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There are some anniversaries worth a serious celebrating

By Richard Buckle, Storyteller, Pyalla Technologies, LLC.

NonStop Insider


It is hard to believe that in 2024 the NonStop community will be celebrating its golden anniversary. Yes, fifty years of NonStop (nee Tandem Computers) that featured moments of excitement, surprising breakthroughs, almost total disenfranchisement along with what we see today as a welcomed part of the bigger HPE. For the NonStop community this is cause for celebration as few other systems have survived let alone thrived as long as NonStop. With the exception of the IBM mainframe, the NonStop community can stand tall knowing that the system that they aligned with has turned out to be a pretty good choice.

Crumpled, yes. But not forgotten!

The much-crumpled Cupertino campus map above, updated at the time to include Pumpkin Patch, reminded me of how often I moved from one building to another. Originally, it was the Comm Building, even though my transition from Tandem Computers (Australia) meant I was in Building 4 for much of that time. However, having a desk in the Comm Building meant that yes, I had arrived. From there it was a short jump across the street to Building 247 to be a part of the DSM organization. Back to building 4 to join Chris Rooks and product marketing before joining Roy Graham’s product management team also in building 4 but one floor higher. Shortly after joining Roy’s team, I did double duty with the arrival of the LAN OLTP program that led to me having a second office in Forge as the LAN OLTP team focused solely on this initiative was assembled at that site. Nearby, too, was the Benchmark Center which seemed more than appropriate for the times.

As I have talked with others, these movements around the campus were typical for anyone who was totally immersed in all things NonStop. Skillsets were nurtured to maturity even as networks were created. For many the friendships that developed out of these networks remain active even today. If you are on Facebook, then you are probably part of the Facebook group, Tandem Computers. If you are on LinkedIn, then probably you are part of the LinkedIn group, Tandem User Group. The fact that these groups cater to upwards of a thousand members is testament to just how big an impression NonStop has made on our lives.

Order out of early days’ chaos

This photo has been in circulation for some time and is of one of the earliest production Tandem Computers. While the company came into being in 1974 it only took a couple of quarters for the small team gathered in the vicinity of San Jose to become ready to ship their first system. This team, headed by Jimmy Treybig, secured financing from Tom Perkins of Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers (KPCB) or as it was formerly known simply as Kleiner Perkins that had come into being in 1972, just a couple of years prior to Tandem Computers. The association between Jimmy and Tom dates back to the former days at HP. What a coincidence when you follow the history as we now know it.

What made Tandem Computers a force to be reckoned with and to do so in a relatively short timeframe, came down to a good idea that was well executed that appeared in the marketplace in a timely manner. When it comes to timing, the relationship that emerged between Tandem Computers and ACI Worldwide as the humble ATM first appeared is as serendipitous as it is coincidental. Somewhere in my papers lay buried a copy of the original business plan of Tandem Computers and I don’t recall supporting ATMs 24 x 7 was part of that plan. And yet, the creativity and willingness to innovate led Tandem Computers to almost five decades of leadership in all things related to plastic, be that credit or debit card processing.

A band of “brothers”

There was that original team and for now, even as the faces look familiar, it’s young Jimmy’s presence alongside, from left to right, Jack Loustaunou, Mike Green and Jim Katzman, who I understand now were the original founders of Tandem Computers. These days, consumer marketing often dwells on the phrase, no fear! Looking back at that team, clearly there was no fear in the photos of these brothers taken back at that time. They simply knew that they had created the better mouse trap at a time when the mice were everywhere. A cash driven society looking to access cash anywhere at any time. Growth followed quickly as Tandem Computers began to ship and for those that were part of these “excitin’ times” as Jimmy saw them, the excitement was palpable.

Then again, the Tandem Computers management did a couple of unique things that helped add fuel to the excitement. Remember the Friday afternoon beer bust (and its acceptance at offices worldwide); donuts on payday; a global television network with real television studios and the First Friday productions that followed? And what about the management commitment to create a thriving user community as ITUG was launched way back in the late 1970s – again, a commitment that lives on to this very day.

As we look back at those exciting times, we can all recognize that this was a new approach to communication and as the company prospered, other Silicon Valley companies followed suit. Long before I joined Tandem Computers in 1988, I knew of the culture of NonStop and it was steeped in communication and yes, a time for fun in equal measure to the enormous pressure to which everyone was subjected.

Growth?  It would be careless of me not to dig even deeper into my memory and through the papers tucked away somewhere not to mention just how quickly the company grew. From the time Tandem Computers went public to when it passed the $1 Billion in revenue represented the record for hitting that milestone. A record I believe that Tandem Computers kept until SUN came along and achieved a similar milestone more quickly, but by just a couple of years. Few who attended the billion-dollar party celebration at the time will forget all that took place that day and long into the night!

There is much here that I have skipped over but I put that down to not having first-hand knowledge. Growth and the subsequent spread across the Cupertino campus meant that management had to make an extra effort to keep everyone vested in the program. How do you simply keep everyone informed? Well, we all know now – you throw a couple of folks in the swimming pool and as word spreads, more and more employees show up for the hi-jinks hoping to hear of news directly from the management.

On the intersection of Tantau Ave and Vallco Parkway

I will always remember walking to the pool where I caught up with Steve Schmidt. Only a few weeks earlier and thanks to Ray Walker of product management, I had crewed on Steve’s yacht, a Sant Cruz 70. Having experience racing on Sydney Harbor on forty-foot yachts, I was caught off guard by how powerful sails were when catching the breeze. On my first effort at bringing in the headsail sheet I was flipped into the Bay. Cold? Freezing! A couple of shots of brandy later and I was done being a useful member of the crew. Walking alongside Steve, he reminded me of this and mused out loud, “I trust you enjoyed the sail” although I can’t recall if he added something about what were the Bay conditions like but what I do recall is him saying something along the lines of “who said come-on in, the water’s fine!”

And this was the level of interaction between management and those working for them, an open dialogue on any topic, no matter what. Passing $1 Billion was soon followed by passing $2 Billion in revenue and then the situation changed. Whether it was driven by the economics of the time, the gradual creep of consensus management, the market identifying the company as a one-trick pony, or simply a number of mistimed investments (yes, my path to Tandem Computers came via Netlink, a target of Tandem’s investment focus), by the mid-1990s the very foundation that kept ever employee focused on meaningful goals began to fade. “I know I could have done better,” I thought but so too did almost everyone else where the upshot was the purchase by Compaq that ultimately led to the return of Tandem Computers, as NonStop, to where it all started, to HP.

On one of my last trips to HP prior to the split that then saw the creation of HPE, I passed a locked-down string of buildings on Tantau Avenue. It was March of 2009 and walking back along that same path I took with Steve I stopped by the fence to look across at the pool and I took one last photo. As we contemplate all that has transpired for NonStop as we progress towards the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of NonStop / Tandem there is little evidence that those “excitin’ times” has diminished in any way. On the contrary, it has been that instilled impression that “excitin’ times” will continue that makes many of us still be focused on NonStop. I am sure we will be hearing more from the current NonStop team about plans for the upcoming golden anniversary but for me, all I can say is yes, bring it on. There’s much about NonStop that warrants a party so make sure you stay abreast of any announcements. This should be one event of 2024 not to be missed and I hope to see you and to be able to enjoy the festivities such a passing of a milestone warrants.

Then it will simply be, onwards to seventy-five years!

I would like to acknowledge that some photos come from sources apart from my own and recognize any copyrights that might be involved