The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder

Summary

  1. Kidder brings the computer revolution to life by studying life inside Data General

Key Takeaways

  1. IBM set up two main divisions, each one representing the other’s main competition.
  2. Herb Richman, who had helped to found Data General, said, “We did everything well.” Obviously, they did not manage every side of their business better than everyone else, but these young men (all equipped with large egos, as one who was around them at this time remarked) somehow managed to realize that they had to attend with equal care to all sides of their operation—to the selling of their machine as well as to its design, for instance. That may seem an elementary rule for making money in a business, but it is one that is easier to state than to obey. Some notion of how shrewd they could be is perhaps revealed in the fact that they never tried to hoard a majority of the stock, but used it instead as a tool for growth. Many young entrepreneurs, confusing ownership with control, can’t bring themselves to do this.
  3. When they chose their lawyer, who would deal with the financial community for them, they insisted that he invest some of his own money in their company. “We don’t want you running away if we get in trouble. We want you there protecting your own money,”
  4. Richman also remembered that before they entered into negotiations over their second public offering of stock, after the company had been making money for a while and the stock they’d already issued had done very well indeed, their lawyer insisted that each of the founders sell some of their holdings in the company and each “take down a million bucks.” This so that they could negotiate without the dread of losing everything (“Having to go back to your father’s gas station,” Richman called that nightmare). As for the name of the theory behind selling enough stock to become millionaires, Richman told me, “I don’t know how you put it in the vernacular. We called it the Fuck You Theory.”
  5. “DEC owned 85 percent of the business and there was no strong number two. We had to distinguish ourselves from DEC,” Kluchman remembered. “DEC was known as a bland entity. Data General was gonna be unbland, aggressive, hustling, offering you more for your money…. We spread the idea that Data General’s salesmen were more aggressive than DEC’s, and they were, because ours worked on commissions and theirs worked on salaries. But I exaggerated the aggressiveness.” According to Kluchman, DEC actually gave them some help in setting up “the Hertz-Avis thing.” DEC’s management, he said, ordered their salesmen to warn their customers against Data General. “It was great! Because their customers hadn’t heard about us.”
  6. Where did the risks lie? Where could a company go badly wrong? In many cases, a small and daily growing computer company did not fall on hard times because people suddenly stopped wanting to buy its products. On the contrary, a company was more likely to asphyxiate on its own success. Demand for its products would be soaring, and the owners would be drawing up optimistic five-year plans, when all of a sudden something would go wrong with their system of production.
  7. You did not have to be the first company to produce the new kind of machine; sometimes, in fact, it was better not to be the first. But you had to produce yours before the new market really opened up and customers had made other marriages. For once they are lost, both old and prospective customers are often gone for good.
  8. Some of the engineers closest to West suspected that if he weren’t given a crisis to deal with once in a while, he would create one. To them he seemed so confident and happy in an emergency.
  9. By the mid-1960s, a trend that would become increasingly pronounced was already apparent: while the expense of building a computer’s hardware was steadily declining, the cost of creating both user and system software was rising. In an extremely bold stroke, IBM took advantage of the trend. They announced, in the mid-sixties, all at one time, an entire family of new computers—the famous 360 line. In the commerce of computers, no single event has had wider significance, except for the invention of the transistor. Part of the 360’s importance lay in the fact that all the machines in the family were software compatible.
  10. Software compatibility is a marvelous thing. That was the essential lesson West took away from his long talks with his friend in Marketing. You didn’t want to make a machine that wasn’t compatible, not if you could avoid it. Old customers would feel that since they’d need to buy and create all new software anyway, they might as well look at what other companies had to offer, they’d be likely to undertake the dreaded “market survey.” And an incompatible machine would not make it easy for new customers to buy both 16-bit Eclipses and the new machine.
  11. Kludge is perhaps the most disdainful term in the computer engineer’s vocabulary: it conjures up visions of a machine with wires hanging out of it, of things fastened together with adhesive tape.
  12. West had a saying: “The game around here is getting a machine out the door with your name on it.”
  13. 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. West liked that idea. He also realized, of course, that new graduates command smaller salaries than experienced engineers. Moreover, using novices might be another way in which to disguise his team’s real intentions. Who would believe that a bunch of completely inexperienced engineers could produce a major CPU to rival North Carolina’s?
  14. West invented the term, not the practice—was “signing up.” By signing up for the project you agreed to do whatever was necessary for success. You agreed to forsake, if necessary, family, hobbies, and friends—if you had any of these left (and you might not if you had signed up too many times before). From a manager’s point of view, the practical virtues of the ritual were manifold. Labor was no longer coerced. Labor volunteered. When you signed up you in effect declared, “I want to do this job and I’ll give it my heart and soul.”
  15. How do such moments occur? “Hey,” Wallach said, “no one knows how that works.” He remembered that during the time when he was working on the Navy computer for Raytheon—the one that got built and then scrapped—he was at a wedding and the solution to a different sort of problem popped into his mind. He wrote it down quickly on the cover of a matchbook. “I will be constantly chugging away in my mind,” he explained, “making an exhaustive search of my data bank.”
  16. Much of the engineering of computers takes place in silence, while engineers pace in hallways or sit alone and gaze at blank pages. Alsing favored the porch and staring out at trees. When writing code, he said, he often felt that he was playing an intense game of chess with a worthy opponent. He went on: “Writing microcode is like nothing else in my life. For days there’s nothing coming out. The empty yellow pad sits there in front of me, reminding me of my inadequacy. Finally, it starts to come. I feel good. That feeds it, and finally I get into a mental state where I’m a microcode-writing machine. It’s like being in Adventure. Adventure’s a completely bogus world, but when you’re there, you’re there. “You have to understand the problem thoroughly and you have to have thought of all the myriad ways in which you can put your microverbs together. You have a hundred L-shaped blocks to build a building. You take all the pieces, put them together, pull them apart, put them together. After a while, you’re like a kid on a jungle gym. There are all these constructs in your mind and you can swing from one to the other with ease.
