Wednesday, September 10, 2008

An era ends!

I have just spent a couple of days back on the old Tandem Computers Cupertino campus. Staying at a nearby hotel, this offered me an opportunity to take an early morning walk around the streets once so densely populated with Tandem Computers buildings – and it was kind of sad to see so many of them empty. It was also a little amusing to see many of them now adorned with Apple tombstone markers and with the Apple logo splashed liberally around. The photo at the top of this posting is of Tandem Way – the exit off Tantau Avenue that leads to what was once Jimmy’s headquarters building. I looked for the Tandem flag flying from the flagpole – but that one has been absent for many years now.

When I arrived at Tandem in late ’88 I have just missed the “Billion Dollar Party” but everyone continued to talk about it. There was hardly an employee on the campus not wearing the black sweatshirt given to everyone at the party. And it wasn’t too long before the obelisk, with every employee’s signature embedded into it, was in the lobby – first over in the Customer Conference Center (CCC) in building 2, I believe, before taking up more permanent residence in Jimmy’s headquarters building. In ’89 when the big earthquake hit, it was toppled and among the first actions of all in the building was to race over to it to see if it had been damaged. It had fallen, as I recall - but only a minor scratch!

I moved to Cupertino full-time at the end of ’89 and after a short stay at the Comm Building – Building 201 – I moved to a new refurbished DSM Building, Building 247, where I remained for a good part of the time I was in Cupertino. When I finally joined Product Management in ’94, it was just as the group was moving out of the Pumpkin Patch , Building 250 / 251, and back into a refurbished Building 4, where I took up residence in an office barely a hundred feet from where I first met with Tandem staff back in ’86 when I was working for Netlink!

People moved frequently from one building to another as new positions opened up and as teams expanded. There were times when you would find a team working in a building that didn’t even have a Tandem Computers tombstone outside it identifying the group. The City of Cupertino had strict rules about building signage, and so it was the erection of these tombstones that were the only evidence of which company was residing on the premises. Somehow, I always had an uneasy feeling whenever the term “tombstone” was used in this way – initially, completely uncertain about what was being discussed as my colleagues told me to meet them next to the tombstone marking Building 55!

I was meeting with people in the old Building 2 last Thursday – and this was an interesting day to show up for a meeting. There were trucks outside stacking paper marked for confidential storage. There were trolleys being wheeled back and forth. NonStop development was moving across to HP buildings on a campus stretching between Pruneridge and Homestead. I am not sure how many HP buildings are located on the block – but I saw buildings 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47 –it’s substantial and I was led to believe that NonStop would become the latest residents in a part of HP building 42.

With NonStop development out of the buildings, it would then be the turn, in a few weeks time, for the Neoview teams to move out and by the end of next month, old Tandem Buildings 1, 2, and 3 would be empty and up for lease. With this move, there would no longer be any Tandem Computers buildings on the Cupertino campus occupied by anyone working on NonStop. The end of an era – and it was pretty sad to be around the folks packing up and relocating to their fancy new cubicles.

But then again, this had been anticipated for quite some time. HP has executed so well on the “merger” with Compaq, and the product lines are benefitting enormously from being part of the bigger HP family. The recently announced NonStop on Blades couldn’t possibly have happened without Tandem being closely aligned with the HP hardware roadmaps. Early indications suggest that this will be an incredibly successful NonStop platform with the lower product prices opening up many new opportunities and giving the HP sales force a competitive edge over other vendors – IBM still is to support any blade center options for its mainframe, although all other product lines are now supporting blades. Sometime, contrarian marketing can have its downside – but I don’t think IBM is about to make any changes any time soon!

However, I am still left asking the question – is this the end of NonStop’s independence? Will the much-heralded entrepreneurial spirit, for so long associated with everything Tandem, be consumed within the greater HP?

Will we ever again see the big tent parties alongside the Cupertino campus like we did back in the late ‘80s. Will the renegade spirit – that love for tilting at windmills – go the way of donuts on payday, Friday beer-busts, first Friday live satellite broadcasts, and Derek’s model train days! Will we ever see the ratty tie-die T-shirts, famous throughout the Cupertino campus, being handed out to everyone who wanted one? Will we ever see the astronomy enthusiasts lined up behind the Comm Building with their telescopes pointing skyward? Will we ever see posters, like the one above, again? Will we ever hear the sound of the ham radio operators, with Jimmy being one of the biggest supporters of all, practicing their earthquake drills?

In the words of Maroon 5, “I don’t think so!”

Just as we have product and technology lifecycles so too, we have corporate lifecycles. And companies founded by evangelists, driving a unique product offering into the marketplace,. often against all odds and predicated on them simultaneously defining a market segment , really do face an uphill battle. But Tandem Computers does stand as one of the all-time great innovators. At a time when applications were beginning to appear that put the computer squarely in front of consumers, there was little patience with systems that routinely failed or needed to be taken offline in order to keep running. The whole “special sauce”, the breakthrough “radical innovation” that was unleashed, that made a Tandem Computer a Tandem Computer, and kept it elevated as one of the all-time disruptive technologies “greats”.

