.
Hope this was not boring, and if you worked for Dec and remember Corporate Accounting, say hi to all my friends for me.
From: D.D. (prefers not to have his name or email address appear)
I do not want to burst your bubble or anything, but here are my comments for what they are worth (which is approximately what you are paying for them!).
I was at DEC for about 10 years in the 80's. Since then, I have had a pretty successful career in small companies, both start ups and some established for awhile.
I am constantly amazed at the numbers of people who have a very hard time leaving their DEC experience behind them, and who refuse to recognize what DEC eventually became: a lumbering dinosaur unable to change who ignored customers (famous DEC quote I remember: "we don't spend money on marketing, we invest in technology" which can be translated as: "We are smarter than customers, we know what they need better than they, so we don't have to listen to them"). Sadly, Ken O. actually thought that way, and probably still does.
While nobody can take away what Ken and DEC did, growing to $12B and #2 in the industry, we should all be ashamed that DEC vitually invented computer networking and P.C.s (what were mini-computers anyhow but PCs for engineers), and was so arrogant and ingrown that it did not capitalize on it.
When I left DEC, I as assaulted by resumes from scores of DEC people trying to get out. If I added all the $100 Million projects they were key players to, DEC would have been bigger than IBM and Microsoft combined. I did not hire any of them, as the word was (and still is), avoid DECCIES until they have been in the real world at least 2 jobs removed.
It would be a great to research the success and failure rates of senior DEC managers, compared to DG or WANG. I bet the DEC alums would not come off so well.
Sooo, why am I bothering with this note? Two reasons:
1. I am avoiding doing my taxes
2. To ask you, if you really are doing a DEC book, don't make it a syrupy stroll down memory lane with the "Wasn't DEC wonderful" theme, because it will only encourage those poor folks to keep looking back, but make it into an analysis of what they did wrong, how they/we blew it, and maybe folks will learn some valuable lessons. At the end of the day, DEC was a business that was wildely successful for quite awhile, and then failed miserably.
Thanks for reading, and good luck,
D. D., former TIG product line business manager, marketeer, DEC telecom industry salesperson, and former DEC fanatic who has learned better.
From: Alan Kotok <firstname.lastname@example.org>
As one of those DECies who did some of the technology of the "1980s now mainly of historical interest", I thought I'd put in a few cents worth.
I'm a bit concerned that you might characterize DEC as a utopia, and be disinclined to call Ken Olsen to task for his failures.
I'm not exactly sure when I first saw this happening, maybe in late 80's, but at some point I saw Ken become so sure of his instincts and knowledge of the industry that he stopped listening. Missing the PC revolution I lay at his doorstep.
You might want to research when working at DEC stopped being fun. For me, (who started in 1962), I'd say sometime around when Jack Smith took over as VP of Engineering. My recollection is notoriously flawed, but it seems to > me that Gordon Bell left in a disagreement with Ken. Jack, while a fair manager, was easy prey for the politically connected, because he wasn't expert in technology or engineering. Gordon, too, had started to develop an aura of infallibility about him. Too few people were willing to walk into his office and tell him that he was wrong.
Anyway, just some lines to investigate.
Alan Kotok, Associate Chairman, World Wide Web Consortium
Reply -- From a variety of folks, I've been hearing:
1) DEC hasn't completely disappeared; elements of the old spirit persist within Compaq.
Reply to Reply -- It must be damned hard to maintain!
Reply -- 2) The decline of DEC began in the mid- to late-80s, long before Ken left.
Reply to Reply -- Consistent with my view.
Reply -- Some feel that the DEC culture was in part responsible for the decline and fall of Digital, that the bad was inextricably entwined with the good. Others believe that the problems that arose in the late 80s (while the company seemed to be at its peak) might be traced to a turning away from the old culture (a new arrogance, trying to take IBM headon, trying to act like a major corporation).
Reply to Reply -- In my view the "Take IBM headon" was a mistake, advocated by Bob Glorioso, head of large computers.
