Saturday, January 18, 2020

Digital Equipment Corporation - DEC world & DEC air

This is actually the 1993-changed logo.
Note black spacing between the
rectangles, circle dots over the "i"
letters and subtle font changes.
There was a brief time in the 1980s when Digital Equipment Corporation ruled the computer world, and it was epitomized by the annual DEC-produced, DEC-featured, one company trade show known as DEC World (also as DECworld). In 1987, the event brought 42,000 people to Boston. Just weeks before the September opening day, senior management realized that it had underestimated the housing demand, and that all hotels in Boston were 100 percent booked. The solution? Jack Shields, marketing senior vice-president, proposed chartering ships. DEC contracted to have the Queen Mary II and the Starship Oceanic, also known as the “Big Red Boat” docked at Boston for the duration of the convention. The event cost DEC an estimated twenty million dollars, but generated close to a billion dollars in product orders and service contracts.

Poster for DECWORLD 87 (internet download)
Click on photos to enlarge.
DECworld had started as DEC Town in 1982 as an annual convention for employees – primarily for the sales force to be made familiar with the year’s innovations and new product introductions. According to an anecdote from employee Jack Conaway, Ken Olsen showed up at the Digital exhibit at a CAD/CAM Expo on the west coast, and immersed himself in talking to DEC’s booth staff and the customers. A while later Ken's office announced DEC Town the pre-cursor for the highly successful DEC Worlds that extended this model to all the applications and industries that Digital served.

DECworld 1988 was held in Cannes, France. Two years later the company split the event: DECworld in July in Boston, followed by DECville in Cannes in September. DECworld 1992 was newsworthy on two counts: being the last ever of these conventions, and Bill Gates (CEO of Microsoft) as a keynote speaker to DEC’s major corporate customers. The event, April-May 1992 tallied some 30,000 attendees. Boston estimated that the event brought about $50 million in spending on hotels, meals, transportation, entertainment, etc.

Bill Gates, a tech superstar with a net worth of six billion dollars (who’s first exposure to computers was timesharing on a PDP-10 at his school in 1968), was there to expound on how a newly forged deal to combine DEC’s minicomputers and Microsoft software was going to benefit both companies. He went off script. Gates talked about himself. Or rather, his brand new 66,000 square foot house that incorporated software to run everything. The message was not subtle: software rules, and I am the emperor of software. And he was right on both counts. Microsoft’s current capitalization stands at $1.2 trillion. Ken Olsen, the emperor of hardware, president of the second-largest computer company in the world, was forced to resign in July 1992. The company downsized for six years, then sold what remained to Compaq for $9.6 billion.

Helicopter landing pad
Although never actually called the “DEC Air Force,” Digital had a fleet of six helicopters (more?) that regularly flew routes to nearby-facilities in New Hampshire, and also to Digital’s own gate at Boston's Logan International Airport. The landing pad in Maynard was at the rear of the 55-acre complex on Parker Street, currently being developed as Maynard Crossing. From an article by Jack Farley: “The helicopters were not executive perks at DEC; they were used by any and all employees who wanted to avoid traffic in going from place to place. This egalitarian policy further emphasized just how different DEC was and how indifferent they appeared to be to the cost of anything. In doing the case study, we were told that DEC had state-of-the-art video-conferencing facilities that no one used because it was sexier to take the helicopters.”

Paul V. McGovern, an ex-Marine and Vietnam veteran, was Digital’s first helicopter pilot. Most of the pilots were veterans. One frequent user of the helicopters described how she lived in Wayland and had offices in both Marlborough and Merrimack, New Hampshire. She could drive to the Parker Street complex, park, get on the scheduled helicopter, and she would be in Merrimack about twenty minutes later. There, DEC had built a brand new million square foot facility and out back constructed a little log cabin with a pot-belly stove and a location sign on it as if it were a railroad station to act as a place to keep warm while waiting for the flights to Boston. There was a downside, in that round trips were not guaranteed. If the weather soured or you missed the last helicopter back you might be stuck many miles from home. Fortunately, DEC also had shuttle vans and limo service.

In addition to the hired air force – helicopters and corporate jets – Ken Olsen was himself a certified pilot. He owned his own plane, and at times flew himself to “Woods Meetings” (senior management retreats) in Maine and New Hampshire – a thought that surely worried the rest of senior management at Digital! The solution was not to ask him to stop flying, but rather to insist that he have a professional as a copilot.

Not in the original column: From an email received after June 14, 2021 Zoomed talk, learned that DEC had several Beechcraft prop planes for short distances and an Israeli-built Westwind jet for trips to Colorado Springs or Phoenix. 


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  2. For a least part of the time when I worked as a secretary at DEC during school vacations -- my "real" job was as a teacher -- , which was 1974 to through 1977 or 1978 and again in the summer of 1980, the company had a fleet of vans employees could ride free between several of its facilities in the area. I commuted from Maynard using them on occasion, notably to one (ex-RCA, I think) in the western part of Marlborough.

    By the way, Digital's newest building in Maynard was very close to Powder Mill Road (Route 62) on its right side as you go towards Concord. It's now a large self-storage business. The building used by Stratus was farther up the hill. It took a long time for the fancy exterior of DEC's building to arrive and be installed. White flexible "hoses" containing wiring between cubicles and the ceiling were very visible from outside the building's side facing the road.

  3. In the 1970s Digital also had airplane flights to Puerto Rico because of its two facilities there. Some may have gone from Logan, but others flew out of Hanscomb Field and the hilltop airport in Worcester.

    One of the uses of DEC's helicopters most familiar to Maynard residents was to bring Santa Claus to town for the annual Christmas parade.

    Distribution of turkeys to employees shortly before Thanksgiving was a big thing at DEC for years. So were summer company gatherings with family members invited, most frequently at Canobie Lake Park in New Hampshire (sometimes more than one), but one summer a single very crowded one at Rocky Point Park in Rhode Island.

  4. Flew in the choppers many times from MRO1 to Logan. They had quite the fleet of Bell Rangers with Vietnam vet pilots. Worked at DEC for 20 years. Great memories.