At Ksplice, we put a lot of effort and discussion into how we manage projects, in part because we know we aren’t as good at it yet as we’d like to be. Books by managers and books for managers lie scattered around the office and employees’ rooms. So imagine my surprise and delight the day after Christmas when I opened The Soul of a New Machine, Tracy Kidder’s 1981 classic about the machines that made the computer age and the geeks who built them, and discovered it was about project management.
Keith sometimes remarks that Ksplice needs a documentarian. The Soul of a New Machine is the result of a project that had a documentarian, one who produced prose. The Eagle project at Data General set out to build a new computer, a 32-bit version of the existing 16-bit Eclipse line, just as DEC raced into the lead in the minicomputer market with the 32-bit VAX. Tracy Kidder, a writer for The Atlantic looking to write a story about technology, connected with his editor’s old college roommate, the leader of the Eagle project, Tom West.
The story that Kidder tells is full of implicit lessons that look as current today as they were in the computing projects of thirty years ago.
Schedules. Everyone knows that computing projects run slow. When the Eagle project started in July of 1978, it set an insanely fast timeline to have the whole computer architected, designed, built, and debugged by April 1979. They didn’t make it, of course, and many team members expected that from the start. But at every stage West, the engineer in charge, insisted on treating the schedule seriously—”come on, this schedule’s real”—setting intermediate deadlines as if the April date would be met. And though April slipped, the project was done in October, just fifteen months after it started and still a rapid turnaround by anyone’s count.
Delegation. On a big project, the person in charge can’t do everything themselves, or even keep a close eye on all of the work. They have to rely on others to do it right. Good managers know this, but it’s nerve-wracking to actually put it into practice. West itched to get into the lab and start debugging the prototype himself, telling Kidder, “Rocking back here in my chair and talking about doing it is one thing, but it makes me worry. It gives me a nauseous feeling, because I’m not doing it.” Eventually, as one lieutenant puts it, he “gripped the arms of his chair and decided to trust” the engineer leading the hardware team.
Perfect vs. done. Before Eagle, some of the same engineers had worked on projects to build a 32-bit machine from scratch. None of these projects were completed. Eagle would be tied by backward compatibility to the 16-bit Eclipse, and at the outset some engineers saw the idea as “a kludge on a kludge on a kludge”, or “a paper bag on the side of the Eclipse”, and wanted nothing to do with it. Yet West convinced them all to sign on to the project anyway, and in the end it was the compatible computer that was completed, sold well, and rescued Data General.
It’s not only the lessons that seem not to have changed. Some of the engineers on the Eagle project recall how as undergraduates they would “stay up all night and experience … the game of programming”, and we can all think of people thirty years later who, like a few of them, “started sleeping days and missed all their classes, thereby ruining their grades.” One comforting thought: Carl Alsing, the engineer in charge of the microcode team, was one of those who actually flunked out of school.
Finally, a word about the writing. The technical exposition is incredible. On the one hand, the reviewer for the New York Times heaped praise on the prose that enabled him to “follow every step” despite knowing nothing about computers (and a reviewer writing in 1981 could mean that in a much stronger sense than any reviewer typing into their laptop today.). From my very different perspective, I was fascinated to learn details about the faraway architectures and design constraints of a different era. And in 291 pages delving frequently into technical aspects of computer architecture, digital logic, and software, I never felt condescended to and I found not one mistake.
Maybe Ksplice should get a documentarian after all.