CPSC 3300 Questions / The Soul of a New Machine
(Note: The page numbers below refer to the 1981 hardback first edition.)
Photo of Eagle team, 1980
Dec. 2000 Wired magazine)
Front row, kneeling, from left:
Middle row, from left:
Back row, standing, from left:
- Project Manager: Tom West (who was 39 years old in 1978;
NYT obit May 2011,
Channel Register obit)
- Secretary: Rosemarie Searle (47)
- Architecture and Software Liasion: Steve Wallach (33)
- Team Leader: Carl Alsing (35)
- Microcode: Chuck Holland (26, leader),
Bob Beauchamp (22), Jon Blau (22), Dave Keating (25),
Pauly Reilly (30), Betty Shanahan (22), Steve Staudaher (25)
- Simulators: Dave Peck (29, leader), Neal Firth (23)
- Hardy Boys
- Team Leader: Ed Rasala (32)
- Lieutenant: Ken Holberger (24)
- Members: Dick Coyle (32), Dave Epstein (24), Jim Guyer (24),
Mike Hobbs (28), Jim Veres (24), Len Winmill (33),
Dave Zeek (29), Mike Zeigler (27) [and Josh Rosen (24?)]
- Tracy Kidder (32)
Photo of software team
(XYZZY displayed on the screens is from the Adventure game)
Background on Kidder's access to DG
Kidder and West, 1982, at
The Computer Museum
(Kidder is on the left)
excerpt from Evan Ratliff,
"O, Engineers!" Wired, Dec. 2000.
At the time a freelance writer struggling to pay the bills,
Kidder had been inspired to write about technology after the
protests surrounding the opening of the Seabrook nuclear
reactor in 1976. Over a beer, his editor at The Atlantic,
Richard Todd, suggested he look into computers. Todd knew
someone in the business: his old college roommate, Tom West.
excerpts from Diana ben-Aaron,
"Kidder bares Soul,"
The Tech (MIT paper), September 27, 1983.
Kidder said he first became interested in computers when his
editor at The Atlantic suggested he "look into computers" and
suggested he approach Tom West, a software engineer at Data
"I knew I didn't want to write a huge book about the computer
industry," Kidder said. "I wanted to tell a narrative, one
small part. I think the idea of a book - 'I want to write
about computers' - is not as important as what you do with it."
Kidder said he gathered the material for his book "mostly by
just hanging around offices and labs in the evenings. It was
made clear to me that if I got in the way, I'd be out, so I
tried not to get in the way," he explained.
"Clearly, some people [at Data General] felt it was to their
advantage" that he write about their work, Kidder said.
While no one at the corporation requested regular progress
reports on the book, the firm's vice president at one time
requested control of the manuscript, according to Kidder.
"I really don't know what my lawyers said to their lawyers,
but I would not trade ultimate control over what I wrote for
access to the story. ... I agreed only not to reveal trade
secrets," he said.
Kidder spent two years researching the book and nine months
writing it, he said. He lived on an advance from The Atlantic's
publishing company, Atlantic-Little Brown, while researching
Tracy Kidder web site
photo of Tom West
reproduced with permission of family, click through to get larger
photo at the Tom West 1000 Memories web site
- terms and references that might be unfamiliar
- Jarndyce v. Jarndyce (p. 15) - a
long-running court case in Charles Dickens Bleak House
in which an estate was drained by the lawyers' fees
- J. Edgar Hoover (p. 16) - longtime director of the FBI
- Forty-second Street (p. 21) - unsafe area of New York City
where supposedly anything could be bought
- "the Hertz-Avis thing" (p. 21) - Avis was the number 2 car rental
agency known for the advertising slogan "We try harder."
- Robert Hall (p. 22) - Robert Hall sold relatively inexpensive
men's suits off the rack (today's equivalent might be S&K Men's Wear)
- G-Two (p. 32) - reference to US Army Intelligence Staff (wikipedia:
The term 'G2' is used in many industries to refer to intelligence
gathered from the field or customers about a competitor's products
- core dump (p. 50) - debugging info, such as given by the xxd
command on Unix systems
- Was Tom West's chip-counting episode ethical? (pp. 30-32) Explain.
this Usenet posting)
- If you had access to a competitor's computer product, what would
you want to test or inspect? (See this article on
automotive reverse engineering at GM.)
