Business history that will satisfy anyone captivated by Silicon Valley.
Maxfield has written an engaging story about ROLM, a Silicon Valley startup that made its mark in the 1970s and ’80s. According to this insider account based on primary sources and interviews, ROLM was a model of Silicon Valley entrepreneurship that future startups sought to emulate long before consumer technology and social media companies captured the high-tech spotlight. ROLM’s innovative use of emerging digital technologies challenged AT&T’s monopoly position in the telephony business by helping companies save millions of dollars and improving office workers’ productivity. Maxfield fleshes out the story with engineering details, financial data, business strategies and management lessons that will appeal to MBAs eager to create their own successes. ROLM’s founders enjoyed extraordinary success in two distinct businesses—selling digital phone systems to businesses and making military grade computer systems for the Department of Defense. In its heyday, ROLM was a great place to work, with corporate perks such as 12-week sabbaticals for all employees—at full pay—after every sixth year of employment. With tennis courts, a gym, two pools, a gourmet cafeteria and landscaped grounds, its campus headquarters in Santa Clara, California, set a high bar for other companies competing for engineering talent during the late 1970s through mid-1980s. It’s easy to identify with the author’s sadness at how this story ends. ROLM was sold to IBM in 1984, and IBM sold ROLM to Siemens in 1988. The author draws from materials collected by the Silicon Valley Historical Association, newspaper and magazine articles, and interviews with the founders and former employees of ROLM to write a corporate history unusual in its candor. Readers don’t need to know the difference between a PBX and a CBX—although they’ll know after reading this book—to appreciate the intense emotions and exuberant personalities Maxfield portrays. A favorite among employees was ROLM executive Leo Chamberlain, known for “Leo-isms” such as being “ ‘up to our ass in alligators,’ a phrase he used whenever the going got tough.” Few authors have Maxfield’s knack for describing both the forest and the trees, which makes her history of ROLM a worthy model for other histories of Silicon Valley companies.
Corporate history with enough drama for a movie.