Tag Archives: Computer

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 

The Dream Machine: JCR Licklider and the Revolution that Made Computing Personal by Mitchell Waldrop

Summary

  1. Licklider was far ahead of his generation in seeing the potential for computers – for making them humane and individual, in democratizing access to information, creating a symbiosis between man and machine. It was his work in the Pentagon along with many other visionaries who made this possible – that allowed for the standalone computer with a mouse and a graphical user interface to come into existence. His desire to understand how the brain worked as a system fueled his curiosity. Lick went on to form the ARPA Information Processing Techniques Office in 1962 and started the research funding for interactive computing and pervasive worldwide networks that has resulted in most of the technology we use today and also fueled the next generations of computing researchers – many of whom became the founders and mainstays of Xerox PARC. When computers were a short step removed from mechanical data processor, Lick’s treatises on human/computer symbiosis shifted our understanding of what computers were and could be.

Key Takeaways

  1. Lick’s goal was to forge ahead with the human/computer symbiosis and create an interconnected, self-perpetuating system into a single computer network. An electronic medium to connect everyone – the ARPA net. Today it is known as the internet and everything we now associate with it
  2. JCR Licklider may be one of the most intuitive geniuses of all time. He simply saw in his head how information flowed, and how people, things, and ideas are interconnected
  3. Lick, while humble and nice, hated sloppy work, glib answers, and never took anything for granted. He was mischievous and a little anarchical. He was never satisfied with the ordinary and always pushed the limits. His grounding in psychology was essential for his later work with computers as he always tried to design the computer and how it functioned to best meet the needs of the humans operating it. Lick approached every problem as a systems problem rather than a detailed or individual problem
  4. The first high-profile project he worked on was related to acoustics for the war and his boss had a simple mantra: hire the best people, buy them the best machines money can buy, inspire them to no end, and work them 14 hours a day. With this formula they achieve nearly everything they set out to
  5. Norbert Wiener was a prodigious character at MIT. He was a genius in multiple ways, especially mathematics where he was able to use his intuition and form physical models in his head of the problem rather than merely manipulating symbols on the page. He had the hologram in the head 
  6. Alan Turing didn’t like seeing what others had accomplished before him. He preferred to reinvent the wheel and figure things out for himself. He wasted a lot of time and reinvented the wheel but he came to understand things deeply.
  7. Johnny Von Neumann’s stored program concept created software and changed computing, opening up the potential that we associate with computers today
  8. Claude Shannon thought of information through a 5 part framework: source, transmitter, communication medium, receiver, destination. This simple framework helped him think through the purpose of information and not get bogged down in details. Information ought to measure how much you learn from a given message. If you knew everything in a given message, the information content is zero. However, information and meaning is separated as it relates to computers. Shannon also proved that it is possible to get a message through with perfect fidelity no matter how much static or distortion or how faint the signal. It’ll eventually get too slow and the codes too long but it is possible to overcome noise. This is the fundamental theorem of information theory. Shannon didn’t like how information and meaning could be too easily confused so he had Von Neumann come up with a new name and he came up with one immediately: entropy. Information is entropy. It has the same formula as the physicists formula for entropy. A mathematical variable related to the flow of heat. Information is everywhere and in everything it is as old as time and ties together the mind-body problem, computation, communication, and more
  9. Lick was interested in every domain and was always pulling in new ideas from different fields. He loved novel ideas and would always push himself and others to think about things differently in order to gain new or deeper insights. While Lick has high expectations for his team, he was extremely devoted and his team knew it – he had built a tribe more than a research group. Lick optimized for creativity and productivity so cared very little for credit. He would give his ideas and insights away for others to work on and publish so that he could get more done 
  10. Understanding how our brain works brought together information theory, logic, communication, cognitive science, behavioral psychology, and much more. Two key breakthroughs were understanding chunking and that it matters tremendously how our neurons fire and are organized – not just the raw number of neurons we have
  11. When Lick was brought on to head up the new ARPA project there was no budget, no mandate, no charter. This was perfect as they could simply talk about and work on the most important questions and topics as they came up, not being pigeonholed or sucked into a specific purpose but able to adjust and adapt to everything new that was happening
  12. A key realization for Lick was that if all his visions where to come true, he had to create a self-reinforcing and self-sustaining community between all the different groups who are contributing to this project. Without this focus and insight, many of these dreams might have been lost, forgotten, or not achieved for some other reason
  13. Corvado created the first open source system which led to the software boom and the PC. Controversial at the time, he followed the dictum that if you create something useful people, will use it. This was significantly different from other utilities of the past because rather than value flowing just one way (like electricity to users), value flows two ways now: from software to user and user back to software. This had tremendous implications
