Flying Upside Down

The Hardy Boys and the Microkids build a computer

First coaxing, then threatening, saying, "If you don't do this, your job description is inoperative," West had persuaded a senior engineer named Steve Wallach to work on Eagle. Wallach was a combative engineer, in his thirties. West called him "a walking dictionary and encyclopedia of computers." Wallach had not liked the looks of this machine; he had called it "a wart on a wart on a wart" and "a bag on the side of the Eclipse." But as he got deeply involved, he began to like the looks of Eagle. He was the machine's chief architect. One can think of a computer's architecture as a description of what the machine will do; it leaves out the intricate details of the computer's construction. But Wallach, who was doing a fine job, in West's opinion, wasn't really finished before West had the team designing printed circuit boards. Before the team could clean up its designs, West was ordering prototype boards. Before the prototype boards could possibly be perfected, West was arranging for the construction of final, etched boards. And long before they could know whether Eagle would ever become a functioning computer, West had the designers stand in front of a camera and describe the various parts of the machine. The result of this last act of hubris (there were many others) was a videotape some twenty hours long. West planned to use it, when the right time came, as a tool for spreading the news of Eagle all around Building 14. "Pretty gutsy," he said, gesturing at the canisters of videotape in his bookcase.

West maintained that the team had to show quick and constant progress, whether or not any progress was being made, in order to get the various arms of the company interested in helping out—in order, that is, to compete successfully for resources. One evening he offered an additional explanation. "I'm flat out by definition. I'm a mess. It's terrible," he said. He paused, and added, "It's a lot of fun."

Others echoed that remark. The team was working long hours now, often twelve a day, and usually they put in six days a week. They spoke about the harsh effects of such labor, but there was relish in their voices. One day Jon Blau said, "I've had difficulty forming sentences lately.... Pieces of your life get dribbled away. I'm growing up, having all those experiences, and I don't want to shut them out for the sake of Data General or this big project." But he said that on the whole he was happy. He added, "That's the big kick, that the guys with the purse strings are trusting a bunch of kids to come up with the answer to VAX. That's what bowls me over, that they haven't just put us in a corner somewhere, doing nothing."

ALTOGETHER, it took them about six months to dream up Eagle. By January of 1979, two partially assembled prototypes were sitting in the basement, behind the locked doors of a small lab. But Eagle was not yet the equal of a hand-held calculator. The team had to make the computer work. They had to test it, and find, identify, and repair the flaws in its design. They called this part of the project "debugging."

Eagle had been designed too quickly for prudence, and at the onset of the debugging the question arose, in West's mind especially, whether "fatal" flaws in the design were about to be revealed. Pursuing what he called "what's-the-earliest-date-by-which- you-can't-prove-you-won't-be-finished scheduling," West had promised his bosses that Eagle would be debugged and brought to life by April. Of course, one can't ever know how long a debugging will take; the debugger delves into uncertainty. West was very nervous. He had Rasala make up a debugging schedule that would bring the machine in by April. Rasala put the Hardy Boys on two shifts in the lab. They made some progress right away, and West felt relieved. Then progress all but ceased. In the local idioms, they were moving "three steps forward, two steps back" and the debugging schedule was "slipping a week a week."

Right around the time when West was brooding over these discouraging reports from the lab, he got word from his boss upstairs that the company team in North Carolina was going to miss its deadline by a considerable margin. This was momentous news. West had always maintained that Eagle was crucial to the company. Now he was being proved right. He did not feel like celebrating, though. At the moment, he was afraid that Eagle might never get debugged, and yet he was being told that it had to be done within four months. Everyone in the company was depending on the Eclipse Group now; that was the message West thought he received from upstairs. Carl Alsing thought it might be the message that West decided to receive. "If you say you're gonna do it in a year and you don't take it seriously, then it'll take you three years," Alsing explained. "The game of crazy scheduling is in the category of games that you play on yourself, in order to get yourself to move."

