Technical Bigotry

When I was hired at Digital Equipment Corp. in 1981, I was the Central Region RSTS operating system support person. At the time, RSTS was the best timesharing operating system ever invented. It ran on 16-bit PDP-11 machines that were wildly popular in the '70s and early '80s -- about the time when many of today’s PC diehards were born.

My job was to provide second-level backup technical support to Digital people in the field, and it was one of the most fun jobs I ever had -- especially after a few months when I became marginally competent. The best part was after a few more months when I learned how to do things other people needed to know. I became very popular.

Unfortunately for me, the demand for RSTS expertise died and I found myself not so popular any more. I remember a Digital users’ group meeting in St. Louis in 1983. At this particular meeting, the RSTS sessions were in small, out-of-the-way conference rooms. People in the sessions played guitars and sang sad songs about the end of an age.

Meanwhile, a new hardware architecture and operating system, VAX/VMS, took the world by storm. Nobody cared about RSTS and other PDP-11 sessions any more, but the VMS sessions had standing-room-only crowds of more than 1,000 people. For me, it was the end of one technology era and the beginning of a new one.

VMS lasted roughly 10 years for me. I was there when we set up the Midwest’s first cluster in the basement of a hospital in 1984. I was there when we built a major client/server application with MicroVax systems around the region, long before anyone ever used the term "client/server." I was there when the first Alpha machines hit the streets, and I still have notes detailing the first Alpha workstations. I was also there when Digital’s marketing geniuses renamed VMS to OpenVMS, confusing hundreds of thousands of customers in the process.

I rode the VMS bandwagon almost from the beginning. I was popular when it was popular and I became lonelier as it declined, until my next technology transition to Windows NT.

What’s the point of this 20 year trip down memory lane? It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same. I have to laugh sometimes when I listen to some of my younger colleagues talk about the merits of a favorite technology or operating system. Even people who should know better sometimes get into heated debates about the merits of one operating system versus another. Over the years, I’ve even seen people refuse to learn a new technology because they’re married to an old one.

Today, our industry is embroiled in a debate over commercial Unix versus Windows NT versus Linux and open source software. Technology bigots in each camp are fervently preaching the merits of their favorite technology to the exclusion of all other choices. These bigots are too busy arguing about which operating system is better that they miss the real point.

Fifteen years ago, a manager I once knew came up with a flash of wisdom. He had asked a member of our group to take on support for the new DEC Pro-350 systems, but none of us wanted to focus on anything other than VMS. He said, "What’s the big deal? They’re all computers, they all do the same stuff." That piece of wisdom stayed with me all these years and I often quote it.

Every one of today’s technology products seems to have a fanatical group of technical bigots. For Windows NT bigots, no matter what the question, Windows NT is the answer. For Linux bigots, no matter what the question, Linux is the answer. Of course, the Solaris, HP UX, AIX, and other commercial Unix variants also have their bigots. Bigotry isn’t limited to operating systems. Look at Oracle versus SQL Server, or Exchange versus Lotus Notes versus Unix Sendmail, for example. The list is almost endless.

Technical bigotry can actually work, for a while. If you’re a technical bigot and your favorite product is "in," you can be wildly popular. But when your product declines, so will you. I know, I’ve been through it more than once.

For the sake of your career, don’t be a technology bigot. Learn something, become the best at it, then move on and learn about something else. Like it or not, the learning never stops in this industry and technical people must either keep growing or die. Besides, they’re all computers, they all do the same stuff, right?

Anyway, the Unix and NT people have it wrong. RSTS is still the best timesharing operating system on the planet. Anybody remember all the switches to the PIP command? --Greg Scott, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), is president of Scott Consulting Corp. (Eagan, Minn.). Contact him at gregscott@scottconsulting.com.