There are two books that continually inspire me, no matter how much I read them and they have ties to some of of my past history. There are actually three now, with the new book, Steve Jobs, but that’s a matter of another post. I have read both of these books over a dozen times. The first of these is the Pulitzer Prize -winning Soul of a New Machine. You got to remember this was published in 1981, the Age of the Minicomputer. I was starting my first year at Northeastern University in a 5 year co-op program to get a B.S.E.E. in Electrical Engineering with a Computer Engineering focus. I had started taking an interest in Electronics in High School. I was building Heathkits and dreaming of the day when I would be designing hardware minicomputers and working for Digital (DEC). But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
Soul of a New Machine is an amazing true story of a team at Data General Corporation who build the new 32-bit minicomputer answer to the Digital VAX in just one year. You’ll see soon just how much VAX and VAX/VMS became ingrained in my life. Kidder’s thoughtful, prescient book, The Soul of a New Machine, tells stories of 35-year-old "veteran" engineers hiring recent college graduates and encouraging them to work harder and faster on complex and difficult projects, exploiting the youngsters' ignorance of normal scheduling processes while engendering a new kind of work ethic. It’s an exciting book that talks about “signing up” for a project and then doing anything to meet that commitment. Every developer or Engineer, whether or software, should read this book. It really puts you right there. As I started to work in the industry, I came back to this book many times because no book described better what we were doing to the “outside” world – our complex world of “whiz kids” struggling with problems and complexity to make something happen under impossible deadlines. This book further cemented that I would be Computer Designer and work for DEC or Data General.
Meanwhile, two things were happening. I was building circuits and real small computers at Northeastern and the second was that I was falling in absolute love with DEC’s VAX and it’s OS VAX/VMS. My first semester, due to a Fortran I class introduced me to the VAX but it was punch-cards then. There were no terminals yet. Those came with the VT100. Punch=cards gave me an appreciation of the complexity involved. But as soon as the VT100 came and the line printers, I was printing every ounce of the very extensive VMS help files, staying in the computer lab, becoming a VMS hacker, doing all sorts of things I wasn’t supposed to be doing. I was love with VMS. I would come to work at Digital for 6 years but not as a hardware computer designer but as a Software guy. In fact, since I got out of school in 1985, I have never spent a day as a hardware guy ever. I got to Digital in 1992-1996. I found it the happiest place in the world You have to understand we were on top of the world then, 126,000 employees, cover of Fortune magazine, one successful VAX after another, all tied together with VMS. The culture, boy the culture was amazing. DEC had this amazing culture that I have never seen anywhere else, not Microsoft, not anyone. There was VAXnotes, which tied all the employees together. If you had a problem, ask in a notes conference and in ten minutes some Engineer would have your answer. And there were support conferences. I got to work in the heart of the action at the mammoth Software headquaters in Nashua, NH at the famous ZK1-ZK3 tied together buildings, in the same building as the VMS Engineers working on the original TeamLinks for Windows product. Anyway, my here at DEC was David Cutler, the prime creator of VMS that I loved so much. And that’s a lead into the 2nd book you must read.
That book is Showstopper: The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft. Showstopper is the dramatic, inside story of the creation of Windows NT, and is comparable in many ways to Soul of a New Machine. This book is really a story of my hero Dave Cutler, and leading a band of software engineers who sacrifice almost everything in their lives to build a new, stable, operating system aimed at giving Microsoft a platform for growth through the next decade. Remember Windows 1.0? Windows 2.0? Windows 3? They were shit. I was writing Microsoft C at DEC on these platforms, and later Visual C++, and Windows NT was a HUGE step forward to a stable and real operating system. Anyway, This book is very much like Soul of a New Machine, putting you in the action and really explaining to the world what software guys did every day: the constant unreal deadlines and death marches, etc. And the book is full of Cutler’s motivating techniques: he was already punching holes in walls at DEC when I was there and there are is much of that here.
The book is really inspiring and made me want to work at Microsoft which I got to do for a short period 9/02-5/03 in the heady days of Microsoft .NET. Microsoft came closest to replicating Digital’s culture in those days with its campus and the excitement of early .NET.
Now, I don’t want to think. I think Apple, which just had its worth become greater than Microsoft + Google, is out-innovating everyone. And that’s the subject for the next post on the Steve Jobs book.