  17. “West’s not a technical genius. He’s perfect for making it all work. He’s gotta move forward. He doesn’t put off the tough problem, the way I do. He’s fearless, he’s a great politician, he’s arbitrary, sometimes he’s ruthless.”
  18. “One never explicitly plays by these rules.” And West remarked that there was no telling which rules might be real, because only de Castro made the rules that counted, and de Castro was once quoted as saying, “Well, I guess the only good strategy is one that no one else understands.”
  19. Not Everything Worth Doing Is Worth Doing Well.
  20. 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. Often, they said, it is the most talented engineers who have the hardest time learning when to stop striving for perfection. West was the voice from the cave, supplying that information: “Okay. It’s right. Ship it.”
  21. In fact, the team designed the computer in something like six months, and may have set a record for speed. The task was quite complex.
  22. That fall West had put a new term in his vocabulary. It was trust. “Trust is risk, and risk avoidance is the name of the game in business,” West said once, in praise of trust. He would bind his team with mutual trust, he had decided. When a person signed up to do a job for him, he would in turn trust that person to accomplish it; he wouldn’t break it down into little pieces and make the task small, easy and dull.
  23. “With Tom, it’s the last two percent that counts. What I now call ‘the ability to ship product’—to get it out the door.”
  24. Rasala liked a contentious atmosphere, a vigorous, virile give-and-take among himself and his crew. “Smart, opinionated and nonsensitive, that’s a Hardy Boy,” he declared. Above all, Rasala wanted around him engineers who took an interest in the entire computer, not just in the parts that they had designed.
  25. Firth had just begun to study programming, but the error was “just obvious” to him. Remembering this incident years later, Firth said that the engineer had probably been “programming by rote. He wanted to make his program look like programs he’d seen before, and that clearly wasn’t gonna work.” Firth always tried to avoid such an approach. “I like to work around ‘why,’ ” he told me. “I prefer not to know the established limits and what other people think, when I start a project.”
  26. He also said: “No one ever pats anybody on the back around here. If de Castro ever patted me on the back, I’d probably quit.”
  27. The clerk had some trouble figuring what the beer we bought ought to cost, and as we left, West said, out of her earshot, “Ummmmh, one of the problems with machines like that. You end up making people so dumb they can’t figure out how many six-packs are in a case of beer.”
  28. West didn’t seem to like many of the fruits of the age of the transistor. Of machines he had helped to build, he said, “If you start getting interested in the last one, then you’re dead.” But there was more to it. “The old things, I can’t bear to look at them. They’re clumsy. I can’t believe we were that dumb.” He spoke about the rapidity with which computers became obsolete. “You spend all this time designing one machine and it’s only a hot box for two years, and it has all the useful life of a washing machine.” He said, “I’ve seen too many machines.” One winter night, at his home, while he was stirring up the logs in his fireplace, he muttered, “Computers are irrelevant.”
  29. “It doesn’t matter how hard you work on something,” says Holberger. “What counts is finishing and having it work.”
  30. “I get quite a lot of work done in the morning while taking a shower,” says Veres. “Showers are kinda boring things, all things considered.” Now in the shower, before leaving for work, he conceives a new approach.
  31. “The way West was with us, it provided a one-level separation—someone far enough away to lay blame on.”
  32. At one point, Jim Guyer said: “We didn’t get our commitment to this project from de Castro or Carman or West. We got it from within ourselves. Nobody told us we had to put extra effort into the project.” Ken Holberger burst out laughing. Guyer raised his voice. “We got it from within ourselves to put extra effort in the project.” Laughing hard, Holberger managed to blurt out, “Their idea was piped into our minds!” “The company didn’t ask for this machine,” cried Guyer. “We gave it to them. We created that design.” Others raised their voices. Quietly, Rasala said, “West created that design.”
  33. Engineers are supposed to stand among the privileged members of industrial enterprises, but several studies suggest that a fairly large percentage of engineers in America are not content with their jobs. Among the reasons cited are the nature of the jobs themselves and the restrictive ways in which they are managed. Among the terms used to describe their malaise are declining technical challenge; misutilization; limited freedom of action; tight control of working patterns.
  34. “He set up the opportunity and he didn’t stand in anyone’s way. He wasn’t out there patting people on the back. But I’ve been in the world too long and known too many bosses who won’t allow you the opportunity. He never put one restriction on me. Tom allowed me to take a role where I could make things happen. What does a secretary do? She types, answers the phone, and doesn’t put herself out too much. He let me go out and see what I could get done. You see, he allowed me to be more than a secretary there.
  35. West never passed up an opportunity to add flavor to the project. He helped to transform a dispute among engineers into a virtual War of the Roses. He created, as Rasala put it, a seemingly endless series of “brushfires,” and got his staff charged up about putting them out. He was always finding romance and excitement in the seemingly ordinary. He welcomed a journalist to observe his team; and how it did delight him when one of the so-called kids remarked to me, “What we’re doing must be important, if there’s a writer covering it.”
  36. West sits in his office and declares, “The only way I can do this machine is in this crazy environment, where I can basically do it any way that I want.”
  37. Steve Wallach gave the speech he had once dreaded, describing Eagle’s architecture to a jury of peers, at a meeting of a society of computer professionals, and when he was done, they got up and applauded—“the ultimate reward,” he said.

What I got out of it

  1. Really insightful read on a company and time I didn’t know much about. West seems to have been an amazing leader, someone who was able to inspire his team to do amazing things quickly, ship them out the door, and make his idea their idea – the keystone for any leader