Son of the Souls of a New Machine

The Souls of the MV/8000 (Wired, December 2000)

The Souls of the MV/8000 (Wired, December 2000)

Today in 1980, Data General (DG) introduced the Eclipse MV/8000 at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City. Known internally as Project Eagle, the 2-year development of the 32-bit “super-minicomputer,” the engineers working on it, and the parallel (and eventually, failed) development of a competing DG product, became the subject of Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer-prize winning The Soul of a New Machine, published in 1981.  In 1996, a study of the development of the MV/8000 and its aftermath, concluded: “In 1981… the Eclipse MV/8000 produced 10% of revenue, and was [DG’s] only area of improvement. … DG crawled out of the 80s, alive only because of the Eclipse MV line, which sold very well in 1983 and 1984. Data General grew to 17,700 people on the strength of those years. Then came the crunch, as micro-computers ended DG’s office automation strategy, and workstations took over the technical and engineering marketplace. Government contracts, and business purchasers, began to demand non-proprietary systems.”

The writer of DG’s 1988 Annual Report found an interesting way to explain the gap between the annual growth of proprietary systems (5-7% at the time) and the growth of systems based on industry standards (20-30%). Under the heading “The Economics of Writing in Arabic,” the Report says: “The award-winning novelist who writes in English is likely to be more commercially successful than Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian novelist who writes in Arabic, simply because of the customer base. Economics compel the application writer to write for operating systems used by the largest number of customers. … In [today’s] market, the superior price/performance of the computer system and long-term cost of ownership that has been Data General’s hallmark, counts for little if it doesn’t come with the right applications.”

In 2000, Evan Ratliff published a great retrospective of the story told in The Soul of a New Machine. The article is full of wonderful quotes; here’s a sample:

Tom West, the project leader: “I think I remember the story [as told in the book] more than the event. Most events happen and I file them away. This one happened over and over again.”

And: “To be an entrepreneur, you have to be interested in networking, even with fools.”

Carl Alsing, a member of the Eagle team: “People expect their company to do the right thing, and usually they’re disappointed. Tom expected the company to do the wrong thing, and he wasn’t disappointed at all. When your company doesn’t do the right thing, you manipulate it until it does.”

Eric Schmidt (CEO of Novell in 2000):  “It was the first book to describe the inner workings of the technology groups, and it did a good job of getting into the psychology of leadership. The corporate maneuvering was both fascinating and abhorrent to me.”

A 1988 unpublished history of Data General argues that “Both author and company took risks as the book and computer project developed. Neither fully understood what the other’s project was about or how it would turn out. One risk to Data General was that the book or excerpts of it might be published or leaked before Eagle landed and the MV/8000 announced… On the other hand, Kidder was concerned that the book be kept clear of any taint of Data General sponsorship or commercialism.”

And it goes on to describe a book-promotion event arranged by the publisher: “[It was held] on a Saturday morning at the DEC Marlboro (Ma.) plant’s main lunch hall where both Kidder and West spoke. The hall was mobbed for the event with standing-room only. Although little advance notice of the meeting was made, every computer designer or electrical engineering student in New England was there or tried to get there. Since neither Kidder or West were practiced public speakers and both of them felt uncomfortable in directly promoting a ‘commercial’ publication, a format was decided on that got both off the hook: they would have a conversation that everyone would listen to; later, questions would be taken from the floor.

“A sample exchange at the meeting illustrated the friendly tension between parties – Kidder: ‘Had I known that ‘Eagle’ would turn out to be such a successful computer, I might have done some things differently in the book.’ West: ‘Had we known your book would be so successful, we might have done a few things differently, too.’

“Someone asked West at the meeting if he had read the text of the book before publication. West said: ‘Yes, I did, but my hands trembled a lot.’”

In the Wired article, which calls the book “the original nerd epic,”  West sums it up this way: “It’s got a Zen characteristic. It’s not a cookbook for building computers. It’s not a cookbook for good management strategies. Why did this book strike a chord with such discordant people? I’m not sure I know. Tracy can’t tell you. It has something to do with work, and dreams, and why people do it.”

Tom West passed away on May 19, 2011. See here and here

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