Reply -- Another way of putting it might be that the old DEC had unwritten social goals that were at least as important as financial goals (at least for the rank-and-file) -- (at times the company almost acted like a non-profit -- doing the right thing was often the best long-term approach for business because of the customer and employee loyalty it built; but you also did it because that was the right thing to do, regardless of whether there would ever be a financial payback).
Over time, that aspect seems to have faded, and the financials became more important, which changed the flavor of internal politics and the relationship with the customer and the motivations of many key players.
If the editor/publisher go for my approach, I'm going to want to get inputfrom lots of DEC people to try to get a balanced view and to represent the diversity of experiences.
From: Therry Neilsen-Steinhardt <email@example.com>
I started work with DEC in 1976 as a secretary. I only once made coffee for my boss, and I almost never typed anything. Good thing. Jim Bailey asked me instead to do things like midnight acquisitions of hard drives, installation and teraining for word processing systems, making creative meetings for the ne wVAX com-puter, and lots of training, lots of it. I managed typesetting systems, and typed in all the alphabets. Yeah, I think you've got DEC. But don't forget what happened when management got hold of us. After the big reorganziation in the mid-eighties (must have wanted to make money), things were never the same. People stopped hiring comparative literature majors, history majors, and art history majors to do the tecnhical writing and started hiring technical types.
By the early nineties, people were being dropped like flies already stuck on flypaper. Me, I left because I had a crippling attack of multiple sclerosis, and couldn't work. I've been on long term disability for seven years, and I'm about to graduate from seminary and become an evangelizing pastor in the United Church of Christ.
Go with this book, but don't forget the warts. Our philosophy was not only Do the right thing, but if you build it, they will come.
PS -- Are you aware of the very rich musical culture at Spit Brook? I remember that for the fifth anniversary of the Spit Brook Singers we put together an orchestra with the unemployed classical musicians who worked at Spit Brook. The same parts of the brain that do math do music as well. We performed some choruses from Messiah, and I remember that The Ken was present.
We had very few strings, and the clarinets took the string parts. We sounded like baroque Klezmer -- never heard anything like it. We used to have concerts, too. There were so many things to do at Spit Brook other than write software!
From: "Dr. Thomas Blinn" <Thomas.Blinn@compaq.com>
But the words are good. Where does it go from there?
I believe that Compaq needed to buy Digital to survive in the long term -- selling commodity PCs is not a long-term profitable business. They needed to get into the solutions and service business. But while they may have realized that on some philosophic level, when it came to actually implementing the takeover, their old habits and procedures got in the way -- they evaluated cost structures and business plans based on models they had built for commodity PCs sold only through channels; and they couldn't make sense of much of what Digital did; and before they learned they killed or shedded important pieces of the business, and let go some of the very people who they would need to be successful in the long term.
Eventually, maybe they'll get it all sorted out -- but while I was there, it felt like there was an enormous clash of corporate cultures and that the two mind-sets simply weren't compatible. Compaq would have to transform itself to take advantage of the resources and opportunities that the takeover put at their disposal.
But people are resilient. And because it swallowed Digital, many of the people now working for Compaq and helping it to survive and change have DEC in their blood. And being clever and ambitious and flexible, many will find ways to push Compaq in new directions, and will come up with new business approaches.
At the time of the sale it was DEC vs. Compaq. But over time, it probably becomes more like a single company with some characteristics left over from each and some new ones as well. (Like divorced parents getting married and patching the two families together.
Actually, at the time of the sale, I suggested that they name the new company digital.com or dec.com (with the "com" standing for Compaq.)
Reply to Reply --
I like that.. [dec.com] but so much of the old Digital is STILL not getting it, as far as I can tell.. But things do change with time, and as you say, people are resilient and resourceful..
Afterthought -- Date: Mon, 1 May 2000 07:39:05 -0400
It's interesting how much of the old "DEC" is still alive and well. We still don't seem to "get" just how important effective marketing is, how important it is to have very strong relationships with the industry consultants (that you have to nurture at least as effectively as any other personal relationships), how important our education customers really are, and so on..
But some of the Tandem folks (some of whom are ex-Digital folks, but left long before the end) seem to have good ideas.
