Sunday, September 30, 2012

Play Again

Tracy Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine (1981 best-seller and Pulitzer Prize winner) tells the story of a team of engineers at Data General who design and build a new minicomputer to compete with rival Digital Equipment Corporation's VAX, a product that threatens to put Data General out of business. As the book opens, the "sexy" project of designing the next-generation machine that will save the company (code-named "Fountainhead") has been assigned to a group of engineers in North Carolina, outside the Data General mainstream. The few senior engineers left at the corporate headquarters in Massachusetts have been given the "unsexy" task of maintaining existing products.

Angry that the task of creating the new machine has been given to an outside team, the leader of the Massachusetts group, Tom West creates a skunkworks project (code-named "Eagle") to provide a backup should Fountainhead fail. (Skunkworks are projects conducted by small, underfunded teams who, due to time and budget constraints, must work in unconventional ways to get done on time. Oftentimes the skunkwork is off-the-books, outside-of-hours work performed on the engineer's personal time.)

West indeed does the unconventional. His designers are kids fresh out of college who've never done anything so complex. His technologies are novrl and untried. To make up for lost time and limited budget, the team spends every waking moment designing, building and debugging the new system.

Eventually, Eagle displaces Fountainhead as the company's sole hope of catching DEC.

The story takes place before the Internet boom made millionaires of hundreds if not thousands of techies. It takes place before the IBM PC or the Macintosh were invented. The engineers are not promised bonuses or stock-options for delivering the project on time. They are not threatened with demotion or dismissal should they fail. So the question arises: what drives them to work so hard for so long?

When asked this, West replies that it's like pinball. (Yes, the story takes place prior to the existence of Wii or XBOX.) If you win this round, you get to play the game again.

How much of what you do is like pinball?

Happy Sunday,

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