Flying Upside Down

The Hardy Boys and the Microkids build a computer

BY the spring of 1978, West had gathered a cadre of fairly experienced engineers. But to build Eagle, it was soon clear, more engineers were needed.

West conferred with an old colleague named Carl Alsing. Alsing was in his mid-thirties, a veteran, and a practitioner of an abstruse but essential craft called microcoding. He was soft-spoken. He had a mischievous air and—in all matters, it seemed—an aversion to the blunt approach. Alsing had joined the Eagle project without any coaxing, and was the only one of West's three lieutenants to do so. West regarded Alsing as one of the few people around Building 14 in whom he could confide, and for his part, Alsing, who was something of a watcher—a moviegoer—was fascinated by West, especially at the onset of the project.

"We need more bodies, Alsing," West said that spring. "Shall we hire kids?"

A famous computer engineer had remarked that he liked to hire inexperienced engineers fresh from college, because they did not usually know what was supposed to be impossible. West had heard the remark. He liked the sound of it. He figured, too, that "kids" would be relatively inexpensive to hire. Moreover, this could be another way of disguising his true intentions: who would imagine that a bunch of recruits could build an important new computer? To Alsing, the idea was vintage West. It looked risky and compelling. Alsing became the Eclipse Group's chief recruiter.

West and Alsing agreed that they would have to hire the very best of that year's college graduates, even though, they told each other, they might be hiring their own replacements, their own "assassins." That was all very well, but the demand for young computer engineers far exceeded the supply. What enticement could the Eclipse Group offer that companies such as IBM could not? Clearly, it had to be the Eagle project itself. It was thought to be a fine thing in the fraternity of hardware engineers to be a builder of new computers—in the local idiom, it was the "sexy" job—and, Alsing knew, most big companies just didn't offer recruits the opportunity to be such a person right away. So they had what West called "a high-energy story."

But the new recruits were going to be asked to work at a feverish pace almost at once, and they'd have no time to learn the true meaning of the Eclipse Group's mysterious rite of initiation, which was known as "signing up." In the Eclipse Group, when you signed up, you agreed to do whatever was necessary for success and to forsake time with family, hobbies, and friends—if you had any of those left, and you might not, if you had signed up for too many projects before. In effect, a person who signed up declared, "I want to do this job and I'll give it my heart and soul." Formal declarations weren't called for. A simple "Yeah, I'll do that" could constitute signing up. But only veterans knew what such a statement might entail.

The Eclipse Group solicited applications. One candidate listed "family life" as his main avocation. Alsing and another of West's lieutenants were skeptical when they saw that entry. Not that they wanted to exclude family men, being such men themselves. But Alsing thought: "He seems to be saying he doesn't want to sign up." The other lieutenant pondered the application. "I don't think he'd be happy here," he said to himself.

Any likely-looking candidate was invited to Building 14, and the elders of the group would interview the young man; it was usually a young man, for female engineers specializing in the hardware of computers were still quite scarce. If the recruit was a potential microcoder, his interview with Alsing was crucial. And a successful interview with Alsing constituted signing up.

Alsing would ask the young engineer, "What do you want to do?"

If the recruit seemed to say, "Well, I'm just out of grad school and I'm not really sure," then Alsing would usually find a polite way to abbreviate the conversation. But if the recruit said, for instance, "I'm really interested in computer design," then Alsing would press on. The ideal interview would proceed in this fashion:

"What interests you about computer design?"

"I want to build one," says the recruit.

"What makes you think you can build a new computer?"

"Hey," says the recruit, "no offense, but I've used some of the machines you guys have built. I think I can do a better job."

"Well, we're building this machine that's way out in front in technology," says Alsing. "We're gonna design all new hardware and tools. Do you like the sound of that?"

"Oh, yeah," says the recruit.

"It's gonna be tough," says Alsing. "If we hired you, you'd be working with a bunch of cynics and egotists and it'd be hard to keep up with them."

"That doesn't scare me," says the recruit.

"There's a lot of fast people in this group," Alsing goes on. "It's gonna be a real hard job with a lot of long hours. And I mean long hours."

"No," says the recruit. "That's what I want to do, get in on the ground floor of a new architecture. I want to do a big machine. I want to be where the action is."

"Well," says Alsing, pulling a long face. "We can only let in the best of this year's graduates. We've already let in some awfully fast people. We'll have to let you know."

"We tell him that we only let in the best—then we let him in," Alsing said, after it was all done. "I don't know. It was kind of like recruiting for a suicide mission. You're gonna die, but you're gonna die in glory."

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