There is still a core of "whiners" who don't seem to realize that simply complaining because, for instance, some other part of the company does a good job of marketing Intel based products isn't going to fix the lack of effective Alpha marketing. Or that stealth activities around Linux aren't going to win new business.. And so on..
From: M. R. (prefers not to have his name or email address appear) Date: Tue, 30 Nov 1999
It looks like an interesting book, but I had conflicting feelings reading the intro. You don't specify an exact time frame, but the company was not the same throughout its history. I joined in 1990 when it was already on its slide. It seems to me that momentum had kept it up for some time before I got there. Yes, "do the right thing" and being first into the minicomputer market gave it that momentum, but the company I came to know was already downstream of what I read about in your intro.
In my six years with DEC I saw more people coasting than I saw doing the right thing. I saw too many people ignoring the customer, the product, or the contract details because it was just too much work.
Those hard workers you mention couldn't hold up the rest of the company. The scales tipped and the company fell. There is ample material to write a good history of the "human engineering", but there is also ample material to write a set of case studies on the lunacy of the company management and the dark side of its style.
When I first started there, I was one of those who worked long hours not because I was told to but because it seemed like the right thing to do. There were many people who told me I was crazy. In retrospect they were right. Marketing had forecast wild sales for our product and management had written contracts with our suppliers that guaranteed large orders or else heavy penalty clauses. The product was a solid machine but never sold well. Our follow-on product was more in tune with the market, but a very funny thing happened. Another group had formed within the company that wanted to build a similar system and market it to a different industry. How did they do it? They used political maneuvering to get our group killed and then filled their ranks with the freed up people. It turned out their product was still a year away from market. It, of course, had its wild marketing predictions also ... at first.
That project was one of the first that Palmer axed, which I'll give him credit for. Why the new group couldn't have gone into partnership with the old group and sold the existing system into both markets can only be explained by the "not invented here syndrome". The way it was done was definitely not the right thing to do. I could go on endlessly with unbelievable stories, but I feel I've taken up enough of your valuable time. I just thought you should think about providing a time reference to your points or possibly add the counterpoint of those employees who chose to "do the easy thing".
Good luck with the book,
From: Carlos and Sonia <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I read a draft of the introduction for a book about Digital and I enjoyed the precise and clear descriptions of the company.
In a few paragraphs you captured the essence of what it was like to work for DEC. I retired after 21 years in engineering, with some great memories and others not so great. Engineering was extremely loyal to Ken. He was human and made mistakes, as we all did; however, he understood engineers. I remember meeting Ken late at night after only 3 months on the job, in my cubicle writing code and I was extremely impressed with his knowledge of the details of the project on which I was working. I was 7 levels from his position and he knew about my project and the details regarding it. Very impressive!!
Yes, KO underestimated the PC revolution, the Unix competition, etc, etc. but nonetheless, he knew how to deal with engineers.
DEC died in 1991 when Robert Palmer took over; he killed some sacred cows that were part of the culture and never understood the core values of DEC. Yes, Digital pleased WS for a few more years with, at times, downsizes that did not make any sense. When you begin losing the heart of the engineers, no company can survive and that killed the company...
I am very eager to read your book.
Carlos G Borgialli, Ariel Corporation, VP, Engineering.
From: Greg Longtine <email@example.com>
Hello, Good Start,
Having been at DEC from 73 - 93 I had a chance to see the unprogrammed changes manifest, and the failures where hydra headed. Everyone has their own prospective on the decline. My role was in Logistics and Service and I noticed on things that seemed to be a thread. MBA's trying to deal with the culture of "DO THE RIGHT THING". If you can't spreadsheet it "don't do it". This I think had a profound impact on inventive behaviors. When IBM tossed the idea of image copying and a company named XEROX pick it up (short version) it was instructive. IBM vs. Microsoft/Open PC's. Yes the early days where fantastic/ 24 hr three day sessions to ramp up Holland and other projects of the like where engaged in willingly and without hesitation [one for all/all for one] I think concentration on the sift of DEC>DIGITAL/COMPAQ would be very interesting.
