Remembering Tom West, the Original Geek Rock Star

I was saddened to learn of the passing last week of Tom West, the engineer/hacker who was the main focus of Tracy Kidder’s 1981 book The Soul of a New Machine. Tom was 71. Boston.com published a nice obituary; there were also notices in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and other places.

From the Boston.com article:

 

Thirty years ago, Tom West was thrust into a category of one, a famous computer engineer, with the publication of “The Soul of a New Machine.’’

Tracy Kidder’s book, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and is taught in business classes and journalism schools, chronicled Mr. West’s role leading a team that built a refined version of a 32-bit minicomputer at a key juncture for the computer industry and his employer, Data General of Westborough.

The book’s success turned a quirky, brilliant, private, and largely self-taught man into a somewhat reluctant guru.

 

I call Tom by his first name because I knew him, and that’s what I called him. In fact for a short while early in my career I worked quite closely with him — at the tail end of my four year stint at Data General.

As Soul of a New Machine amply demonstrates, West was a compelling figure. Everybody agrees he was quirky and brilliant; some people have mentioned his  being difficult or “prickly”. I have to say that I don’t remember a prickly side to the man. He could be abrupt, sure. Direct. Economical of speech. But if he had a temper or was harsh or unfair, I either never saw it or have since forgotten about it. I just remember that I really liked him.

Although I can’t claim to have been great friends with the man — I don’t know if he would even have remembered my name — he made a deep impression on me. When I wrote the novella Cheap Complex Devices in 2003 — about twenty years since I had worked with Tom West at Data General — a quirky, brilliant and (I think) extremely funny character named Tom Best showed up all through it. I can’t take much credit for Tom Best’s funny lines, however, since I stole most of them from Tom W.

Data General — Where I Learned That I, Too, Might Be One of “Them”

I joined Data General as a junior technical writer in April, 1980. I had recently completed work on a master’s degree in agricultural economics at Purdue University, and I had spent three of the prior five years in rural west Africa, first in the Peace Corps and then as a grad student doing field research on peasant cooperatives. I had spent most of my time in Africa far away from electricity and telephones and even from regular mail service. I was not a high-tech guy.

But I had learned some programming in grad school and my first child was on the way and I needed a job and Data General was willing to take a chance on me, so off I went, age 27, with some trepidation,  to my first “real” job. I didn’t think of myself as computer nerd material. I was skeptical about capitalism in general and technophilia in particular and I doubted that I would last long in that line of work. I dreamed of getting back out into the fields again, to open air, sun and soil. I vaguely expected to spend my life on remote agricultural experiment stations around the globe, finding ways to feed the starving millions.

I joined Data General just as the “Eagle” (official name: MV8000) project described in Kidder’s book was winding down. In fact my first assignment was helping prepare some of the MV8000 manuals for publication. Tom West was my boss’s boss, so I saw him from time to time, although direct contact was rare. He was a big cheese and very busy, and I was a junior guy in way over my head just trying to learn my job well enough to keep it.

By the time Soul of a New Machine came out in 1981, a transformation had taken place. I was writing assembly language programming manuals and other high-geek stuff. From April 1980 through the end of 1984, I wrote about four manuals each year, mostly programming books but a few hardware “theory of operation” books as well — books that described the architecture of machines that had CPUs that took up a whole board’s worth of chips, not single-chip microprocessors like we have today.

Flying Upside-Down is Not as Scary as it Sounds

When you write technical manuals for a living, you see a lot of how engineering gets done and you find places where the process breaks because your job thrusts you right into the crevasses. You find that two software groups are telling you different stories about how something is supposed to work; you find that hardware engineering and software engineering sometimes seem to not even be talking the same language, much less agreeing on architecture.

I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I wrote a couple of memos analyzing information flow & decision-making within Tom’s engineering group and how they might be improved. Somehow he read them. He liked them and called me to his office, and I was detailed to work with him on an “engineering process improvement” project.

That was the fun part of working with people like Tom — I’ve since found that the hacker universe is full of them — he didn’t care that I had never had any formal engineering training, that my most advanced academic study was in third world agricultural development. He just cared that I had interesting ideas and was willing to work hard. So over a period of weeks (or perhaps months? Don’t remember) I went around talking to engineers & engineering managers, synthesizing their ideas about process improvement, and drawing up proposals, which I then presented to Tom.  Some of my proposals were adopted. Then there was a re-org, Tom went off to Japan, and I left Data General for a job at computer startup that was literally making machines in a converted garage, just like they do at start-ups in Silicon Valley. I only saw Tom once after that, perhaps a decade later, when I was at a trade show in  San Francisco’s Moscone Center, and Tom was there doing booth duty for Data General. We chatted for five minutes, then I walked on.

