* YearOfDisruption.com: Boston’s Love Affair With Lovable Losers

By Erik J. Heels

First published 2016-09-07; YearOfDisruption.com; publisher: GiantPeople.

Have you heard about the lonesome losers?

Last month at an all-hands meeting at Raytheon BBN Technologies, management announced that they were going to drop “BBN” from the company name. Old-time BBNers (and xBBNers) were outraged. Outraged, I say!

“BBN is a legendary company! BBN was a great place to work! BBN helped invent the Internet!”

And they would all yell “Internet” with a capital “I.” I agree that all of those statements are true. And I have personal experience, having worked at BBN in 1988. And, for what it’s worth, I still spell “Internet” with a capital “I.”

But then I got to thinking. BBN the company went out of business a long time ago (as least as a stand-alone entity). BBN the name lives on through the miracle of various M&A transactions. But must we keep the name forever?

In the summer of 1988, I was working at the research center of Europe’s largest steel mill, translating computer programs from FORTRAN (on DEC VAX computers) to Pascal (on a PC). I enjoyed working with the VAX computers. I especially liked the meticulous documentation, complete with orange three-ring binders with built-in kick stands to keep them open on your desk.

But what was my job? Moving from an antiquated operating system (VAX/VMS) to a more modern one (DOS).

In the early 1990s at Hanscom AFB, I again worked with DEC computers and also with Wang computers. I even managed to get the Wang computers, which had proprietary keyboards and network connections, communicating on our network with the DEC VAX computers. (FWIW, there were PCs and Macs on that network too.)

Working at BBN was cool, but as far as I remember, our division never turned a profit. Academically, BBN was great. Economically, not so much. Working with VAX computers was fun, but DEC clearly missed the PC revolution. Working with Wang computers was annoying.

Yet these three companies – DEC, BBN, and Wang – are revered in Boston. The common denominator? They all failed in one way or another.

VIDEO: Lonesome Loser by Little River Band

And it’s not just loser companies that Boston loves. We also love our loser politicians. Many Bostonians have run for President of the United States, few have succeeded. Nothing says “lovable loser” like Michael Dukakis on a tank!

And then sports. Pre-2004, the best that Red Sox fans could claim is that Game 6 of the 1975 World Series was the best game ever played. Then they would conclude with, “Just wait ’til next year!”

I am one of these Bostonians who loves its losers. But I think it’s OK to let go now. Let go of the BBN name. Let go of the idea that DEC and Wang deserve more than a footnote in history.

Since the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, Bostonians have figured out that we can love the city AND be winners.

Maybe that’s why startups are flocking to Boston these days.

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