It was thirty years ago today

Today is my thirtieth anniversary of working for Intel, but that includes my years at DEC and Compaq.  As an actual Intel employee, it's a bit over seven years.  Anyway, I thought this would be a good opportunity to reminisce. I imagine most of you will find this boring; if so, feel free to go read about vPro or threading or whatever...

It was the morning of October 2, 1978 when I walked into DEC's facility in Tewksbury, Massachusetts.  Like many DEC facilities at the time, it was a converted shopping center.  The main building used to be a Caldor department store and across the parking lot a secondary building had been an A&P grocery store. The TW facility, as it was then known, was DEC's first engineering site outside the immediate area of Maynard, Mass., and most everyone there had formerly been at DEC's Maynard headquarters called "The Mill". (It was a former woolen mill.)  Hanging up inside was a big banner: "Welcome to Andover Street!", an attempt to make the relocated employees think that they were still in the Maynard area, instead of about 30 miles to the north.

When I had interviewed at DEC a couple of months earlier, I had apparently drawn the interest of both Rich Grove, who headed the VAX-11 FORTRAN-IV-PLUS project, and Tom Hastings who headed the VAX Run-Time Library team.  They compromised - Tom would hire me, but I'd be assigned to work on the Fortran run-time library.

DEC had just launched the first VAX, the 11/780, and VAX-11/VMS Version 1, in August, and it was proving very successful already.  The Fortran compiler was derived from the FORTRAN-IV-PLUS compiler for the 16-bit RSX-11 OS on the PDP-11 series and was, in that first version, a cross-compiler, running in 16-bit "compatibility mode" but generating native 32-bit VAX code.  It was a FORTRAN-66 compiler with many F77 features, and I was tasked to design and implement the run-time library support for the remaining F77 features such as INQUIRE and "OPEN on a connected unit" (holding my nose on the latter.)  I also worked on support for NAMELIST, a popular IBM Fortran feature we wanted to copy.

VAX FORTRAN V2 (the -11 and the -IV-PLUS were dropped) came out in 1980 and was a full-language F77 compiler. By that time, I was working on the VAX Pascal V2 project.  V1 had come from the University of Washington, but V2 was a complete rewrite with a new code generator and a new run-time library, which I wrote the spec for and then implemented.

1980 is also when DEC's new Software Engineering facility on Spit Brook Road in Nashua, NH opened. I moved there with the VMS group in July of 1980 and the languages group joined me a few months later. DEC added a second building in 1982 and the languages group moved there.  ZK2, as it was known, has been my (work) home since then - I think I've had only two offices in that 26 years, and I have been in the current one since 1988.  A third building was added in (I think) 1985 and the VMS group moved to its fourth floor (the other two buildings had only three floors.)  The Spit Brook Road facility is famous (in some circles anyway, including the "ZK" adventure game), for the giant barcode on the building 1 entrance wall.

In 1983 I left the Run-Time Library group and joined Charlie Mitchell's VAX Ada team, as project lead for a new embedded and real-time variant called VAXeln Ada.  VAXeln was Dave Cutler's last project before leaving DEC for Microsoft and was a modular real-time OS that ran on VAX hardware.  (I was pleased to note that the VAXeln team, while they had written their own Pascal compiler, ported my VAX Pascal library to use with it.)  VAXeln Ada was modestly successful, but its being tied to the VAX hardware limited it in the market over the long term.

In 1988, I returned to Fortran and joined Kevin Harris' VAX Fortran compiler team, actually working on a compiler for the first time.  Over the next few years, some of the team migrated over to Stan Whitlock's  "DEC Fortran 77" for the short-lived DECstation line (MIPS processor, DEC ULTRIX OS), and later for both VMS and DEC OSF/1 (UNIX) on the new DEC Alpha processor. A separate team under Keith Kimball was working on a new Fortran 90 compiler which became DEC Fortran 90 in 1993.