- List some reasons that "projects are canceled in spite of
their merits". (pp. 38-39, 69, 75)
- Why was a "mode bit" considered a bad idea at DG? The VAX-11/780
had one for PDP-11 compatibility. (p. 41)
- Why is software compatibility a "marvelous thing"? (p. 43)
- Why did Tom West have two ways of describing the Eagle project -
one making it seem important and one making it seem routine?
- Describe and explain Tom West's change in work habits and
relationships when he was initially rejected for leadership of
the Eclipse team. (Carl Alsing said, "he started getting tough."
- Why did the project recruit RCGs (recent college grads)?
("Shall we hire kids, Alsing?" said West. p. 59)
What was the attitude toward RCGs? What enticements did
the project offer RCGs?
- What's good and bad about "signing up" (p. 63)?
- What two things did top grades help indicate to the Eclipse group
about an applicant? (p. 64) Explain why "with a few exceptions
they turned down those whose grades were merely good"?
- What was Alsing looking for in an interview? (pp. 65-66)
- Was Tom West motivating or manipulating Steve Wallach? (p. 75)
(Is there a difference? How does a good manager
work with the ambitions of his/her employees?)
- Why did Wallach ask the system software group to write a memo
requesting an instruction that he (Wallach) wanted to add to
Eagle? (p. 83)
Dave Platt's map of the vending machine maze part of the 550-point
version of the
- Carl Alsing is described as having poor programming practices
(e.g., procrastination, quirky code), yet he had written
"just about every line of microcode that's come out of
Data General." (pp. 100-103) Explain.
- What is the chief advantage of microcode? (p. 100)
- What was the purpose and effect of the "Tube Wars"? (p. 106ff)
How do you keep something like that from getting
out of control and being taken too personally?
- What is the advantage of competition between projects within
a company before a product is sent to the marketplace? (p. 112)
- What is "flying upside down"? (p. 117) Given the large
number of RCGs, was it easier or harder for the Eagle project
to fly upside down? Explain.
- Why would a company decide to only use those components that
are available from at least two separate manufacturers? (called
second-sourcing, p. 118)
- What was the significance of Tom West coming in on Sunday mornings?
To what, if anything, did it lead? (pp. 130-135)
- Compare Tom West's recruitment of Ed Rasala (p. 143) with that of Steve
Wallach (p. 75).
- What is the value of a slow chip? (p. 149; part of the self-diagnosis
testing built into the MV/8000 would include self-testing at different
clock speeds as well as with different power levels)
- Define the following terms. (p. 151)
- "the big mistake"
- "the flakey fear"
- "the bogeyman fear"
- Why did Chuck Holland's sculpture impress Carl Alsing? (pp. 156-158)
What did it tell him about Holland?
- What was the purpose of UINST? How important was it? (p. 159ff)
- What was the purpose of doing two simulators rather than one?
- Could Carl Alsing's procrastination in writing microcode be due
in part to his not having simulators available for those earlier
projects and thus having to wait to debug his microcode until the
prototypes were mostly built? (pp. 161-162)
Instruction cache write signal (from '399 patent drawings)
[see Fig. 116A, p. 284, with the "not yet" input signal controlling load ICP;
also Fig. 134, p. 329, with "not yet" used in the PC clock logic]
- Explain what these terms mean within the book.
- crock (p. 125, 188)
- mechanic (p. 142, 198)
- How did Jim Veres and Jim Guyer arrange to work "together"?
- Why wasn't Josh Rosen allowed to redesign the ALU board with
different chips? (p. 213) Was it worth having to cut features to
stay on one board?
- Explain why Ed Rasala and Tom West respected those Hardy Boys
who were willing to work on boards other than their own.
(chapter 7, p. 150; chapter 10, pp. 199-200; chapter 11, p. 215)
- Contrast Tom West's treatment of the team members at work (e.g., not
speaking to them, p. 214, 224) with his knowledge of them and plans
for them at home (pp. 231-232).