From: P.P. (prefers not to have his name or email address appear)
I read your introduction to the book on DEC and really enjoyed what you said .... As a longtime employee (1976-1999)I definately relate
From: Ken Aldous in New Zealand <firstname.lastname@example.org>
It is no more than an impression, but I have this memory that DEC's descent into the arms of Compaq started about the time that we customers were told that the company's name was now "Digital", and would we please stop calling it DEC, especially if you are a member of DECUS, and more especially if you are on a DECUS board. I do not recall the uglified "DIGITALUS" crossing my mind. In retrospect it seems apt, but it would probably have been ineffective.
DEC's demise was, without doubt, caused by thrombosis brought on by the hoards of bureaucrats, spin doctors and mountebanks who flocked to the company chasing the wall of money that engulfed it following the staggering success of the VAX.
These people generated no new ideas and improved no products; their marketing was hopelessly ineffective compared to the enthusiasm of the DEC nerds whom they displaced, and who had spent the previous ten years eagerly selling DEC gear to their bosses, friends, friends bosses, and even their mothers.
But the bureaucrats did spend massive amounts of the money flood. They invented new logos - first blue, then brown (or was it brown then blue?) - they manufactured vision statements mission statements and statements of corporate intent; they drew up strategic plans (strategic, in this context, means related to plans or planning, so a "strategic plan" is a plan that is plan-like - it is, as a journalist once pointed out, a planny sort of plan), business plans, and all manner of documents that they had been told about at business school; and they continually promoted all kinds of fads that you can grow dizzy from reading about in the endlessly earnest, self-satisfied business journals.
But they added no value; like a gigantic
cosmic sponge they absorbed the flood of money, then
sixty-thousand strong they quietly (well noisily really, with
demands for large severance payments) folded their tents, and vanished into the depths of business wonderland.
From Tom Morrow, email@example.com
I was on your website reading, “DEC not Digital”, and I would like to share my DEC experiences with you.
Started DEC on June 10th 1977– Packaged out November 15th 1998.
In 1976 I started working for DEC in Kanata, while I was still in High School; I left briefly to finish school.
Ever since High School I have always loved working with computers, and even today I play with my own, over clocking and water cooling.
I am not highly educated as many of your readers are but DEC still promoted/counted on me to help make it the great company it was! They offered many courses in-house, sent me to Brazil many times to help set up a subcontract manufacturer to build PC’s.
I had good times and bad times at DEC. My best experiences in my life were my trips to Brazil for DEC. Our teams were always successful and ahead of schedule!
I learned so much from Rick Maxwell the team leader and I still communicate with associates (friends really) from Brazil.
I can’t help looking back and thinking how different my life would be if I was still working for DEC. Near the end of DEC, I was doing some exciting work training and technical support for Kanata and in Brazil.
I miss the whole package at DEC the people and the work.
An interesting project. We all know that fuzzy line that we crossed from DEC to Digital. Former customers remember it as well as former employees.
You don't say who you are trying to get to publish the manuscript. I assume (hope) you're aiming it at a business publisher. But I am not surprised that it has been a struggle. When I teach classes and refer to Digital or DEC only the grey-heads in the class know what I am talking about. ("A division of Compaq," helps the others.) To think it was #2 in its industry...
I think this should be aimed at saying what worked and what didn't with the goal of helping people avoid what didn't while injecting what did into their organizations. I worked at DEC from 1984 until I left in November, 1992. I have seen warning signs of some of the behavior that led to Digital's downslide and death in a small company I was with and even in a local church's organization. It'd mean a thorough analysis, but possibly worth it.
But if all it will be is a reminiscence, well... not interesting or useful.
Absolutely enjoyable. I smiled while reading
the third paragraph "He who proposes does," was the corporate
truism. "Do the right thing," was the number one company
It certainly reminded me of a few customs and people.
How many meetings did we attend? Those Important meetings for our critical projects probably to make us feel important and keep us connected.