In 1993, we released VAX Fortran V6, which incorporated the auto-parallelization and auto-vectorization features of VAX Fortran HPO (High Performance Option), marketed as an add-on to VAX Fortran V5 (even though it was actually a separate and derivative compiler).  It was at this time that I became the entire VAX Fortran project, adding such features in the coming years as uninitialized variable detection, recursion and pointers.

By 1997, VAX Fortran was pretty much in "maintenance mode", so my attention switched to the upcoming DIGITAL Visual Fortran (DVF) release, launched in March 1997.  In many ways, we had no idea what we were getting into here, it was an entirely new market for a team used to selling compilers for tens of thousands of dollars to large institutions and with an established (and expensive) support infrastructure.  With DVF, we were selling a compiler for $599, sold direct by resellers and without the normal DEC support structure.  We created our own support methods, including email submission and tracking reports using the DEC NOTES tool and some DCL (VMS scripting command language.)  To say that results exceeded our expectations would be an understatement. None of it would have happened without the vision and determination of William Youngs, the Fortran project's supervisor at the time, who developed the idea and ran with it. William is retiring from Intel now and I will miss him greatly.

While I was still doing compiler development, and was "sub-project leader" for the VMS Fortran compiler, more and more of my time was invested in "community outreach"; developing the DEC Fortran web site, contributing to an email newsletter, writing FAQ articles and participating in comp.lang.fortran.  Compaq's purchase of DEC in 1998 didn't really change much for us - we got new badges and changed the color of the boxes.

One day in June, 2001, I found two curious messages in my email inbox.  One was addressed to all Compaq employees at the Spit Brook Road site, inviting them to a meeting in the cafeteria.  But another, addressed to fewer, instructed us to go to the site auditorium instead.   This is where we learned that Intel was acquiring Compaq's Alpha processor technology team (if they wanted to join). Nobody at our facility was involved in that, except..  Intel also wanted the Fortran team as well as much of the C++ team, and we were being offered positions with Intel.  There was a lot unknown, but all of us saw which way the wind was blowing and accepted the offers.  Our formal start date with Intel was August 16, 2001 and we walled off our section of offices to form an "Intel Inside" area.

It was less than a month later that we woke up to learn that HP had bought Compaq, and the buildings became an HP site (with our Intel section.)   Towards the end of 2007 HP started moving employees out of Spit Brook and by July 2008, they were all gone. The buildings are now owned by a local real estate developer and have sections leased by various companies including Dell (formerly EqualLogic), Skillsoft and Amphenol. Even the street address has officially changed: we are now "300 Innovative Way" (yuck!)

At DEC/Compaq, we had a small team (perhaps 20 if you count the code generator/optimizer developers), and that included development, marketing and support.  Intel was structured very differently, with separate teams for front-end (language-specific), back-end (code generation and optimization), support, testing, packaging and marketing. What I was doing by 2001 was much more aligned with the support team than with development, so in mid-2002 I formally switched groups and joined Joe Wolf's Intel compiler support team, based in Hillsboro, Oregon.  I stayed put in my office, though, and continued to sit and interact daily with the developers in Nashua.

And that's pretty much the way it is today.  I do a lot more support coordination and "evangelism" (such a trendy term) nowadays than in the past and not much development. I also travel and meet customers much more than before.  Every once in a while I get to play; writing code samples or helping the developers by writing some prototype code, but officially my coding pencil was retired some six years ago.

What is truly astonishing in this day and age is that many of the developers who surround me have DEC histories almost as long as mine, and some are even longer.  They're a wonderful gang to work with and I enjoy being here each and every day.

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anonymous's picture

Congrats Steve,

My DEC history is not as long as yours, but started anyway in 1981 when I joined Dassault Aircrafts in Paris, where I had to perform a migration from a good old PDP 11-44 / RSX 11M to a VAX 750.

I became "the" support guy for VMS all around Dassault, having trainings and trainings on VMS until DEC France offered me a job to join the Telephone Support Center on VMS. Il was in 1983.

This was the time when we remotely met via the famous Vaxnotes conference system. I was doing Fortran support too, as I was a Fortran PDP, then Fortran VAX programmer at Dassault, and I experimented a cheerful assistance from you each time my local knowledge was not enough. Thank you very much for your expertise, kindness and availability.

