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January 23, 2020

When the HP Way Led the 3000 Astray

Winding road forest

Editor's Note: Being a legacy system expert has its frustrating days. If experts of today ever wonder why they got into the lifespan of Hewlett Packard and MPE, they can look back to the start and the promise of the 3000. Bill Foster was a part of the HP team that created the system, before he went on to found Status Computing. the story below shows the an HP which had to remake MPE.

All the Foster you want, in an HP history worthy of being a book, is at his website.

By Bill Foster

If there ever was a company that always seemed to do the right thing, it was HP back in the 70’s. We had a term called The HP Way. There was no written definition — it was something you felt. When something good happened it was part of The HP Way. When you had the inclination to do something bad — cut corners on a project, treat a customer badly, turn in an inflated expense account, fire a really bad employee — these things didn’t happen. They were not The HP Way. It’s like we walked around with little halos over our heads.

Of course, if this was the only place you worked, you assumed all companies were like HP. You had to leave Hewlett Packard to become a part of the real world. So, we shipped HP 3000 serial #1 to the Lawrence Hall of Science in nearby Berkeley. A couple of weeks later they shipped it back. That 3000 could support at most two or three users on a good day -- nowhere near 16 or 32 or whatever they promised.  And MPE was crashing three or four times a day.

A few months and a couple of machines later HP punted and withdrew the 3000 from the marketplace. They gave free 2116 computers to the customers in hopes of appeasement — The HP Way. Bill and Dave were fuming -- this had been by far the most expensive project in the company’s history, and Hewlett Packard was being inundated with bad press — something that had never happened in the entire history of the company.

In fairly quick succession Paul Ely came down to save things and a few months later my boss Steve Vallender left. I don’t think Steve was fired — HP never fired anyone back then, they just promoted them into oblivion. But Steve was somewhat un-promotable — he lacked a college degree and HP was pretty snobbish about that.

Dick Hackborn asked me if I wanted Steve's old job. Are you kidding? Sure! Hurt me! I was looking to move up the ladder — this was a fantastic break. My guess was they chose me over my hardware counterpart because management finally figured it was better to put a software guy in charge of computer projects. No matter -- here I was, not even 30 years old, running all the hardware and software development for HP's computer business.

My first and most important job was to come up with a plan for the hockey pucks.  A year earlier, Dick Hackborn had hired a couple of smooth-talking marketing bozos out of IBM. Hackborn created a group called Product Marketing within his Engineering group to compete with the real Marketing group at the other end of the building.

This was very out of character for HP — to hire senior people from the outside. One of their first actions was to give mementos of a project to the engineers who had developed it — something tangible to remember their efforts. Apparently this was done all the time at IBM. The IBM marketing bozos came up with the idea of a brass paperweight about the size of a hockey puck, but about half the thickness. Stamped on each one were three overlapping circles signifying batch, realtime, and timesharing — things that the 3000 was supposed to do.  And each individual’s name was engraved on the back.

These were supposed to be handed out months earlier, but with all the problems, Vallender had hidden them away in a file cabinet. My first command move was to sneak in one weekend, lug them out to my car, and take them home to my garage.  The last thing I wanted was for anyone to get wind of them. The next step was to try to get some kind of usefulness out of the 3000 machine, and that meant fixing MPE.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

05:36 PM in History, News Outta HP | Permalink

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