Ken Olsen, the founder of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) died on February 6th. He was 84. (There is a short article on Olsen in Wikipedia.)
Olsen was a pioneer in the computer industry, working on Navy contracts at MIT in the early 50's and the holder of many early patents.
But that's not why I'll remember him. To me, he was a consumate example of an engineering-led company. When technical problems occurred at DEC he was often involved in getting his hands dirty and helping to create the solution. I was there working as a consultant once when a member of a hardware team said they had not been able to design an appropriate power supply. The next morning, when the team arrived, the power supply was on the lab bench -- Olsen had solved the problem.
He was touchy and opinionated, but he was also generous with his people and his time. I've never forgotten his answer to me in a one-on-one interview in the mid-eighties. I asked him if it was true that he didn't think people would buy personal computers. "Oh no, Amy," he replied. "I think they like them, they're just too expensive." I think he was comparing the then $5,000 or so cost of a PC to that of a share of a VAX. I didn't have the nerve to say to him, you must mean DEC personal computers, since the DEC PCs, all three models, were famously over-priced.
Olsen invented the idea of minicomputers and lead a wildly successful industry which grew to dozens of companies and an orgy of industry and application-specific software.
My favorite product, of course, was the DEC All-in-One, a software program for DEC's hardware which made the minicomputer into a multi-user office automation system, complete with email, document creation and management, and calendaring. It was one of the prominent successes of the OA market of the 80's and 90's.
We don't have so many engineering led start-ups any more that grow to significant and important companies without bringing in the financial and marketing people who run them and in some ways that's too bad, if inevitable. Ken Olsen's focus on building things and getting it right was an important contribution to the growth and success of the computer industry.