Digital Equipment Corporation

Saturday 10 June 2006

Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of my first day of work at Digital Equipment Corporation. It was my first "real" job after college (I worked for Penn's robotics lab for a few years after graduating).

The topic of Digital had come up the night before at the Boston Python Meetup because we had a discussion about last weekend's BarCamp Boston un-conference, which was held at what is now Monster's headquarters in Maynard. (Antonio attended and made a tabblo of his impressions). As anyone knows, calling the mill in Maynard "Monster's headquarters" is like calling Paul McCartney the lead singer for Wings. The mill in Maynard was famously the home to Digital.

While at Digital, I worked in Maynard, though not in the Mill. I worked in a big complex on Parker Street named PKO3. Digital was like a universe unto itself. Buildings at first all had two-letter abbreviations (kind of like the two-letter postal codes for states), and then once the company grew large enough, three-letter abbreviations. The older buildings were given an extra O to make all the abbreviations three letters. So PK3 became PKO3. Find any ex-DECcie, and you can talk about places with names like ZKO, MLO, PKO, LTN and so on.

An internal phone system meant that seven digits would let you call any Digital facility in the world as if it were a local call. And of course, the DECnet networking infrastructure was world-wide so you could copy files from a server in Tokyo exactly as you could from one down the hallway. This is commonplace and obvious now, but in 1986 when I joined Digital, it was amazing and not to be taken for granted.

Digital was a very large place, and had many of the problems of large companies, including difficulty adapting to changing markets and technology, and too many inefficiencies. When I joined, I had badge number 196314! I worked in the printer group doing PostScript work, and got to do all sorts of different work, including:

  • wrote server software to feed print jobs to printers
  • developed application versions of PostScript interpreters to print PostScript to non-PostScript printers
  • designed PostScript extensions to support new printer features
  • represented Digital in international standards committees for things like character sets, page description languages, and markup languages
  • wrote PostScript libraries for print job manipulation (including patented stuff).

Digital was a good place for a young kid to get exposed to all sorts of technologies and processes for developing them. I learned a lot in my seven years there. Ultimately, the company was too large and incapable of taking advantage of the PC changeover for me to stay, but it was good while it lasted.

Comments

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Keith Fieldhouse 6:11 PM on 10 Jun 2006

Ned,

I've been enjoying your blog for some time now, but I had to respond to this post. I worked at PKO3 around the same time as you did (FWQA, later TASTE -- terminal and printer QA for those not in the know) and this post brings back memories.

DECNet was a wonder, wasn't it? When I left DEC in '89 the Internet of the time seemed awfully limited.

You're right, it was a great place to start a career.

Best regards,

Keith Fieldhouse

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Bob 6:38 PM on 10 Jun 2006

When I started my career I got an offer from Digital for a job that would have meant working in the Mill. I remember the plastic sheeting in the ceiling in some places to catch the lanolin seeping out of the wood beams. The Mill had been a wool processing factory years before. I didn't take the job but worked on Vaxs writing CAD software, first on VMS and then on Ultrix.

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Ned Batchelder 7:06 PM on 10 Jun 2006

Hi Keith! I remember your name, small world..

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Don 4:43 PM on 11 Jun 2006

I have three connections ... nope, make that four ... to Digital Equipment Corporation in Mayard. First, my dad worked for them when I was born. He had a three-digit ID badge. Secondly, I started one of the first new companies in the Mill. In 1995 it was utterly surreal to walk though building after enormous building, white boards still on the walls with notes from meetings long since adjourned, and dead birds scattered around the floor. The company I co-founded is still there and doing nicely (although I am no longer affiliated with the company). Thirdly, my wife worked for Ken Olsen at his now-defunct company, Advanced Modular Solutions in Boxboro. My wife's good friend was the last of three employees when Modular shut down for good six month ago. The other two employees were Ken and his infamous right-hand "man," his sectretary Ann. Lastly, Ken has been nothing but gracious and helpful to me whenever I've needed advice.

I think that Google is this century's DEC. Imagine working for a company that is swimming in capital, fosters creativity and education, and is taking the world by storm.

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Harald 4:48 PM on 12 Jun 2006

We still use many of those building abbreviations in the amalgamation that is HP. They show up in location codes, in the DNS, etc... :-)

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Paul Leclerc 11:02 PM on 12 Jun 2006

And I work for HP too. I grew up in NH. Went to UNH. Worked on DEC-10's, Vax 11/780's as a student. Interviewed at DEC and got an offer just 1 month after starting at another job (and turned it down).
I later moved to Nashua, NH off of Spitbrook Rd. where I saw the DEC facility across the street.
Time passed and I eventually joined HP in Boise, ID 2yrs BC (before Carly). I miss DEC and shed a tear everytime I see a Netnews sig with ZKO and others.

Thanks Ned for your blog (and your wife's too). Our families and backgrounds are very similar as we have a son who has Asperger's.

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