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.
By Evan Ratliff
Souls, Lost and Found
More than a simple catalog of events or stale corporate history, Soul lays bare
the life of the modern engineer - the egghead toiling and tinkering in the
basement, forsaking a social life for a technical one. It's a glimpse into the
mysterious motivations, the quiet revelations, and the spectacular devotions of
engineers - and, in particular, of West. Here is the project's enigmatic, icy
leader, the man whom one engineer calls the "prince of darkness," but who
quietly and deliberately protects his team and his machine. Here is the raw
conflict of a corporate environment, factions clawing for resources as West
shields his crew from the political wars of attrition fought over every circuit
board and mode bit. Here are the power plays, the passion, and the burnout - the
inside tale of how it all unfolded.
The machine, officially named the Eclipse MV/8000, was announced to the public
in April 1980, in an afternoon ceremony in New York City. A few members of the
team got to go and bask in their roles as company saviors, but the feeling was
short-lived. Because West had shielded them from the politics of DG - something
many wouldn't discover until reading Soul - the Eagle team was unprepared for
the backlash the project created. They believed they had rescued DG, says
Microkid Blau, but "unfortunately the rest of the company didn't feel that way,
so there was a lot of animosity." The FHP team, for one, felt betrayed when its
machine was canceled. And a team that worked in secret - with a crafty leader
who bucked the system - could be highly effective, but it also could be
dangerous to the powers that be. A new vice president of engineering had taken
over at DG, replacing the pro-Eagle Carl Carman. The new VP was openly hostile
to a group he believed had purposefully defied the interests of the company -
"neglecting to point out," Wallach says now, "that without Eagle there would not
have been a Data General." The Eagle group was broken up and scattered to
various projects, and West was shipped off to Data General's Japan office before
a single MV/8000 was sold.
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."
For Alsing, recently signed on with MagnaWare, an OCR startup in Santa Cruz,
California, the core desire is still to innovate, regardless of whether he's
running things. "Somebody's got to dig ditches," he says. "But it's a lot more
fun to dig ditches where nobody else has dug one before." His challenge has been
to stay mobile enough to keep up with the pace of change. "You stay in a place
too long, you miss out on new technology and new tools and new ways of doing
things," he says. "I've seen friends who stayed too many years in something, and
they always find a niche where they become a guru of something and manager of
whatnot. And then when that activity ends and they leave the company or get laid
off, they have no skills. In 10 years, you really are obsolete. The tools are
gone, the vocabulary is different."
The MV/8000 itself managed to keep DG afloat in the minicomputer business,
selling briskly for several years. West returned from Japan after a year to find
the machine a success. Yet without the book, he doubts the Eagle achievements
would ever have been recognized. "The people who shot the revolutionaries
realized that there was an imprint," he says, "and that they couldn't rewrite
history." History intact, he returned to the job of technical manager and was
quickly promoted to vice president and eventually senior vice president of
engineering - "senior VP in charge of not much," he calls it. "They decided they
didn't want me around people, so I would just come up with ideas," laughs the
man who blustered in Soul about "detonating" fellow employees and stringing them
up by their toes.
By 1983, Data General was floundering again and the computer landscape was
changing radically. Just as minicomputers had captured the market from
mainframes by being smaller and easier to use, PCs and workstations were
crashing the minicomputer party. In Japan, West had designed the DGOne, the
first full-screen laptop, in an attempt to push the company into the growing PC
market. But saddled with proprietary software and a slow processor, the project
was ultimately canceled. No longer the brash upstart of its heyday, DG failed to
adjust its course to the prevailing market winds.
Every DG veteran, from Tom West to Ed Zander to Joel Schwartz, current head of
the Data General division at EMC, recites a litany of disruptive technologies
that DG developed but failed to exploit as a way of explaining why the company
never became a powerhouse. There was FHP's ahead-of-its-time network-computing
architecture. There was a laser printer developed in the late '70s. There was
the DGOne. There was a thin Web server developed by Tom West in the mid-'90s.
The list goes on.
West blames DG's management, and its inability to recognize or reward the
company's engineering talent, for the failures. "They like to talk in terms of
missing the different waves of technology," says West, "but a well-managed
company doesn't do that. It was a very top-down, autocratic, turn-of-the-century
mill-owner kind of management mentality. It could only grow to a certain size,
because nobody trusted anybody."
West struggles to explain why he stuck around to watch the sunset of DG, rather
than hitch his fortunes to one of the countless startups or industry leaders
that tried to lure him away. "I'd much rather be a big fish in a little pond,"
he offers at one point, "than someone like Gordon Bell, who went to Microsoft
and disappeared." Another time, he says, "You could do new products and
companies within the company, rather than shag some venture capitalist and kill
yourself for five years." To be an entrepreneur, he says, "you have to be
interested in networking, even with fools."
Alsing's rosy assessment, however, didn't hold for the duration of West's
tenure. West eventually discovered that he was, in practice, no longer an
engineer. DG had become just another job. "I did usually prevail," he says. "But
I began to think, 'It's too hard. This isn't a technology job at all. It's about
moving around these roadblocks to try and do things that are pretty sensible.
You're solving these same problems over and over again that are really people
problems. They have nothing to do with electrons.'"
By the time he retired, West found that Data General wasn't even listening to
his advice on Internet strategies. "I thought that was kind of silly," he says,
laughing. "Because I'd spent all my time and energy trying to figure out how
this Internet thing could be used by an old minicomputer company, and they just
didn't ..." He trails off, then says softly, "didn't care."
West doesn't play much music these days - arthritis in his hands hampers his
guitar playing. But happily remarried and living in Westport, he's plenty busy
sailing, fishing for striper, and keeping tabs on the industry via the Web. He
seems mostly content to be done with the high tech game, and proclaims no desire
to return to it. Life is full. "I've seen a lot of burnout," he says, "but the
sadder thing I've seen is a lot of people who reach 65 and find that there's
nothing in the world they like to do. That's really sad, because they've worked
their whole lives, and then the whole meaning of things goes away."
West cultivated his own eclectic interests over the years and has
remained friends with Kidder. He grumbles that he's been trying for
months to get him down to Westport for a sailing trip. Kidder, at 54,
is at work on his fifth book since Soul, this one based on his July
story in The New Yorker story about a Harvard-educated doctor working
in Haiti. Other than keeping up with his friend West, he says he
"almost made a fetish out of not following the computer industry." But
he marvels at the pace of change since his days in the basement of
building 14A/B. "If you had told me in 1981 that Digital and Data
wouldn't exist today," he says, "I would have said you were out of your mind."
Kidder sold the movie rights for Soul to Columbia Pictures in 1982, and the
studio sent Kurt Luedtke, winner of a best screenplay Oscar for Out of Africa,
to DG to research the script. "One day he flew in to town and interviewed us
all, while consuming vast quantities of scotch," recalls Chuck Holland. "He kept
asking if anything exciting happened. 'Well, yeah,' we said, 'remember when a
board burned up?' It's so silly that none of us thought to make up something
juicy. Needless to say, there was no movie."
The Soul of a New Machine
The Soul of a New Machine is a non-fiction book, written by Tracy Kidder. It was
published in 1981 and won a Pulitzer Prize and an American Book Award. It
chronicles the true story of a computer design team racing to complete a next
generation computer design under a blistering schedule and tremendous pressure.
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.