When Tandem Computers first started shipping the NonStop I, there was a landscape littered with minicomputer vendors – Wang, Prime, Data General, Digital, Nixdorf, NEC, as well as the minicomputer business units of Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Control Data, Honeywell (collectively referred to as the BUNCH), and former contenders for the title of largest computer manufacturer, but they have all gone. Some of them still exist, but not to the same extent that they did in that period stretching from the late ‘70s through to the mid ‘80s.

However, the original Tandem Computers operating system is still as viable today as it ever was, and there’s little evidence of any wholesale desertion from the platform by the user community, even if some of the major ISVs are developing product for competing platforms. But with the planned moves underway and with even closer working relationships with the rest of HP, I have to start wondering how much of NonStop will work its way into the rest of the company?

We have seen some leverage being made by the hardware developers and the BladeSYSTEM now sports a NonStop mid-plane – and I am sure even more leverage is underway. ServerNet? InfinBand? And whatever comes next – I can’t see this not being rolled out without an opportunity to exploit the dual fabrics we find today in every NonStop server. The networking and communications support, as is storage, are all now industry-standard offerings but at the core, remains NonStop. And I don’t see this going away anytime soon.

The picture I have included here is of the lobby in the old Tandem Building 2 – the one every prospect and customer would have seen as the entered the premises for corporate presentations and potentially, a lunch with Jimmy himself. Probably the last photo ever taken of this lobby. It’s pretty sad to know that soon, it will lay empty with the trappings of Tandem and NonStop stripped from the walls.

The entrepreneurial drive and the innovative spirit, so deeply rooted in Tandem and NonStop, live on. And as sad as I am to see the people moving out, I am still left to wonder, will Tandem and NonStop truly live on within HP? Will the end of one era simply be the start of a new one? And will the technology truly remain as exciting as Jimmy always made it out to be!

So, as I walk through Tandem Computers Cupertino campus, with ghosts greeting me at every corner, I am thinking about the “good old days”…. Just like my father never got the newspaper business out of his system, I don’t think I can ever get the Tandem out of mine… Some say I “wear Tandem under-ware” – so what, I wear it with pride!

7 comments:

harsha said...

Excellent...Well, I am in the new generation of learning NonStop...But you have led your life the Tandem way...Great article...Thanks for throwing some good old days of Tandem...

Jeff Allen said...

Great article - but HP makes BladeSYSTEM with a non-stop midplane, not BladeCENTER (that's IBM).

Aviator said...

I thought it sad to, the empty buildings and few signs of life. But times change and I look forward to the new technologies.

Thanks for the reminder of the origins, I hope that link to the past remains strong within HP NonStop.

Richard Buckle said...

Thanks Jeff - straddling the two platforms as I do, it's remarkable that I don't mess up more often. ut the beauty of being the moderator is I can re-work "history", and fix things ...

Glad you liked the article and I have a lot of email back on this topic as well.

Richard Buckle said...

I have received many email comments and they are worth posting here - I have removed all names as they didn't want to be identified.

… We were standing around next to the pool, and I watched with horror as one of my key developers went up to Jimmy and started to give him a piece of his mind …. I spent the whole weekend worrying about the incident, fully expecting to come in on Monday with a message from HR or Jimmy telling me I had to fire this employee … Jimmy never said another thing about it … He gave as good as he got in the argument, and in the end, there was no issue. Companies talk about egalitarianism, and people-promises, etc. Tandem, under Jimmy, walked the walk!

… Good nostalgia blog, acknowledging Tandem’s greatness - but looking forward also

… Lot of us are feeling nostalgic right now, your timing was very good … triggered a lot of looks (at this posting), given the topic

… An interesting read … The legacy lives on though

… As a long time (25 yr) Tandemite, who still supports the NonStop product group, it was truly sad to move away from "home" and lose the last of a separate Tandem identity. It is both the small things like beer(less) busts and the larger things like ability for independent thought / action and sense of community that I miss … but there is definitely something that has been lost aside from office walls and doors in this transition and those of us who have been around long enough to remember the old Tandem share that sense of loss

… “Tandem underware?” … Watch out for those Blades!!!

Anonymous said...

Lovely post - thanks for telling me about it.

All those memories....

mszv

Francie Wise said...

I started at Tandem building 1 in 1978. My desk in Customer Engineering working for Jerry Everett, was literally in the hallway between CE and the offices of Jimmy T and Dave Mackie. I was greeted every morning by Jimmy.. I remember the day when Jimmy and Dave Mackie came showed up one afternoon, Jimmy in a brand new Ferrari and Dave in a Lotus.. I was so fortunate to be hired as a data entry clerk right after high school, and eventually moved to the Repair Depot running a test computer on repaired boards. When I first started in building 1, part of that buildings warehouse was still being used by previous tenant, Intel I believe..Tandem was the best company ever. Every single employee were given stock options, invited to beer busts in the small lunch room, training and opportunities for all. It really was an experience I will always be grateful for...