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Jun 13, 2007 5:21pm

blog all dog-eared pages: soul of a new machine

Soul of a New Machine is Tracy Kidder's vicarious account of the design and creation of Data General's Eagle minicomputer in the early 1980's. The project was a classic skunkworks operation, developed in competition against a more prominent, better-funded 32-bit project named Fountainhead ("North Carolina", below). I first heard of this book in Bruno Latour's Science in Action, an account of the codependence between science and technology, "the role of scientific literature, the activities of laboratories, the institutional context of science in the modern world, and the means by which inventions and discoveries become accepted".

"West", below, refers to Eagle project head Tom West, an eccentric manager who brought out the best in his team by creating a barrier between them and the rest of the company, while driving them hard from above.

Update: Jason Kottke says that Tom West is Metafilter moderator Jessamyn West's dad, and has a website. The way Soul ends, it felt a bit like Shane. Closure!

Page 57, on hiring:

North Carolina's leaders had assembled a large crew mainly by luring experienced engineers away from Westborough and other companies. But around this time a videotape was circulating in the basement, and it suggested another approach. In the movies, an engineer named Seymour Cray described how his little company, located in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, had come to build what are generally acknowledged to be the fastest computers in the world, the quintessential number-crunchers. Cray was a legend in computers, and in the movie Cray said that he liked to hire inexperienced engineers right out of school, because they do not usually know what's supposed to be impossible. Moreover, using novices might be another way to disguise his team's real intentions. Who could believe that a bunch of completely inexperienced engineers could produce a major CPU to rival North Carolina's?

Pages 119-120, on doing things well:

On the magic marker board in his office, West wrote the following: Not Everything Worth Doing Is Worth Doing Well. Asked for a translation, he smiled and said, "If you can do a quick-and-dirty job and it works, do it." Worry, in other words, about how Eagle will look to a prospective buyer; make it an inexpensive but powerful machine and don't worry about what it'll look like to the technology bigots when they peek inside. ... To some the design reviews seemed harsh and arbitrary and often technically shortsighted. Later on, though, one Hardy Boy would concede that the managers had probably known something he hadn't yet learned: that there's no such thing as a perfect design. Most experienced computer engineers I talked to agreed that absorbing this simple lesson constitutes the first step in learning how to get machines out the door.

Page 177, on dumb jobs:

It did not work out he planned. "I thought I'd get a really dumb job. I found out dumb jobs don't work. You come home too tired to do anything," he said. He remembered a seemingly endless succession of meetings out of which only the dullest, most cautious decisions could emerge.

Pages 208-209, on naming:

The solution takes the form of a circuit called a NAND gate, which reproduces the "not and" function of Boolean algebra. The part costs eight cents, wholesale. The NAND gate produces a signal. Writing up the ECO, Holberger christens the signal "NOT YET." He's very pleased with the name. Schematics he's seen from other companies use formal, technical names for signals. The Eclipse Group, by contrast, looks for something simple that fits and if they can't come up with something appropriate they're apt to use their own names. ... It's the general approach that West has in mind when he says, "No muss, no fuss." It's also a way - a small one, to be sure - of leaving something of yourself inside your creations.

Pages 227-228, on skunkworks:

Alsing came away convinced, however, that West had an important strategy. "We're small potatoes now, but when Eagle is real, he'll have clout and can make nonnegotiable demands for salary, space, equipment and especially future products." Rasala came away with the same idea: "Maybe it's ego. But West has some interesting notions, ahhhhhnd, I kinda believe him. His whole notion is that he doesn't want to fight for petty wins when there's a bigger game in town."

Page 232, on staving off post-delivery depression:

West stubbed out his cigarette, lit another, and went back to looking at whatever it was he saw in the ceiling. "The postpartum depression on this project is going to be phenomenal. These guys don't realize how dependent they are on that thing to create their identities. That's why we gotta get the new things in place."

Page 242, on invisible computers:

Wallach and I retreated from the fair, to a cafe some distance from the Coliseum. Sitting there, observing the more familiar chaos of a New York City street, I was struck by how unnoticeable the computer revolution was. ... Computers were everywhere, of course - in the cafe's beeping cash registers and the microwave oven and the jukebox, in the traffic lights, under the hoods of the honking cars snarled out there on the street, in the airplanes overhead - but the visible differences somehow seemed insignificant.

Page 280-281, on pinball:

Their group, as they saw it, was the most dogged, hardworking, practical, productive and dangerous in the company, a bastion of the old successful ways, a paradigm of the company as it had been when it was small. The believed in the rule of pinball: if you win, you get to play again; but failure is unthinkable, so you'd better let no one get in your way.
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