- Compare Ed Rasala in chapter 7 (p. 135ff) to Josh Rosen in chapter 11
(p. 213ff). Who was more technically competent? Who was more
- Compare how Ed Rasala treated Jon Blau (p. 253) with how he had
treated Josh Rosen (p. 215). Do you think Rasala had mismanaged Rosen?
- Were using PALs a good idea or not? Give both pro and con arguments.
- What, if any, significance does the title for chapter 15 have?
(Canard is defined on p. 46.)
- Why would others in the company look at the Eagle project members
as "gunslingers"? (p. 280ff)
- Note what Evan Ratliff writes in
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.
For long term consideration
- "Good machines don't guarantee success." (p. 18)
- "Nothing ever happens unless you push it." (p. 111)
- "Not everything worth doing is worth doing well." (p. 119)
- "There's no such thing as a perfect design." (p. 120)
- "It's the last two percent that counts." (p. 142)
- "It doesn't matter how hard you work on something.
What counts is finishing and having it work." (p. 191)
- "I have the feeling that's the kind of behavior West
approves of." (p. 222)
- "You win one game, you get to play another. You win with
this machine, you get to build the next." (p. 228)
- "It's a tiredness that going home won't solve." (p. 254)
- "Ninety-eight percent of the thrill comes from knowing that
the thing you designed works, and works almost the way you
expected it would. If that happens, part of you
is in that machine." (p. 273, emphasis in original)
- Discuss whether the Eagle project played by these "rules".
- Compete for resources.
- Set an early schedule to prove your determination.
- Sign up to do whatever is necessary to succeed.
- Those who succeed will be rewarded.
- "One never explicitly plays by these rules."
- Was it Tom West's machine? Give both pro and con arguments.
(e.g., see pages 67-68, 119-120, 128, 225, 230, 271-272, 277-278)
- Did Tom West bet his career on the Eagle? Explain any risks
that he took.
- Note what Evan Ratliff writes in
In 1980, with the Eagle project barely completed, DG's upper
management offered him a series of what he calls "unpalatable
options"; Japan seemed the most promising. While Kidder hints
in the book that the transfer was just what West needed, West
today says he was "effectively fired."
- How did Tom West treat Carl Alsing, Ed Rasala, and Steve Wallach?
How did he treat the younger team members?
- Why did Tom West treat the younger team members as he did?
- "I can't afford to appear too scared around here. ... I can't
talk to people around here and say, 'Here's how I'm manipulating
you.'" (p. 133)
- Tom West's admiration of Edson de Castro's management style
and his previous experience as a young employee of extra effort
to get the Eclipse working when de Castro asked him about it.
- "West probably felt that a little material hardship was good
for young engineers, Alsing reasoned - that an embattled
feeling provoked energy" (p. 227)
- "No one ever pats anyone on the back around here. That's
how it works." (p. 227)
- "... he wanted them to have someone to lay it all on ..." (p. 229)
- An answer to a question at The Computer Museum:
Q: What are some of the advantages of a closed management style
versus a more open one?
If somebody walks into your office after five minutes of staring
at a sheet of paper and asks: "Should we make this register sixteen
bits wide or thirty-two bits wide?" you know the answer to this
question if you have been through it over and over and over again.
So you can tell him the answer, and he goes back and puts it in.
Then he sits around for another five minutes before coming back
with the next question. In some sense that is sort of what happens.
If you can send him back to his office and he thinks a little while
longer, ten minutes, fifteen minutes, or a half an hour, and then
he gets a little scared because he's got to have the right answer
by the time he goes back in again, you extend his span of attention
before he is finally ready to go and scream for help.
It seems to me that that is one of the most valuable lessons that
you can teach a kid who is coming into this business right out of
school. A span of attention of five minutes or even a half an hour
is not really going to do it. There are some problems that only
yield after three hours of just staring at them. I'm sure all of
those who have been doing design work have seen exactly that same
thing happen. It is the ability not to give up even after two
hours of trying to stare something down. Part of that is what is
embedded in that whole style of trying to make the easy answers
difficult to get.
- A discussion from the Wired article:
More mysterious was his aloof management style within his own team.