  14. Lick give people plenty of space as long as they’re doing something interesting and living up to his high standards. However, if not, he can be ruthless and shut down programs that weren’t performing
  15. For all of Lick’s strengths, he was terrible administratively. Frustrating his colleagues and friends as they had to badger him for weeks or months to get anything done. And, when everything is funded by ARPA, this was a huge deal 
  16. Lick at ARPA and Bob Taylor at Xerox Parc had to learn how to find a way to get their groups all to move together, to give their groups a sense of cohesion and purpose without crushing their spontaneity and creativity. They had to set things up and create an environment where they would follow their own instincts and self-organize. This is the fundamental to dilemma of management. Bob Taylor spent years traveling and getting to know the cultures of different high performing groups and he took the time to speak to the youngest people there. Not only tp pick up their ideas but to understand what their values were and how he could cater to them.  Taylor’s style of research can be summed up as don’t just invent the future, go live in it. Don’t worry about the cost for now but whatever you invent, make sure to use it and then show others how to use it and why it’s helpful. The only mandatory program was a once weekly discussion from the program leaders about what they were doing and for an hour the other people would have at him. This created a sense of cohesion and purpose and also flushed out ideas before going too far along the wrong path. These meetings often got heated and Taylor would help turn them from “class 1” to “class 2” meetings, meaning they would go from yelling at each other to having to explain the other side‘s position to their satisfaction. This worked amazingly well to flush out ideas and improve communication.
  17. Xerox PARC’s main vision was to create the digital office, an integrated symbiosis between working man and machine. Broadly, it was split into two groups – one focused on hardware and the other on applications. Low cost, high performance and high quality graphics was a thread which ran through everything they were trying to do. Moore’s Law was just beginning to take hold and this who were still sold on time sharing began to be able to see the possibility of an individual, high powered machine for everybody
    1. There was this thread that ran through Vannevar Bush, Licklider, Doug Engelbart, Alan Kay, and others. It was the ascent of man, it was like the Holy Grail. PARC would rationalize it according to what Xerox needed but whenever they could phrase an idea to align with this path everybody’s eyes would light up, hitting a sort of resonance frequency. 
      1. Engelbart’s “Mother of All Demos” – showing off technology which set fire to the vision of the future and what could be
  18. Alan Kay was one of the key members of PARC’s team and was a prodigy from a young age. He learned to read by the age of three and read hundreds of books before going to school. By that young age he knew that a lot of what the teachers were telling him was wrong or at least that there were multiple points of view. The teachers did not like this. He never distinguished art from science and was one of the key pioneers in this field. 
  19. Good names are incredibly important for prototypes – they have to be familiar, easy to spell, easy to use, easy to understand, have a broad theme, and conjure up pleasant feelings. 
  20. Alan Kay mentions that in the history of art, it is not the adults who actually invent the new medium who do amazing things, but the first generation of kids to grow up with it who do
  21. Xerox was growing so quickly in the late 1960s and 1970s that they almost choked on their own growth. In order to survive, they had to bring in management, marketing, and finance types – mostly from IBM and Ford.  While this helped them survive their amazing growth, it also reinforced some bad lessons – that nothing exists or is useful unless it could be shown and captured on the spreadsheet and eventually this led to the demise of Xerox PARC and that era of research and innovation. Jim O’Neil became the numbers guy and shut down much of the spontaneous generation and innovation because if it didn’t meet his numbers he couldn’t “see it” and wouldn’t buy into it. When sales and finance make all the shots, the company is on a downward spiral as they are not able to innovate or think long term
  22. Xerox PARC was an Eden in many ways but what allowed them to flourish was the vision, the people, and an abundance mentality. The fact that they had money to spend and didn’t have to jump through hoops to get it. When there is scarcity you don’t have a community, you just have a bunch of people trying to survive. In 1975 Xerox’s printer and copier business was being threatened and this was their cash cow. The instinct is to keep pouring money into this in order to save it but sometimes that isn’t appropriate. You must know when to cannibalize or disrupt yourself 
  23. You always got the sense that Lick was playing. He was like a kid in a candy store. His exploratory and curious child-like mind never went away. He was not suited to be an administrator or manager but was a visionary and community builder. He encouraged people and showed them what was possible, what they were really working towards 
  24. DEC took advantage of the open architecture and was able to foster creativity and uses for their machines that they never would’ve been able to come up with. Many people loved the ability to tinker, upgrade, or personalize what they bought rather than buying a finish package from an IBM for example. Roberts and his Altera machine would follow DEC‘s lead and make it an open architecture which unleashed a wave on entrepreneurialism and garage start ups by the hundreds – filling all sorts of niches and launching some of the world’s biggest and most successful companies (such as Microsoft)

What I got out of it

  1. An incredibly fun read – detailing not only the people and the history behind the computer revolution, but the atmosphere, thinking, and optimism which fueled it