Several months ago, Phil Dorn, an IBM shareholder, wrote a letter of complaint to chairman John Akers. In it, Dorn quoted Cromwell’s January 22, 1654, address to the Rump Parliament: It is not fit that you sit here any longer. When IBM eventually responded, it was with a letter from the shareholder relations office. That […]
Several months ago, Phil Dorn, an IBM shareholder, wrote a letter of complaint to chairman John Akers. In it, Dorn quoted Cromwell’s January 22, 1654, address to the Rump Parliament: It is not fit that you sit here any longer. When IBM eventually responded, it was with a letter from the shareholder relations office. That was not the first time Dorn had cast pearls before swine. But for once the swine were soon to meet their Martinmas. Fortune magazine cited Dorn’s letter in an article foreshadowing the imminent coup at IBM. Not long thereafter, Akers and two of his close associates within the corporate eyrie stepped aside. Now Phil Dorn is gone at 62, leaving his wife, Sue, and their children, Charles and Martha. He died in New York on Tuesday, June 8, while returning with Sue from an evening at the ballet. He was buried on Thursday, June 10. Yet his contribution to the information processing industry is still growing. Educated at Lawrenceville and Princeton (class of 1952), Dorn veered from a career in the law – he spent 1953 at Stanford University’s law school – to enter the computer industry on the important side, that of the customer. He held key positions at Systems Development Laboratory, General Motors Research Laboratories, Union Carbide and Equitable Life Assurance. Ultimately, he went on his own as a consultant, lecturer and author. Along the way he served as both president and vice-president of SHARE, the association of IBM’s largest customers. He became chairman of the Metropolitan Detroit chapter of the prestigious Association for Computing Machinery and attracted the attention of its directors. ACM honoured him in 1971 and 1972 with a National Lectureship. Dorn later returned the favour by serving on the group’s Standing Committee on Legal Issues, representing ACM before the Commission on New Technological Uses of Copyrighted Works, the group that shaped the software copyright laws in the US and elsewhere. He became involved in the management of ACM, serving on the group’s finance committee and helping it find new headquarters as the group and the computer industry grew. In recent years, Dorn played a role in what is arguably ACM’s most important endeavour: the establishment of Annals of the History of Computing. History was more than an avocation for Dorn, whose extensive reading and probing into the way commerce shapes civilization were recognised by Harvard University, which persuaded him to participate in the History Project run by its Business School.
Dorn served for 20 years as an editorial advisor to Datamation, writing incisive notes to its many contributors, brilliant critiques that were loved and feared in equal measure. He immeasurably raised the standards of that publication and its writers and by doing so fostered the development of a computing intelligentsia among those who harnessed the power of the machines. When Dorn and Datamation parted ways, it was the publication, not the advisor, that felt the irremediable loss. Dorn’s work continued to be published around the world, gracing journals as far afield from New York as Tietoviikko in Finland and Computerworld publications in Denmark, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. In Britain, his essays appeared in Xephon’s Insight IBM, in the US as part of the High-Tech Procurement advisory. A full bibliography would be huge… and as foreign to IBM’s managers as obloquy is familiar. Dorn gave voice to the concerns and experiences of customers, not only through his prolific writing but also more directly, through the companies he advised. Downsizing was not in our vocabularies when Dorn first persuaded a mainframe user to move some work to System/38s, nor was there a debate about the future of large systems when Dorn showed other clients why their needs were best met by intensive centralisation. Most apparent when he played the curmudgeon, Dorn was most effective exercising his enormous personal generosity on behalf of family, friends, clients and the computing community at large. Phil Dorn will be missed by many who have no idea who he
was, an irony he might well have found amusing. Those with the good fortune to have known him will never forget the sincere man and his abundant wisdom. Hesh Wiener Copyright (C) 1993 Technology News Ltd.