The Soul of a New Machine

What makes an engineer tick?

Engineering is a discipline that straddles the fine line between the creative and hard-nosed practicality. But more often than not, engineering gets a bad rap as a boring and drab profession. To really capture the excitement of an engineering field, you have to go way back before it became formalized with all its rules and regulations. In aeronautics, you have to go back to the time of the Wright Brothers, when it was just two brothers tinkering with no formal training, or how the Japanese Zero was designed under wartime constraints without sacrificing elegance for fighting capability. While amazing in its own right, the development of the 747, just feels less inspiring in contrast. And so it is with computer engineering.

The Soul of a New Machine is about a young and inexperienced team in a dash to build the next generation computer (in that era, every computer in development had to be a “next generation” computer due to how quickly computers were obsoleted). The story is set in the 1980s, but it’s surprising how much the narrative has in common with start-up culture today.

To West’s surprise, one of the cabinets was open and a man with tools was standing in front of it. A technician, still installing the machine, West figured.
Although West’s designs weren’t illegal, they were sly, and he had no intention of embarrassing the friend who had told him he could visit this room. If the technician had asked West to identify himself, West wouldn’t have lied and he wouldn’t have answered the question, either. But the moment went by. The technician didn’t inquire. West stood around and watched him work, and in a little while the technician packed up his tools and left.
Then West closed the door and walked back across the room to the computer, which was now all but fully assembled. He began to take it apart.
West was the leader of a team of computer engineers at a company called Data General. The machine that he was disassembling was produced by a rival firm, Digital Equipment Corporation, or DEC. A VAX and a modest amount of adjunctive equipment sold for something like $200,000, and as West liked to say, DEC was beginning to sell VAXes “like jellybeans.” West had traveled to this room to find out for himself just how good this computer was, compared with the one that his team was building.

Most of the management practices were at odds with conventional management wisdom of the day. Instead of making fresh and inexperienced talent pay their dues, give them great responsibility and autonomy from the get-go. Forget about the usual team culture that puts the company first and the individual second, the team saw themselves as a band of outsiders and the company as the adversary. Eschew a top-down process in favor of a more fluid development process. And it all somehow worked. They built the microcomputer in six months, possibly setting a record in doing so.

One Hardy Boy, Josh Rosen, looks around and can hardly believe what he sees. A Microkid wants the hardware to perform a certain function. A Hardy Boy tells him, “No way — I already did my design for microcode to do that.” They make a deal: “I’ll encode this for you, if you’ll do this other function in hardware.” “All right.”
What a way to design a computer! “There’s no grand design,” thinks Rosen. “People are just reaching out in the dark, touching hands.”

Then there’s the human aspect, in a highly technical field like computer engineering. For these young and inexperienced engineers who had never designed anything so complex, delivering a working machine in such a short time was no easy feat. Loyalty — perhaps to the team, definitely not to the company, had little to do with their hard work. Neither was monetary reward nor career recognition significant motivators. Their motivations were something purer; the need for autonomy, challenging work, and creative freedom. An ode to engineers and their work.