Anyway, Thanks! When and Where can I purchase this book??
from: Don Montgomery
3 interesting angles for the book
I was at DEC from 1983 to 1993, saw the highest highs (the QE2 in Boston Harbor in 1988 for DECworld) and the lowest lows (I red-lined 126 Customer Services employees for the 12/7/92 layoff, and had to watch the BTO (Burlington VT for anyone who doesn't remember all their site codes) plant get laid off a few weeks later. I co-founded one of the businesses that is actually still successful for Compaq (Value-added Implementation Services, or "VIS") and helped grow it from zero dollars in 1989 to a highly profitable $300M systems integration business in 1993. So I experienced the DEC culture of working all-nighters, and doing ANYthing for my team while creating this really great business -- but it was while the entire company was going down in flames around us. When one of the VP's asked me how I could explain VIS's phenomenal growth over a sustained period, while DEC and VAX sales were evaporating, my answer was that "Whenever we need to make a really important decision, the three guys that run the business get together, mull over the alternatives, and ask `What would the great DEC leaders of days gone by do? What would the Executive Commitee do?' Then, once we've determined what they would do.... we do the opposite." Almost got fired for that one, but it was true. That's how DEC had become Digital. That's how the young fast-trackers like myself and some of my very good friends from those days viewed ourselves. We knew what to do; how to succeed in the rapidly changing world of "computers"; how to avoid the consensus and matrix management traps while keeping the team spirit alive. But we were all 28, 29, 30 years old in 1990, and our bosses were only 40, and their bosses were 45. All the young talent was squashed. My buddy Kip Quackenbush (a great Digital UNIX talent in SZO, selling VAX System V boxes to Pac Bell like candy to a child) and I even created an informal "DEC Young Managers Association" to try to get our voices heard above the arrogant middle. But it was all squandered... Anyway, there are three enduring angles for this book: (1) By all means, seek to answer the question that Fernando Colon Osorio asked earlier in this thread: If it was so great, why did it disappear? You could use the framework of great nostalgia, great human experiment, great culture as the backdrop of a very interesting scholarly tome on the tragic flaw of hubris. (2) If it is even remotely humanly possible (and I'm betting it is), get your hands on the backup tapes from 1986 to 1992 for HUMAN::DIGITAL where the VAXnotes conference on working at Digital was hosted. Someone earlier in this thread made reference to it, and I was one of the loud (foolish youth) contributors about the "dead wood" (I was the one that posted the Webster Dictionary definition of deadwood, for any that remember the uproar it created) and the utter missing of the market for "digital equipment" (PC's, handhelds, entertainment devices, set-top boxes, networking). The notes in HUMAN::DIGITAL could be published verbatim, and you have a book that will interest a publisher. (3) Like any catastrophic disaster, the annihilation of DEC left positive residue. I once gave a talk at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1993 where I talked about how the great tech companies of the "Massachusetts Miracle" had now all imploded, but I predicted that, like a forest fire creating a fertile carbon-rich soil for seedlings, the dispersion of 75,000 technical professionals in Massachusetts would create hundreds of new companies and concepts. That prediction has now come true. Some of those seedlings went west to Seattle and Silicon Valley, but look at all the DECalumni running or staffing the startups all up and down 495 and 128 and 93. This would serve as the literary denouement leading up to your already-famous-ahead-of-the-book line "They bought Digital; DEC was never for sale."
I worked for DEC from 1976-1993, running the UK Software Products Group and still delivering all our financial goals (with lots of help from colleagues in ESSB Galway and right across Europe) right until the end. However, a victim of the "Palmer twist" from product to industry focus in the end. My 25 strong group got turned into 6, which was a great shame.
I've had three employers since leaving DEC and none rank in the same league - an environment where (for the most part) I could trust everyone around me and was given the room to grow without fear of being handed enough rope to kill ourselves with!
In the end, too many people past their sell-by date in key places letting KO down - not least the big Jack Shields push to get bigger than IBM, which was a complete diversion from the nibbling we got underneath our core business.
So, best wishes in this project. My only request would be to get hold of a few Ken Olsen parables - which all of the UK Dexodus community would value. Anyone got any (if they have, anything machine readable to firstname.lastname@example.org would be most welcome). ;-)