How Four Engineers Changed the World,

A Great Place to Work

By the late 1960’s, Santa Clara Valley, the fruit producing capitol of the country was rapidly yielding to technology, becoming Silicon Valley.

Simply because four electrical engineers, twenty-somethings didn’t want to spend their lives isolated in research labs, they launched their own startup in 1968–1969. They revolutionized telephone technologies and the ruggedized computer. The work environment they created was golden. It continues to be sought after and imitated by those who have the courage to trust in their people. They started in a prune drying shed and subsequently created a new style in the work environment.

ROLM Corporation, 4900 Old Ironsides Drive

I was suddenly in a new dimension. I was there for an air conditioning repair order. Like other businesses, there were parking lots, offices, light switches, drinking fountains and people. Yet this place was quite different.

Various activities were going on, people meeting outdoors, eating at tables, exercising, swimming, people moving from place to place and even meditating. Labs and other workspaces had windows that brought them together with the whole environment. Instead of access control systems there were decorative pools, a brook and a landscape to guide people where they needed to be.

There was something soothing and invigorating about the movement of the ebb and flow of people interacting with and moving through the environment. It reminded me of the soothing feeling from the movement of distant ocean waves or the calming flames of a fireplace. Certainly a great deal of thought and expense went into these facilities and the management and leadership that led to it.

The first person that I met on campus was a custodian sweeping a hallway. I asked how he liked his job. He stood up straight and said, “It’s the best job I ever had, I love it here!” He told me about his role in maintaining an environment where the company would thrive. Intrigued, I asked if he knew who the CEO was. He said, “Sure! I had lunch with him yesterday.” As my jaw dropped, he eased my awkwardness and explained how this executive enjoyed eating in the cafeteria with different employees everyday. This custodian was teaching me, an A/C mechanic, profound leadership principles.

Why? Engineers seeking Purpose

Decades before Simon Sinek’s book, Start with Why, these engineers practiced the principles that Sinek observed and so effectively presented as the ‘Golden Circle.’ They graduated from Rice University and continued in graduate studies at Stanford. They were following the established pattern for success, to go to college then get a “good job.” As promised, they were offered jobs in research where they would be closed into a room, hidden from the world. When they saw the work they would be doing and the work environment, they joined together to create their own reality.

They put their trust in each other and each scrimped to risk $15,000 each in their own start-up. Gene Richeson, Ken Oshman, Walter Loewenstern, and Bob Maxfield each contributed the first letter of their last name to create a name for their company, ROLM.

What? The Products

They had a business plan and long list of potential products. Co-founder Ken Oshman was asked what they would produce, He said, “I don’t know. Might be a shoe factory.” They sought out various advisors, then came up with their own initial product.

At that time every military computer and its software were custom built at a very high cost. The ROLM team filled a niche in the market by creating the first portable off the shelf computers built to military durability specifications (ruggedized). They quickly filled the void in the market. Legal technicalities in government contracts required that they diversify into other products. So they went head to head with AT&T to displace the hand operated telephone switching system known as the PBX. ROLM created a computerized system, CBX, along with top quality telephone hardware. Their phone systems were seen throughout the business world and many are still in use today.

How Did They Do It?

They created an unconventional workplace environment for people. Like preparing a field for planting, they created an environment and a climate where the right people would thrive and produce an abundant harvest. Soon they were a Fortune 500 Company.

Their goal was simply to create a workplace where they would want to work. They took some ideas of a great workplace from HP, then refined them to create the best workplace they could imagine. The architect for the buildings and grounds understood the vision of the company to create an “atmosphere conducive to creativity and productivity.” -Leo Chamberlain, Director.

Contrast: The High Stress Work Environment

The motivation to create an atmosphere where they wanted to work was inspired by what they didn’t want. The tech industry at the time was following the pattern of the industrial revolution of prior decades. It seemed, the bigger the company the more stressful the environment. Regimentation and protocol seemed to be the superficial and main guiding principles. Grumbling was kind of the rule of the day.

With my tool belt and Dickies uniform I blended in with the surroundings, hardly noticed. Though an outsider, on one occasion I attempted to influence, and perhaps lighten up, the stressful environment around me. At an administration building at IBM, I noticed frequent time delays waiting in line at the urinals in the restroom. So I dropped a suggestion in the employee suggestion box. “Install a coffee urn in the restroom and filter the coffee directly into a urinal rather than having so many individuals wait in line to do the job.” As far as I know, my suggestion never surfaced. Though doubtful, I hoped it would at least give someone a chuckle.

Management and Leadership Environment

ROLM created the concept and vision of (GPW) ‘A Great Place to Work.’ The four engineers added yet one more engineer to champion and refine the GPW, Leo Chamberlain. In his hiring interview he said his specialty was in vacuum tubes. And he proved himself extremely effective in marketing and HR.

Co-founder Bob Maxfield said, “We knew the kind of place where we wanted to work and the kind of people we wanted to work there.”

With the right facilities and physical environment, they implemented their management style.

  1. Hire the right people. ROLM hired based on skills and a recruit’s commitment to the company philosophy and the published ‘Attributes of All Rolm people.’ New employees were exposed to the philosophy. Leo Chamberlain said, “If you follow this in your workplace, you will be successful here. If you can’t follow this, leave now, ’cause it’s just a matter of time.”
  2. Develop mutual trust and respect. The company provided the atmosphere for success and subscribed to the document, ‘Attributes for ROLM Managers.’ This was built on an agreement of trust. “The company agreed to provide an atmosphere conducive to the individual’s personal and professional growth. In return the employee was expected to demonstrate accountability by devoting effort, energy, and commitment to his or her personal success and the success of the Company.” -from ‘The ROLM Philosophy as documented by Katherine Maxfield, Starting Up Silicon Valley.
  3. Get out of the way. With the brightest people in place, Leo Chamberlain said that “you challenge them and let them go crazy.” He wanted them to work so effectively that they could honestly look themselves in the mirror once a month and say, “ROLM is sure lucky to have me!”

One of ROLM’s standards was for executives to be fully accessible to individual employees throughout the company. Though employees had windows in their workspaces, many managers did not. This created an environment that encouraged managers to be out interacting, inspiring and being inspired by their employees.

ROLM later teamed up with IBM to share their telephony technology. IBM was looking more to obtain ROLM technology rather than culture. Soon the culture was watered down. The technology was absorbed and later sold to Siemens. Businesses around the globe still benefit from the technology.

The ‘Great Place to Work’ Today

This little experiment of a ‘Great Place to Work’ proved that it can work. ROLM is gone, but their concepts have been studied and replicated many times over, throughout Silicon Valley and the world. ROLM employees who left spread the culture as they went to work for other companies, or started their own.

Co-founder Bob Maxfield said that the most significant impact that ROLM had was the culture that developed. The legacy of the ‘Great Place to Work’ was and still remains a positive business model for creating an atmosphere conducive to creativity, motivation, and productivity.

“Every encounter builds perspective.”

References:

Start With Why, Simon Sinek, 2009, Portfolio/Penguin.

Starting Up Silicon Valley, Katherine Maxfield, 2014, Emerald Book Company.

Competing With the Giants’ Panel discussion with ROLM Founders at Computer History Museum, 2004.

‘From Prune Shed to Silicon Valley Success, the Story of ROLM’, Katherine Maxfield

‘Business at Rolm, an Independent Style’, NY Times

‘A Driving Force Leaves Rolm’, YouTube

‘A Driving Force Leaves Rolm’, NY Times

Having been on the frontlines, I’m deeply familiar with life’s challenges and traumas. I’m inspired by courageous people who triumph and succeed.