NonStop Insider

job types

Site navigation

Recent articles



For monthly updates and news.
Subscribe here
NonStop Insider

How beer-bust Friday began and other tales from the early days of Tandem Computers

Justin Simonds, HPE Master Technologist



This is an important anniversary for NonStop.  Tandem was incorporated in 1974 so it’s the 50-year anniversary.  As such many of us will be reminiscing about the early days of Tandem.  The first system shipped in 1976.  I interviewed at Tandem in 1979 but was told I didn’t have enough experience.  I had started working in the industry in 1977 so they were probably right.  In 1982 I had a second, and successful interview at Tandem.  So, I’ve now looking at some odd 42 years with NonStop.

When I began Tandem was around a $200 million corporation and growing fast.  They hired outstanding people (which makes me wonder how I got in but hey…) and everyone was proud to work for Tandem.  For most everyone I know, Tandem was the best company they have ever worked for.  This was because of the culture and the product.  Tandem was a company that really believed in and trusted its employees ‘to do the right thing’ for the customer.

I remember reading “Blue Ocean Strategy” by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne. It is a very interesting book on corporate strategy and how to position your company away from competitors (Red Ocean). A chapter that seemed to resonate and to somewhat explain the Tandem culture was Chapter 8 ‘Build Execution into Strategy’. This Chapter deals with something the authors call Fair Process which is also the Title of a Harvard Business Review paper by the same authors. They break Fair Process into 3 general principles: Engagement, Explanation and Expectation clarity. In essence it is about open and trusted communication within a business unit or company.

That is, management does not know more about the strategy than the workers. Several examples cited show that when individuals understand the business issues and the plan for resolving those issues in an open and fair exchange they will work for those goals even, amazingly, against their individual better interests. It is well documented in the book that if people understand the problems and the plan of action for moving forward, as long as they felt they were involved, they will work toward the plan. This goes against traditional business theory that people only do what is in their own best interest.

It occurred to me that Fair Process was what Tandem was all about and what made it so successful and beloved by its employees. Tandem’s growth plans and how they would be achieved were well known to the employees. Further, employees were always encouraged to develop new ways to accelerate and expand the strategy. I can say that I know of no one who was punished for doing what they believed to be the right thing for Tandem or for a customer.  Tandem was founded in 1974, as mentioned and Jimmy had a couple million dollars (a fair amount back then) and 15 months to be in production.

So, let’s reminisce about one of the Tandem legendary stories.  About 12 years ago I had the great privilege of interviewing Jimmy and speaking about Tandem the startup he said, “Our first big win was Tandy and after the first install, it looked impossible to fulfill our commitment.”  I remember him discussing this previously and him mentioning that as CEO, everyone always told him how great everything was going.  He was pretty sure there were some problems but if no one would discuss it, how could he help fix it.  One Friday he bought a case of beer and brought over his set of liar’s dice.  He went to development and basically started partying with them.  After several beers and some money exchange with the Liar’s dice they started telling him about all the issues they were having and ‘what needed to be fixed’.

He did what he needed to do and spent what needed to be spent to get back on track but it was so successful that Friday afternoon “Beer Bust” became part of Tandem’s culture.  As Jimmy told me during the interview “We were growing very fast and we had to attract a lot of talented men and women into Tandem. Friday became a special time to review the week, to recruit, time for people to meet new people, time for our employees from the field to have a chance to meet everyone, and time for people to discuss our strategy and philosophy, and a time to drink beer and/or coffee, and even to swim if they like (Tandem corporate had a pool). The beer bust (or coffee/coke) on Friday became a popular, social thing to accomplish our goals.”

Anyway, thought I’d share that memory and hopefully I’ll get an opportunity to share more of the legendary stories on this 50th anniversary year.