in Technology, Workplace

Building the Data General Eclipse MV/8000, or, lessons from product development in the 70’s

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading Tracy Kidder’s 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Soul of a New Machine, in which he followed Data General (DG) engineers around for over a year while they tried to pull a miracle minicomputer, codenamed “Eagle”, out of the company. The firm’s survival was on the line. They were being slaughtered by Digital Equipment Corporation’s VAX 11/780 and they needed a winner, badly.

DG’s “new machine” ultimately became the Eclipse MV/8000, a name that, like the CDC 6600, is nearly unrecognizable to anyone today besides old computer nerds like myself. In other words, it’s damn hard to build a company that lasts. Both DG and its main rival, DEC, are gone, shoved aside by the PC revolution and the march towards inexpensive, x86-based servers running Linux. And so if you work in technology, you probably feel (or should feel) an immense sense of urgency, because there is always a surplus of discontinuous innovations just around the corner to disrupt whatever you’re working on right this instant. And those disruptors will in turn be disrupted by others, and then by yet others…

One other interesting observation from the book: today, we talk a lot about how humane work environments make employees more productive. Through Kidder’s telling, though, Data General was the biggest computer hardware sweatshop in Massachusetts at the time. Not only did the firm practice ‘mushroom management‘, but they prided themselves on it, and for running a lean ship, much as how Amazon prides itself on the same thing today. Yet engineers still willingly showed up to work, and for incredibly long hours, too. It’s not that they had few options; in fact, it appears that anyone who knew anything about computers in the ’70’s could probably have landed a job anywhere. Instead, they were inspired by a dream of doing something great in their career, and viewed what I would characterize as terrible working conditions simply as the hard work necessary to do that. (By the way, if you want to know the roots of misogyny in our industry, you need look no further than pioneering computer companies of the 1970s, where the engineers were almost entirely male, and the sexism was more overt. The low-level Eagle hardware engineers, for example, were known as the “Hardy Boys”.)

While I’m not suggesting that anyone today copy DG’s autocratic and traditional management style, with its clear delineation between “upstairs” (sales, marketing, the C-suite) and “downstairs” (the engineers who actually pulled rabbits out of a hat), there is nothing that can substitute for consistent clarity of purpose on a product. Had it not been for the conviction of Tom West, the senior VP in charge of the project, the MV/8000 would never have come to fruition, and DG probably would have failed years earlier than it did. Ultimately, all the rest of the terrible things about DG are lost to history: this one lesson is what remains, and it makes for an entertaining story.