I continued to think about Ken Olsen and Digital Equipment. Ken was a trustee and major contributor to Gordon College which is a Christen College. Ken was very religious. I never really engaged with him about that but one day he told me that he wanted computers (he meant what would be come personal computers) that could be used by his minister and by his secretary. I turned that into the phrase “a computer for clerks and clerics”. Gordon College made two videos here and here about Ken that are worth watching.
Some friends have asked me to share a few observations about Ken. I have so many things I could share but here are a few.
Ken loved mechanical things. He would often hang out in the model shop. But his real love was for power supplies.
He also was very interested in cables. He hate the mess of cables that often came out of the back of small computers and word processors. At one time he had a poster made of the back of the Decmate. It was a mess of cables. The caption for the poster was “Marketing or Engineering? “. I came up with my own slogan which was “could you imagine what software would look like if you could see it?”. Ken did not really get the joke. He never really understood software.
He loved to take walks around the mill and of course knew all the secret routes.
It is true that when we got one of the first IBM PC’s, Ken came to my lab and he and I opened it and disassembled it with a screw driver. He looked at how it was constructed and say that if I ever designed a computer like that I would be fired.
He really believed in the power of great engineering and had little respect for marketing. I will never forget one conversation I had with Ken (which really resulted in my deciding to leave Digital). We had launched our low end products, the Professional, the Rainbow and Decmate II (I was responsible for the Pro and much of the hardware for the other two). We were not doing very well (that is an understatement since all the products failed in the market for a number of reasons). I said to Ken, “if we are going to be successful, we will need great marketing and good engineering”. He said no, I was totally wrong that “we needed great engineering and good marketing”. We went back an forth on this for a while and then he said. “You don’t understand. We are not capable of great marketing”.
People sometimes compare Ken and Steve Jobs. I never worked for Jobs but did know him (it has been more than 12 years ago that I had contact with him personally). There are some similarities. Both were visionaries. Ken’s vision was about making computer that did not have to have computer rooms and could be used directly by knowledge works and not by computer experts. But Ken was not autocratic. He was much more Machiavellian. Jobs obviously understands software. But they both created very successful companies that were great reflections of there values and personalities.
There was something seductive and sweet about Ken. Even those my relationship with him did not end in a good way, I always treasure my memory of him. And most importantly that great smile.