I travelled over to meet my DEC Friends many times, here and there in the DEC facilities, mainly in Mass and New Hampshire. We had P*O*E*T*S in Maynard and many "Noters Parties" around. It was the wonderful time of DEC. Remember DECville in Cannes in 1985 and 86, DECworld later, etc. So many souvenirs.

Today I will be 59 in a few days, doing something absolutely different after 20 years of consulting in the DEC arena.

I will remember you and all these wonderful DEC engineers as people absolutely serious (remember Bill Gassman and so many others), definitely available for any questions and so pleasant to deal with.

Thank you, Steve.
The disappearance of DEC has been a tragedy.


Thanks for the kind words, Phil, and "Long Live Fortran!"


anonymous's picture

Great blog entry -- reminds me of my 30 years (almost) of being a customer. I started using VAX/VMS and Fortran back in 1978 and we based our entire business (I was one of the founders) on the idea of creating a memory resident database designed for Fortran based engineering applications and linked to the futures of DEC and VAX/VMS. We were very successful so thanks for Fortran. Due to the cleanliness of the generated object code, especially the description of sections as used by Fortran named common blocks, we were able to use VMS global sections to map common block structured data to backing store files. We still do this now 31 years later!

You and I have met on a few occasions at DECUS and other meetings. Our company, formerly called ESCA (now a part of AREVA T&D), bet its future on Fortran and won -- although, that world is beginning to change more now then it has over the past 30 years.

rase's picture

Steve, your story brought back a lot of reminiscences. I visited The Mill in Maynard in 1975, and caused some raised eyebrowes when I asked for the 32 bit successor of the PDP-11 we were using. As I learned much later, at that time the top-secret VAX development had started already. I was fun to read your personal story of the Fortran compilers for the VAX, DECstation and Alpha, and later CVF and IVF. I use Fortran since my days as a student programmer with IBM in the sixties. I have seen several languages come and go, but Fortran stayed until now, and you are a part of the success story. Thank you very much, Steve.

bredsj's picture

Steve, a very late congratulations to your 30th anniversary, but I have only recently joined this blog.

You sketch a very interesting history, one which I can relate to! And there I give away my age!

Way back in the late 70's and early eighties I worked on Prime and Nova computers in Fortran IV. Then for years I didn't do any programming and it was only with the PC coming onto the market that I again started programming, but then Pascal was my language of choice.

Later, I wanted to use some of my old code in Fortran and I used DVF and later CVF and now IVF. I never studied Fortran in detail again as I was only re-using old stuff, mainly by creating a DLL and then use in Delphi in mixed-language programs. I am still looking for the "proper" way to do this!

Now I am researching for my PhD and I am back at the old way of programming, using Fortran on a UNIX platform. How the wheel has turned.

All the best with your future at Intel.


Steph Bredenhann

Thanks, Les and Kathy. Kathy handled marketing of DVF in the early years and contributed to its success.


anonymous's picture

Steve: congratulations on your 30th year with Digital / Compaq and now Intel. It was my pleasure being your Product Manager and part of the team in 1997 working with William Youngs in helping to have made Digital Visual Fortran a success in the shrinkwrap software market.

Les Neilson's picture

Steve, congratulations on your 30th anniversary.
I can still remember my first sight of a computer. It was back in 1967 (boy does that make me feel old!). My friends and I were taking our last school exams before going off to Uni. Our school had been given a computer - I don't remember the details but it was one of those "cupboards the size of a room" models. Our Maths teacher had it working out pi. We were allowed to look but not touch except to play with the paper tape machine. What fun we had typing in our names and seeing what came out, or working out the pattern of keys to punch in to print our names in holes in the paper and hold it up to the light. Little did I realise then that I would be working with computers as a career. I had intended to be a cosmologist or particle physicist but after graduation there weren't any jobs (besides I wasn't clever enough) so I got a job in programming hoping that would be a way back into physics - I never did make it. Oh well, maybe next year.


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