Tom West, RIP

Tom West, the engineering manager that Tracy Kidder wrote about in The Soul of a New Machine, has died at age 71. Obit in the Boston Globe.

I read Soul before I first used a Vax, then re-read it years later after using both an MV/8000 and then having a my own personal Vax 11/780 for a while (and hacking its hardware a bit). I was impressed with the MV/8000 and how usable it was, though I still preferred bsd Unix on the Vax.

Doing a new machine is hard.

There’s a great scene in Soul of a New Machine where one of the people working on the MV/8000 obtains slightly shady access to a newly installed Vax; he takes the covers off, counts chips and estimates how much money DEC makes on each 780. I didn’t have much appreciation for this until I also started getting interested in how competitors designed their machines.

I like West’s “pinball machine” analogy: Winning at one level gives you the opportunity to play at the next level, where it’s harder. That’s definitely true.

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One Response to Tom West, RIP

  1. Andrew says:

    Soul is an awesome book. It’s a shame that so much of computing history is buried behind corporate secrecy. There are stories like that everywhere and it would be fascinating to read them.

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