Lessons Learned

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." George Santayana, 1863-1952, Spanish/American philosopher and poet.

Before the Christmas holiday we interviewed Tom Jarosh, general manager of the AS/400 division, with the hope that we could gain some insight into where the division is headed in the new year, why things happened the way they did in the past year, and what Tom thought of as the strengths and weaknesses of the AS/400 platform, overall. During these discussions, we explored the recent downturn in AS/400 sales and when the adverse effects of Y2K might end.

This interview prompted me to think about where the AS/400 has been, where it's going, and the possible parallels between the AS/400 and Digital Equipment Corporation's (DEC) VAX VMS operating system.

The history of computing is littered with colorful characters whose personalities affected the direction of their companies. This effect is not always limited to the founder or CEO of the company, but can also apply from the top down as decisions made at lower levels affect the entire company to varying degrees.

Take DEC, for example. Its early success--and ultimate failure--can be directly attributed to the personalities of managers at various levels in the organization.

Early in the life of DEC, two of its founders, Ken Olsen and Gordon Bell, dominated the organization. Olsen was the visionary behind DEC and Bell provided the technical genius that produced wildly successful DEC products, such as the PDP-11 and the VAX.

In DEC's early days, the forceful personalities of these two individuals drove the company forward and their philosophies were largely responsible for how products were developed and which products made it to the customers' computer rooms.

These personalities had a positive effect on business performance and the employees performed at higher levels because they had a feeling that they knew where company management was coming from.

Unfortunately, later in the DEC story, the effect of personality was not so positive. Bill Strecker, who started out as a protégé of Gordon Bell, rose to power in the post Ken Olsen DEC. Strecker would eventually become executive VP and hold a position very similar to that currently held by IBM's Sam Palmisano. Interestingly, it is Strecker--a man once viewed as Bell's top lieutenant--who is most often blamed for the downfall of DEC and its eventual acquisition by Compaq.

Strecker made two decisions that directed the company toward disaster. First, he decided to close DECwest, a research laboratory located in Silicon Valley. Second, he decided that Ultrix--not VMS--would be DEC's strategic operating system platform. The first decision led to the departure of Dave Cutler, VMS architect, who went to Microsoft to lead the Windows NT development effort. Cutler's departure had a demoralizing effect on the VMS engineering group and led to the departure of many other key personnel. The second decision further eroded the position of VMS within DEC and gave the installed base the impression that DEC was not committed to VMS in the long run. These decisions were largely based on Strecker's apparent aversion to ideas that weren't his own, a personality trait he was well known for.

The end of the story is well known. VMS got the reputation as a "legacy" operating system, the installed base jumped ship--and not to Ultrix--and Compaq acquired the company in 1998. Of course this history is oversimplified, but it does highlight the fact that DEC's ups and down can be tracked closely by the personalities that led the company and its divisions.

The parallels to IBM and the possible plight of the AS/400 are hard to overlook. Certainly I'm not suggesting that IBM is about to be acquired by anyone, but on the other hand, the fate of the AS/400 is far from certain.

Customers of IBM and users of the AS/400 platform are concerned not with just the technical competence of the AS/400, but its place within IBM and the people who control the destiny of the platform, as well. By learning about these people and their business philosophies, they can gain insight into the long-term viability of the platform.

This is why I think it's safe to say that we would all be more comfortable if someone, anyone, would clearly state how the server division's products fit together and specifically where the AS/400 fits in the overall scheme. Maybe then, we could all feel more secure in knowing that history is not on its way to repeating itself.