The Soul of the Company:
From <A Cautionary Tale (Or Not, perhaps)?>
Excerpts from: O, Engineers!
By Evan Ratliff:
Twenty years ago, Tracy Kidder published the original nerd epic. The Soul of a
New Machine made circuit boards seem cool and established a revolutionary
notion: that there's art in the quest for the next big thing.
Holberger still describes the Eagle drama in terms of an old Western, as he did
to Kidder 20 years ago. "I felt like the team members were gunfighters who were
brought into town to solve some problem," he says. "They shot the place up, and
they solved the problem. And then the town had to figure out what to do with
them afterward. Which was mostly to get rid of them."
...............When Data General ran the Eagle gunslingers out of town, most of them took
different routes to a similar destination: the next project. Having successfully
created a machine - seen it through from bare wires and circuits to working
computer - they were ready to sign up and do it again. Even after the burnout
and the lack of recognition at DG, they left seeking projects as intense, if not
more intense, than Eagle. They often found them. And for all the gruffness of
West's management style, none of the Eagle vets look back on the project with
anything but fond memories..............
..........."I had high hopes for a management career," says Carl Alsing, now 57. "The hope
was that I could leverage my experience and judgment. That was disappointing,
because at the lower levels of management where I ended up, whatever companies
said they wanted me to do, they really wanted me to put out fires in the current
product and delay any kind of innovation." <http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.12/soul.html
The book opens with a turf war between two computer design groups within Data
General Corporation, a minicomputer vendor in the 1970s. Most of the senior
designers are assigned the "sexy" job of designing the next generation machine,
which will be done in North Carolina. Their project (code-named "Fountainhead")
is to give DG a machine to compete with Digital Equipment Corporations' new VAX
computer, which is starting to take over the new 32-bit minicomputer market. The
few senior designers who are left in corporate headquarters at Westborough, MA
are given the much more humble job to design enhancements of the existing
product lines. Tom West, the leader of Westborough designers, starts a skunk
works project which becomes a backup plan in case Fountainhead fails.
Eventually, the skunk works project (code-named "Eagle") becomes the company's
only hope in catching up with DEC. In order to complete the project on-time,
West takes risks in not only new technology but also relying on new college
graduates (who have never designed anything so complex) to make up the bulk of
his design team. The book follows many of the designers as they give up every
waking moment of their lives in order to design and debug the new machine on
Data General was one of the first minicomputer firms from the late 1960s. Three
of the four founders were former employees of Digital Equipment Corporation.
Their first product, the Nova, was a 16-bit minicomputer. The Nova, followed by
the Supernova, and the Eclipse product lines, were used in many applications for
the next two decades. The company employed an OEM (Original Equipment
Manufacturer) sales strategy to sell to third parties who incorporated the Data
General computers into the OEM's specific product line(s). A series of missteps
in the 1980s, including missing the advance of microcomputers despite the launch
of the microNOVA in 1977, led to a decline in the company's marketshare. The
company did continue, however, into the 1990s, eventually being bought out by
EMC in 1999.