I recently published a story about a topic that gets very little attention within the tech industry, but that I think is intriguing: historical preservation at tech companies. I wanted to know: Which tech companies are preserving their histories? How are they doing it? Why are they doing it? And what can other tech companies learn from them?
This line of inquiry led me to write a story about Cisco and its newly launched history projects, particularly its Cisco Archive. (You can read the story here, on Medium.com.) The Archive is a collection of artifacts — located in a big room on Cisco’s San Jose campus — that document Cisco’s 30 years in business. The artifacts include everything from hardware (early Cisco routers) to papers (typewritten press releases) to digital assets (company event videos) and date back to as early as 1994. There are currently more than 300 items in the Archive and it keeps growing.
While the Archive collection is impressive in and of itself, I was more impressed by the fact that it is not a purely PR-driven project. Instead, it is primarily a corporate culture exercise that aims to identify what is unique about Cisco as a company so those cultural values can be utilized in employee training and internal communications. One of the Cisco employees I interviewed for my article referred to the projects as both a form of archaeology and anthropology.
I was also struck by the rigorous way in which the Archive operates. Cisco established the Archive through a partnership with California’s Computer History Museum, so the Archive is being run like a miniature, private museum. Two professional archivists, who previously worked at museums, nonprofits and universities, oversee the Archive. The Archive also has a publicly accessible online catalog, like a museum would.
The other Cisco history project that intrigued me is its oral history project. In 2013 Cisco hired an outside consultant to conduct interviews with current and former employees, clients and competitors. So far the consultant has talked to more than 140 people and elicited some colorful stories. The interviews are being saved in the Archive where they augment the information conveyed by the Archive’s physical artifacts.
Pursuing multiple history projects at this level costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Why should a company bother, particularly a tech company that is laser-focused on the future?
To answer this question, I spoke to several Silicon Valley historians. They said companies can leverage historical artifacts in multiple ways, from branding/marketing/PR to corporate culture efforts (like Cisco) to defensive purposes in legal (mostly patent-related) lawsuits. The historians also said that documenting a company’s history helps solidify its place in its industry/secure its legacy –and that that was especially true for tech companies because the tech industry moves so quickly.
In tech companies that make products, an archive can also connect the dots between product generations. As one of my interviewees put it, “An archive can show what products led to others and whether there’s a technology that weaves its way through decades of providing solutions to customers.”
In short, there are plenty of good reasons for companies to preserve their histories. Companies don’t need to spend a lot of money, either; they can just set aside some space in their offices for a small archive and ask an employee to keep basic records.
I hope more tech companies will make such efforts. Preserving history now will ensure that future generations can learn from our technological past and present.