Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Books: Digital At Work: Snapshots From The First Thirty-Five Years

I just finished reading Digital At Work: Snapshots From The First Thirty-Five Years.
"Digital At Work" tells the story of the first thirty-five years of Digital Equipment Corporation [DEC] and illuminates the origins of its unique culture. First person accounts from past and present members of the Digital community, industry associates, board members, and friends - plus a wealth of photos from Digital's archives - trace the company's evolution from the 1950s to present.
In short, I really enjoyed it. By reading this book, I was able to vicariously experience the growth and history of one of the most significant companies in the history of computing, and it definitely left an emotional impact.

I think one of the most interesting things about Digital was its culture. Some people might call it chaos. Other people might call it a meritocracy. It was definitely in the MIT tradition. It wasn't uncommon to get into shouting matches over which approach to take. Good ideas were always more important than what little company hierarchy existed.

Here are a few random, interesting quotes I jotted down while reading the book. I left out the page numbers because you can just search for them in the PDF:
Fortune magazine’s report in the late 1950s that no money was to be made in computers suggested the word itself be avoided in Digital’s first business plan.

If you had to design a modern computer with the tools we had, you couldn’t do it. But to build the first computer was an eminently doable thing, partly because we could design something that we could build.

Many of Sketchpad’s capabilities were sophisticated even by the workstation standards of the 1980s. “If I had known how hard it was to do,” Sutherland said later, “I probably wouldn’t have done it.”

Six MIT students, including Alan Kotok and Peter Samson, bet Jack Dennis, who ran the PDP-1, that they could come up with their own assembler in a single weekend. They wrote and debugged it in 250 man-hours, and it was loaded onto the machine when Dennis came to work on Monday. This was the sort of job that might have taken the industry months to complete.

Success depended on extraordinary personal commitments, often creating high levels of personal stress. “The atmosphere has always been that of small groups of engineers with extremely high energy, working hard and aggressively for long, long hours-always on the edge of burnout,” says Jesse Lipcon. “That can be both positive and negative.”

“We didn’t have much experience,” says Cady, “but we were energetic, enthusiastic, and too dumb to know what we were doing couldn’t be done. So we did it anyway."

And, of course, we disagreed with much of what the original committee had done. So in the best Digital tradition, while creating the impression that the specs were frozen and we were just fixing some bugs, we surreptitiously went around changing many things, simplifying the protocols as much as we could get away with.

Primarily, architecture is the ability to take complex problems and structure them down into smaller problems in a simple, tasteful, and elegant way.

“It worked out that there were about a million lines of code in each new version of VMS,” says Heffner. “The first version was about a million lines of code, and by the time we got to Version 5, there were 5 million lines of code. We’re talking about a really heavy-duty operating system here, with more functionality than the world at that time had ever known.

We’d assign new kids to a senior person who would look after them, like an apprentice. Managing a good software engineer is like raising a kid-you want them to get into a little bit of trouble, but you don’t let them burn down the house.

[In Galway, Ireland] we were the only nonunion shop around, we paid well, and we did a lot of employee training so people could move up to higher-paying jobs very quickly. The hierarchy between workers and management was invisible.

This book is wonderful...As for people just entering the computer field, they will get a sense of how wonderfully uncomplicated things were, how exciting and liberating the challenges were, and how much actually got done.

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