To the younger engineers, he came off as cold, uncaring; Soul
relates how he would ignore greetings from Hardy Boys and Microkids
when he passed them in the hall. "I would never try to defend that
I knew what I was doing," West says now, looking back. He was "shy,"
he suggests, or maybe "just embarrassed." "It really was a thinking
game," he finally says, "and somebody had to keep a clear head about
what the overall goal was. To do that requires a fair amount of
insulation and isolation. Otherwise, you just get caught up in the
- A quote from
Ron Gruner (the FHP leader):
Data General was tremendous fun during most of the time I was there.
The founders, deCastro, Burkhardt, Sogge and Richman, were
highly-motivated, self-directed individuals who were extremely
competent in their respective areas. For the most part, they treated
employees as equals, so if you didn't learn to 1) know what you're
talking about, 2) find solutions to problems without much direction,
and 3) thrive in a near Darwinian environment, you didn't last.
Most of us did though and dozens went on to start their own companies.
- What was Tom West's best ability? Explain. (One person suggested
that it was his ability to get people to "sign up". Another
stated, "To me the salient points [of the book] were:
the design of the DG MV8000 and the politics and engineer[ing]
activities that went on at different levels in the company.
Mr. West came the closest to understanding *all* of the
levels of activity...IMHO.")
- Would you want to work for Tom West? Why or why not?
(You may want to qualify your answer based on the number
of management layers that would be between you and Tom.)
- Given Tom West's management style,
how important to the project were Carl Alsing and Ed Rasala?
- Notice the similarity between the two descriptions given below.
What, if anything, is Kidder trying to convey?
- p. 51 - regarding Tom West's desk: "which was absolutely
clean save for a single stack of papers with their edges
- p. 270 - regarding Edson de Castro's desk: "which is absolutely
clean, save for one small stack of papers with their edges
- What is the organization chart for the Eagle project?
- Based on performance during the project, who, if any, would
you promote? Why? Who, if any, would you fire? Why?
(Note in the Computer Museum article that Tom West says he almost
fired the team member in charge of the system cache.)
- What's your reaction to this quote from a blog posting (2/7/07) by
Tom West's daughter?
"If people take anything away from
that story I'd hope that it would be equal parts appreciation
and reverence for a hard project well done and some amount of
distaste at the creepy work-above-all culture that plagued us
during the 80s. I think a lot of my lifestyle choices now are
directly related to not wanting to be a workaholic
Note also what Evan Ratliff, writes in
Others suspect the Eagle project and its aftermath, in which West
ended up divorced, may have drained his energy. At the end of Soul,
Kidder describes West as losing weight and sleep over the Eagle.
"He put a lot into it," says one Eagle engineer today, "and it took
a toll on his personal life."
- Compare her thoughts to the reflections of Facebook co-founder
Dustin Moskovitz in August 2015 on
"Work Hard, Live Well" and the NYT article he cites by Jodi Kantor
and David Streitfeld on
"Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace"
- Read the following two documents. Based on these, what did the book
leave out or give the wrong impression about?
- There were several competitions set up within DG and within the
Eagle group. Pick one and discuss the pros and cons.
You might also be interested in these general treatments of
- Christopher Brown,
"4 Reasons Internal Competition Helps Companies Win With Customers,"
Business 2 Community, January 2013
- Julian Birkinshaw,
"Strategies for managing internal competition,"
California Management Review, Fall 2001
- Julian Birkinshaw and Mats Lingblad,
"Making Sense of Internal Competition," 2001
- internal competition was discussed in the widely-read 1982 book by
Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman, Jr.,
In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-Run Companies
- Vanity Fair,
"Microsoft's Downfall: Inside the Executive E-mails and
Cannibalistic Culture That Felled a Tech Giant,"
July 2012 [discusses stack ranking of employees]
- Neal Firth has observed, "I find that people with engineering
backgrounds tend to make much better programmers." [1998 email
to Marion Hagler] Do you believe this is true in general?
Why or why not? Some possibly relevant discussions include:
Alliant Computer Systems
- Read the parts about the
Alliant startup (1982) in the
chapter on Ron Gruner in the book
Founders at Work.
