Visit to the former ROLM Site

Fresh out of college in 1981, I was able to land a job with a terrific company by the name of “ROLM”  which was an acronym for the last names of its four founders. After a difficult job search, I stumbled into the job by dumb luck when a friend turned down a job offer and referred a recruiter to me.

That having been said, it was a wonderful job. ROLM was one of the early developers of digital telephone systems for business use and it was somewhat of the Google of its day. Sales were exploding. The campus was gorgeous with running streams between the buildings. As I arrived in the summer of 1981, they had just started making people wear discreet white name tags because they had discovered that nearby small companies were bringing interviewees to the (excellent and highly subsidized) ROLM cafeteria and pitching their proximity to ROLM’s campus as a job benefit.

The Former ROLM Campus
The Former ROLM Campus

That was a long time ago. Earlier this week I visited the Cloud Expo Silicon Valley 2012 (We consider Asatte Press to be a Cloud Skills Delivery company, books being merely one media for skills delivery) at the Santa Clara convention center. Since that convention center is only a few blocks from the former ROLM campus, I stopped by one afternoon to take a look. The picture at the left is what the main campus looks like today.

What felt like luxurious and state-of-the-art buildings at the time  were looking frumpy and outdated a year or so ago when someone decided to bulldoze them. The ROLM buildings were single-story with trellised walkways and  lots of lush vegetation between them. The current fashion runs more to five-story glass and steel  things with minimal plant life around them.  I had understood that Yahoo was going to build a new campus here, but there were no signs of any such construction activity earlier this week.

The Walkway to Building 9
The Walkway to Building 9

In early 1982, ROLM was growing explosively and snapping up any available real-estate. They built a trellised walkway past the swimming pool and recreation center and attached it to a new building that was dubbed “Building 9” This building housed the “International Telecommunications Division” which I was a part of.

Moving to Building 9 was where the fun really started for me. Managers were rotated and a very experienced manager named Henry Swingler was brought in to run our team. Henry was excellent. He eliminated a few people who were not helping the cause and restaffed with an almost 50/50 mix of young men and young women. He also instituted weekly beer-drinking sessions. The explosive improvement in our productivity was an eye-opening life lesson for me.

Building 9, Former ITD is Still There
Building 9, Former ITD is Still There

As we can see from the photo above, the trellised walkway is still there. The recreation center was bulldozed. Building 9 is still there, but appears to be unused.  Someone has resurfaced the parking lot recently. Actually, it still looks pretty nice from my point of view. However, as I mentioned above, it is quite out of fashion. Current internet companies need buildings with more of a “high tech” look. Perhaps when Asatte Press starts growing and we need to staff a development center in Silicon Valley, we can lease building 9, refurbish it, and bring it back to its former glory.

ITD and Europe, Home of the Ill-Fated IBM 8750
ITD/EMEA Building, Home of the Ill-Fated IBM 8750

By 1985 IBM had bought ROLM and was ramping up a major effort to replace its IBM 1750 and IBM 3750 telephone system products for Europe. A new building was rented. The ground floor was the international division. Upstairs was the new organization that was tasked with building the new IBM 8750 for IBM EMEA. Our little team of 10 software engineers and 4-ish hardware engineers was split in two. Half stayed downstairs (including me) A few people were hired to backfill the ITD team. The other half moved upstairs. A massive recruiting campaign added around 200 newcomers to the nucleus of 5-6 veterans. The money spigots were wide open. The average age was around 25. The team went wild. They radically redesigned the hardware. They developed an automated code translator and translated about 750,000 lines of Data General assembler into about 2 million lines of Motorola 68020 assembler. To this they added another 1-2 million lines of new features. Wild parties were a weekly event. Romances flared. The performance and feature set of the system shown in the overhead foils (PowerPoint was not established yet) was terrific and IBM EMEA had orders for several hundred of them waiting…

There was just one little problem: With that sort of radical change in the code base and function of the product, it proved to be almost impossible to stabilize the software. Around 1988, as I was just starting an assignment to IBM Japan, IBM gave up and sold the whole thing to Siemens.  This episode was the second major life lesson in software development management for me…

As we can see above, the ITD/EMEA building is still there. Someone bolted a sort of atrium lobby thing onto the front to make it look more modern, but otherwise it is basically unchanged. It was a leased building anyway and the fashion had already begun to change by the time it was built in 1985. It fits the current required look a little better than the other original ROLM buildings did.

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7 thoughts on “Visit to the former ROLM Site

  1. Looks oldie timey now, but was state of the art back then. The people were great. We actually made telephones across the street until 1987. Then our building went silent.

    1. Yes, I also remember those buildings as state of the art and very pleasant to spend one’s day in, especially with all the streams and greenery between them.

      Actually, those photos were 18 months ago. At the time, the site was slated to be come a Yahoo campus. That was before Marissa Mayer joined Yahoo and turned their world upside down. I would be curious to see what it looks like now.

      David Hetherington

  2. I was fortunate enough to work for ROLM Corporation during mid eighties. I still remember many names and the great place it really was to work. I was too young to understand the value of that job and all the greatness it was.

    I have xmas ornaments from several co employees and friends. Many of whom I would like to find. Jane Held if you are out there I still have your green vase and would love to get it back to you.

  3. I worked on ROLM products beginning 1978 thru 1987and for ROLM Corp in Fla, circa 1982-1985, What a great Company, Extroardinarily neat People and a Product line like No other…..Voice and Data On 1 “Pair” !!
    I visited Santa Clara Headquarters for Data Training on the “Cedar, Cypress, Redwood” Product Line of Desktop PC/ ROLM Phones, what a Great Time !
    I loved the Whole Decade !

  4. ROLM 1974 to 2001 badge #608 I miss all my ROLM friends. I grew up there. I hope you all still love me during all the little asshole stages I went through there with all of you. I’m a grown ass adult now. I hope you are too. I also hope that none of you have lost you sense of humor. I Love all You guys. Use the email and say hi or use face book. Thanks Rob Candau for sending this info to me. So I can catch up with other ROLMans
    Love, Betty Myers.

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