AN Englishman of the nineteenth century named Charles Babbage, who is best known as the father of the modern computer, was one of the first to express the principle that the way to get a job done cheaply is to divide it into small parts that require relatively unskilled and therefore inexpensive labor. This is a basic principle of modern industrial organization. The general problem that it causes, one that has kept many consultants and psychologists busy over the years, is that when jobs are reduced to tasks so small and simple that the people performing them scarcely have to think, then work becomes boring and workers alienated. Most jobs were boring, in the computer industry and elsewhere, Alsing suspected, and he'd heard of systems of management that made even the building of a new computer sound dull. West, by contrast, had an exalted notion of what it meant to build a new machine; he spoke of "getting way out on the edge of what your mind can comprehend." He said, "It's for the kind of guy who likes to climb up mountains." According to the theory that West expressed to Alsing, computer engineers—the "winners" among them, anyway—would motivate themselves and work passionately, their only reward pinball, if they were given real responsibility for creating a new machine. That was how Eagle was being managed.

In West's lexicon, these ideas were subsumed in the word "trust." He'd added the term to his vocabulary that fall, and the ways in which he used the word made Alsing wonder if either of them had ever heard it before. "Trust is risk, and risk-avoidance is the name of the game in business," West said in praise of trust. Although he scarcely seemed to notice them, West often bragged about the engineers on his team behind their backs, and he could draw convincing portraits of most. He believed that they were bound together by webs of mutual trust. They'd signed up to do a job for him, and he in turn trusted them to get it done. He did not attempt to keep complete control, by breaking every task into meaningless fragments.

But the debugging wasn't going well, and in the circumstances, watching from his lair of an office was strenuous work for West. Alsing had known West back in the days when West was an engineer and not a manager. In Alsing's opinion, West had been just a competent circuit designer, but he was a very adept debugger. West wanted to be a debugger again. He wanted to go into the lab and will that machine into life, Alsing thought. But if West barged in there now, he would be admitting that he didn't really trust his team. The magic would be lost. So West was staying away from the lab and worrying instead.

Almost every morning now, West called Alsing into his office, closed the door, and asked, "What's really going on in the lab, Alsing?"

Alsing made soothing replies. Consoling the boss, it seemed to him, had become part of his job, and not necessarily the easiest part.

The tension among the recruits seemed palpable. Alsing could feel it in the air, he said. One day, early in the debugging, in a cubicle right outside West's door, a couple of Microkids began to laugh—first one, then the other, then both of them, more and more raucously. Alsing was sitting nearby, in his own cubicle. He heard the laughter. In the midst of it, his phone rang.

It was West. "If you don't shut those guys up I'm gonna kill 'em!"

Alsing went out and asked the offending Microkids to do their laughing elsewhere. "It was awful," he said afterward. "I felt so embarrassed. I felt like one of those old supervisors from the 1800s who used to hire children and work them eighteen hours a day."

West took a day off and drove to the seacoast, to look at sailboats.

In the evenings, West would usually call a halt to flying upside down and climb out of the role of the tough, mean manager. He would leave his office door ajar, as an invitation, and, leaning back, his hands fallen still, he would entertain almost any visitor. But on the evening when West heard the news about North Carolina, nightfall seemed to bring him no relief. West had a wild air, as if his office were a cage. He talked on and on. He had grown perceptibly thinner in the past few months, and his hands looked outsized. As he spoke, he pushed his hair back, he drove his index fingers up under the bridge of his glasses, he made fists and exploded his fingers outward. His hands, one imagined, had primitive will; they wanted to get into the prototype Eagles.

West said that he had been told the company would be "in a lot of trouble" if Eagle weren't debugged by April. "Suppose I quit?" he asked. "I could just say, 'The hell with it,' and go ... " Maybe he would buy a boat and sail away from Data General. No, he wouldn't do that yet. He'd see this project through, but only this project. "I'm not gonna do the next machine. I'm gonna give somebody else the chance to fail. I'm gonna get totally out of computers."

Saying he would quit was for West the equivalent of saying that he sometimes felt like quitting, and the statement was a substitute for the act itself.

