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How a missile-building dropout saved EMC

From bankruptcy to glory

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Into the Valley The recipe for extreme business success is so obvious. First, you take an entrepreneurial furniture salesman and hand him some memory. Next, you add a college dropout turned Harvard graduate who designs missile systems. Lastly, mix the executives, dash them with bankruptcy and bake.

Presto! You've got the best-performing company on the NYSE during the 1990s – EMC.

Mike Ruettgers, former CEO and chairman of EMC, revealed this simple path to fame and fortune during a question and answer session last night here at the Computer History Museum. Having been retired for all of three weeks, Ruettgers didn't hesitate to divulge the keys to making EMC the dominant storage player. Such openness, however, won't help too many aspiring business leaders, given the unconventional path Ruettgers and EMC took.

Ruettgers began his education at UCLA where, as a freshman, he "looked old enough to be able to drink". A penchant for partying and playing bridge over attending class made short work of his UCLA tenure.

"At the end of my freshman year, UCLA – in its wisdom – asked me not to come back," he said.

After one year, Ruettgers centered his chi and went to Idaho State where he excelled. This made acceptance at Harvard's business school possible, and off went Ruettgers to snake an MBA.

Out of Harvard, Ruettgers went to work for Raytheon where he was asked to analyze the company's Patriot missile development program. Ever the helpful MBA, "I said, 'As far as I can tell, we are going to be about eight years late and have about a $700m overrun.'"

Music to a military contractor's ears, especially with the pressure of the Vietnam War looming.

"To Raytheon's credit, within about 30 days, they reorganized how they were developing the product," Ruettgers said. "What I learned at Raytheon was that good engineers, by themselves, are not enough... Engineers work best when they have schedules, and they work best when you spend a lot of time asking them about their schedules."

(To all our engineer friends out there, please direct all your feedback on this issue to EMC. Or, what the heck, send it to us.)

Eventually, Ruettgers moved to Raytheon's services division that worked on mainframes and related hardware. That's how he ran into then EMC founder and ex furniture salesman, Dick Egan.

Egan told Ruettgers that EMC's young staff lacked maturity and could use some wisdom.

"I was indeed the silverback or greybeard who could come in and provide some adult supervision." Ruettgers said.

At the time, EMC was selling memory to a variety of customers.

"We were plugging Prime," Ruettgers said. "We were plugging Wang."

(My, how such a statement could be misinterpreted outside of storage retrospective.)

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