(In fact, I’ve worked for a bunch of startups, and two of them were in garages. Funny how cliches sometimes really are true. And I later worked in Silicon Valley for a long time — some of it on software process improvement.)

Snapshot & Farewell

Here’s one little vignette about Tom (a story which I gussied up with an illustration and related in purple prose in Cheap Complex Devices. There are several more like it in the book).

He was once giving an informal talk to DG’s technical publications group, and somebody (me? I don’t remember) asked him about Data General’s product strategy for the next 18 months or so. Well, Tom goes over to a whiteboard, and he draws a crude graph with price along one axis and performance along the other. “You got your high end, that’s [code name for big, powerful computer  DG had under development].” He makes an X in the upper right corner. “You got your low end, that’s [code name for a cheap computer under development]” and he makes an X in the lower left. Then he says “then you got all this baroque shit in the middle”, and draws a squiggly line connecting them. “That’s our product strategy.” And that was all he said about it.

Maybe you have to have worked at a company that actually designs and manufactures computers to understand how funny that is, but I still laugh when I think of it. Tom was a hardware hacker, an engineer. In Tom’s world, “product strategy” was the kind of bullshit that people in marketing talked about. A marketing person might have spent half an hour on the question. Or perhaps a whole day! For Tom 15 seconds was more than enough.

(I should make clear that my “Tom Best” is inspired by Tom West and gets a lot of funny lines from him, but Tom and “Tom” are not the same person. Cheap Complex Devices is ostensibly written by “a madman who thinks he’s a computer program”, and accordingly every character in the book is drawn with crayon.)

Famous computer geeks existed before Tom West, but they were famous only within the world of geeks. Soul of a New Machine changed that. Tom was the first geek who became a cult hero to the mundane world at large, “a category of one,” as the Boston Globe put it. Whole careers where influenced by exposure to Tom, whether in person or by proxy, through the book. At a time long before the apotheosis of Steve Jobs, when geeks and nerds were routinely ridiculed and even bullied for being eggheads and losers, Tom, as captured by the wonderful writer Tracy Kidder, showed that the essence of fun was hacking (and vice versa), and that computer hacking was just the coolest fucking hacking of them all.

Since then the geek has emerged from loserville to win the culture wars. Even jocks brag about being geeks. These days everybody’s a geek and the geek-as-hipster-god has become a cliche.

But Tom West led the way. He’s to geeks what Greg Noll, the first man to ride Waimea, is to big wave surfers.

In his book The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe said that the special language & way of speaking you hear from virtually all jet pilots, commercial or military, derives from the cadences of the legendary aviator and test pilot Chuck Yeager. Yeager was such a larger than life character, such a rock star, that other pilots copied his way of speaking whether they realized it or not.

I have the sense that in the same way a lot of Tom Westisms have entered the geek culture; phrases that he made up have become part of our language. It’s been a while since I’ve worked with him or even read the book, so maybe I’m just being sentimental. But Tom West was a larger-than-life figure to me, and he certainly changed my way of thinking about what it meant to be a geek and what it meant to have intellectual fun — not just fun with your ideas, but with your hands too, and ideas in silicon. We’re all lucky that Tracy Kidder wrote his great book about the Eagle (which is not just Tom West, by the way. There is a lot more to the book than Tom). And I myself feel grateful that I got to see the Way of the Hacker up close, from a master.

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4 Comments

  1. Gary says:

    Insert joke about third-world farming, manure, and software technical writing here.

  2. John says:

    Do I detect a wee note of sourness about our chosen profession? That’s a sin, of course. For your penance, go re-read Soul of a New Machine. It will make you happy — happy at least that a few other people on earth understand you.

  3. I’d missed this and I’m deeply saddened to learn of Tom West’s passing. Soul of a New Machine inspired me to change career paths and, without formal training, become a geek. It’s been a long, mostly fun, ride so far.

    I little piece of Tom’s soul lives in every New Machine, put there by the people who cared enough to design them cleverly and build them well.

  4. Helen says:

    John, lovely post, but what I love most about your reply to Gary is the admonition, “re-read Soul of a New Machine.”

    I like it because a colleague of mine (incidentally also a Curl alum) told me a while ago, “You’re not allowed to be a technical writer without having read Soul of a New Machine.” (This, after I’d confessed to my cultural illiteracy on the matter despite having had “Technical Writer” on my business cards for a couple of years already.) I’m glad to say that I’ve since corrected the oversight.

    Did you happen to see this Wired piece on Soul, twenty years later?

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