THE lab was borrowed space, a corner of a larger lab, sealed off by a thin steel partition. It was no bigger than most suburban living rooms and more crowded than most. Along one cinder-block wall stood the source of anxiety, a pair of Eagles. They were two bare metal frames, their tops about shoulder-high. Inside each frame, exposed to view (computers in this state are said to have their "skins" off), was a shelf full of boards. Small flat cables ran among the boards, and further inside, below the shelves, were many bundles of multicolored wire. Eagle was a tangle of wire. A system console, which looked like a large typewriter, attended each prototype, and a magnetic tape drive stood next to one. The tape drive is often shown on TV and in movies, in order to signify the presence of a working computer. Probably it is chosen because the reels of tape spin rapidly and thus prove that something is going on. In fact, though, tape drives are among the slowest parts of a computing system. The real action takes place inside and between the boards. To get a look at it, one needs special tools—boxy little machines, covered with switches, called "logic analyzers." They sat on low, wheeled carts. Each analyzer had a small screen. In essence, one engineer explained, the analyzers were cameras. They took pictures of what happened inside the computer. Eagle would do a cycle of work every 220 nanoseconds, or billionths of a second. Hooked up to some part of the machine, an analyzer could take pictures of what happened there in each of 256 cycles and play those pictures back on command. "It's funny," said Ed Rasala. "I feel very comfortable talking in nanoseconds. I sit at one of these analyzers and nanoseconds are wide. I mean, you can see them go by. 'Jesus,' I say, 'that signal takes twelve nanoseconds to get from there to there.' those are real big things to me when I'm building a computer. Yet when I think about it, how much longer it takes to snap your fingers, I've lost track of what a nanosecond really means." He paused. "Time in a computer is an interesting concept."

One evening, when the lab was very still, everyone there bent to some task, one young engineer fiddled with a prototype Eagle. He was having a problem with the board he had designed. The machine, he said, kept "going to never-never land" whenever he asked it to add, and he was trying to take a picture with an analyzer of what was going wrong inside.

A straight white line ran horizontally across the analyzer's small blue screen. Nibbling his nails absentmindedly, the engineer made some arrangements around the prototype Eagle. Then, his nails still at his lips, he turned to the analyzer.

Something had happened. The straight white line on the screen had rearranged itself into a jagged shape. The young engineer stared at this picture. Slowly, he rotated his hand and took most of his knuckles in his teeth.

The jagged line on the screen was a picture of an electronic event that had taken place, in infinitesimal time, just a moment before. Though it was a common sort of picture in the lab, all of a sudden it looked dreadful.

This young engineer was, as it happened, one of those who did not enjoy flying upside down. He was capable, a Microkid said, of coming up with remarkable insights about the innards of a computer; there was no doubting his abilities. But he'd had trouble with the team's top managers and with his piece of Eagle's hardware. Many of the recruits felt that they were being given substantial freedoms. Clearly, though, time to revise was not one of them. This engineer was unhappy because he had been denied the right to fix the problem in his board in the way he thought was proper. In addition, he felt he had been insulted on a number of occasions. Perhaps most important, he felt worn out.

As the debugging continued, he felt under extreme pressure, which collected in his stomach. It hurt every day. This sort of work, even the occasional bad stomach, used to be fun. "Part of the fascination," he said, "is just little boys who never grew up, playing with erector sets. Engineers just don't lose that, and if you do lose it, you can't be an engineer anymore." He went on, "When you burn out, you lose enthusiasm. I always loved computers. All of a sudden I didn't care. It was all of a sudden a job."

One weekend some time before, he had visited what he called "a very liberal arts college" in Vermont. He was strolling across the campus when a young woman, bare to the waist, walked by. "She was a miracle of biological engineering," he said. "I was so stunned that I walked into the door of a geodesic dome. Although blood was pouring down the bridge of my nose, I was completely oblivious to it."

Back at Data General, one day during the debugging, his weariness focused on the logic analyzers and the small catastrophes that come from trying to build a machine that operates in billionths of a second. He went away from the basement of Building 14 that day, and left this note in his cubicle, on top of his computer terminal: "I'm going to a commune in Vermont and will deal with no unit of time shorter than a season."

Read the second installment of this article, from the August, 1981, Atlantic.
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