[TUHS] DEC and Dave Cutler (was Re: The John Snow's of the UNIX family)

Paul Winalski paul.winalski at gmail.com
Thu Jan 17 02:55:03 AEST 2019

On 1/16/19, Kevin Bowling <kevin.bowling at kev009.com> wrote:
> I’ve heard and personally seen a lot of technical arrogance and
> incompetence out of the Masshole area.  Was DEC inflicted?  In
> “Showstopper” Cutler fled to the west coast to get away from this kind of
> thing.
Having worked at DEC from February 1980 until after the Compaq
takeover, I would say that DEC may have exhibited technical arrogance
from time to time, but certainly never technical incompetence.  DEC's
downfall was a total lack of skill at marketing.  Ken Olsen believed
firmly in a "build it and they will come" philosophy.  Contrast this
with AT&T's brilliant "Unix - consider it a standard" ad campaign.

DEC also suffered from organizational paralysis.  KO believed in
decisions by consensus.  This is fine if you can reach a consensus,
but if you can't it leads to perpetually revisiting decisions and to
obstructionist behavior.  There was a saying in DEC engineering that
any decision worth making was worth making 10 times.  As opposed to
the "lead, follow, or get out of the way" philosophy at Sun.  Or
Intel's concept of disagree and commit.  DEC did move towards a
"designated responsible individual" approach where a single person got
to make the ultimate decision, but the old consensus approach never
really died.

Dave Cutler was the epitome of arrogance.  On the technical side, he
got away with it because his way (which he considered to be the only
way) was usually at least good enough for Version 1, if not the best
design.  Cutler excelled in getting V1 of something out the door.  He
never stayed around for V2 of anything.  He had a tendency to leave
messes behind him.  A Cutler product reminded me of the intro to "The
Peabodys" segment of Rocky & Bullwinkle.  A big elaborate procession,
followed by someone cleaning up the mess with a broom.

Cutler believed in a "my way or the highway" approach to software
design.  His move to the west coast was to place himself far enough
away that those who wanted to revisit all his decisions would have a
tough time doing so.

On the personal side, he went out of his way to be nasty to people, as
pointed out elsewhere in this thread.  Although he was admired
technically, nobody liked him.

-Paul W.

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