- How was Ron Gruner connected to Data General? (pp. 427-428)
- What issues led to revenue problems for Alliant in the 1980s?
- With regard to venture capitalists, what is a "living dead"
company? (p. 431)
- What did Alliant tell new hires about the expected working days?
- What company does Gruner identify as the competitor to Alliant?
- Who was the lead computer architect for the competing company?
- How was Alliant's goal in the 1980s similar to goals for today's
- see Walid Abu-Sufah and Allen Malony,
"Vector processing on the Alliant FX/8 multiprocessor,"
ICPP 1986, pp. 559-566, for some performance results obtained
on an Alliant FX/8. Figure 1 on p. 564 shows the system block
diagram, and two of the figures on p. 565 show speedup versus
number of computational elements used.
Intel 386 Project
In 2008, the Computer History Museum sponsored an Oral History Panel on
Intel 386 Microprocessor Design and Development.
Participants were John Crawford, Gene Hill, Jill Leukhardt, Jan Willem Prak,
and Jim Slager, with Jim Jarrett serving as moderator. The 386 was a stopgap
design for Intel that, like the MV/8000, turned out to be a commerical
success when a bigger design effort faltered.
Crawford: [...] As it turned out, all the important folks on the
architecture team were invited to go to Oregon and I wasn't, but
I was asked to stay down in Santa Clara and work on a compatible
architecture, something that would be a 32-bit compatible upgrade
to the 286.
Jarrett: So you've used the term "gap filler;" it was filling a
gap between the 286 and what?
Prak: It was called a "single high end architecture" and Glen
Meyers and the other people moved to Oregon to do it. The code
name was P7 and they were combining the ideas from both of the
camps, the 432 camp and the Glen Meyers camp. [Note: the Oregon
P7 project became the 80960, and should not be confused with the
later 64-bit project in Santa Clara that was also named P7.]
Prak: [...] but we were definitely very limited in those areas
as well as in building up the team. So for a long time probably,
the first three quarters of the project, we definitely felt like
the stepchild and to us it seemed that the P7 group was getting
enormously more corporate support and assistance.
Slager: [...] We also had a lot of new college grads because
Intel encourages the hiring of new college grads, and we found
that we could get authorized to hire a bunch of those where we
couldn't get experienced people because we always had headcount
limitations. But the new college grad was like free talent to us.
So I'm trying to think, maybe it was the graduating class of 1983
that we got like four or five new college grads; they came right
onto the project into key roles and they had on-the-job training.
Slager: One aspect of having a young team is that it was rather
easy to get them feeling urgency. In some other projects, you got
experienced people, senior people, and they don't want to be pushed
around so much. They can get it done next week instead of tomorrow.
Jarrett: Earlier you had talked about feeling like a stepchild and
other teams getting more resources and I remember somebody was
saying that one of the required readings for the new team members
was Soul of a New Machine.
Crawford: Right yes.
Jarrett: So did you promote this sense of being this very small
ragtag team that was doing all this?
Slager: I don't think we had to be promoted.
Crawford: It was there.
Hill: You didn't have to build it into the culture.
Crawford: But there was a lot of parallels between the situation
described in that book which took place at Data General with a
well-funded new machine being done in North Carolina versus the
extension machine being done back at where Data General was first
started in Massachusetts. So it was a great book, made a great read,
and we could certainly empathize with what those guys went through.
Background and technical description of DG MV/8000
Examples of iterative design during the Eagle project
AOS/VS software compatibility story [1987 Usenet comp.arch posting]
- Donald Christiansen,
"All in a Day's Work," Today's Engineer, Feb. 2005.
[brief summary of book]
- Marion Hagler,
chapter notes, Mississippi State, ECE 1002
- John Faughnan and Sanja Stevanovic,
"Flight of the Eagle: The Birthing and Life of a Super-Minicomputer"
(pdf file), project management review, March 1996. [includes DG
timeline in attachments]
- William Bigler,
"Three Key Principles from 'Soul'",
The Academy of Management Executive, vol. 16, no. 4,
Nov. 2002, pp. 61-63.
Tom West profile, 1996
"O, Engineers!" Wired, Dec. 2000.
Soul of a New Machine at wikipedia