The New Golden Age of Building with Soul

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

From the Intel x86 Manual:

In the mid-1960s, Intel cofounder and Chairman Emeritus Gordon Moore had this observation: “… the number of transistors that would be incorporated on a silicon die would double every 18 months for the next several years.” Over the past three and half decades, this prediction known as “Moore’s Law” has continued to hold true.

Moore’s Law is coming up a lot lately in the context of coming to an end. It’s kind of been a running joke for quite some time though so I think there is still a bit of skepticism around claiming it’s ending. However, Moore’s Law ending can mean a lot of different things for the future of computing.

Golden Age of Garage Computer Builders

Personally, I look back on the golden age of computers as the time when people were building the first personal computers in their garage. There is a certain whimsy of that time fueled with a mix of hard work and passion for building something crazy with a very small team. In today’s age, at large companies, most engineers take jobs where they work on one teeny aspect of a machine or website or app. Sometimes they are not even aware of the larger goal or vision but just their own little world.

Back in the garage computer building era (or so I will call it), a very small group of people aligned on a mission could create something bigger than themselves and have immense impact. This is more aligned with how startups work, in my opinion, in that small groups of people with the same end goal build something together.

Soul and Passion

This break I read The Soul of a New Machine, thanks @bcantrill for the recommendation. (He also wrote an amazing blog post on it.) In the book, a small team built an entire machine.

The book really hit home for me on so many levels. The team wasn’t driven by power or greed, but by accomplishment and self-fulfillment. They put a part of themselves in the machine therefore producing a machine with a soul.

Not only did the team have a very strong bond, but it was built on trust. The team was made up of programmers with utmost expertise and experience and also with new programmers. I love this detail. One of the stories from the book is about how they thought about creating a simulator for the machine to iterate more quickly. Well West, the most senior, wrote it off as impossible in the given time, but one of the new programmers brought it to life and wrote it. It’s amazing what a person can do when they don’t know something is impossible and are empowered to take on a task.

I loved this book in the same way I love Halt and Catch Fire. It’s a TV show based in the same time about building computers and gaming software. It’s amazing if you haven’t seen it. Highly recommend. Thanks @dynamicwebpaige for introducing me to it. It showcases all the same passion and idealism for building as The Soul of a New Machine.

I also love thinking about that era in computing because my grandpa was a computer programmer. After attending college, my mom and dad stayed with him for a bit. My mom likes to tell this story about how he had made his computer talk. It was something he had been working on for a long time at his office, but he was also working on it at home. She came to his house after work one day and as she walked in the door the computer said “Hi Debbie” and his face lit up.

I love the passion of building and to me that time was the golden age of passionate building. So now you might be wondering where I’m going with this and how this fits in with Moore’s Law and today….

New Golden Age

In their Turing lecture, Hennessey and Patterson call today’s age “A New Golden Age for Computer Architecture”.

“The end of Dennard scaling and Moore’s Law and the deceleration of performance gains for standard microprocessors are not problems that must be solved but facts that, recognized, offer breathtaking opportunities.”

I love this and I believe it. There are so many opportunities today because of the circumstances of computing changing that will be awesome to see unfold.

I’m not going to play hand-wavy, armchair, “here is the future” with you all. Instead, I will give you a few quotes from an article on sigarch of the ACM that I really loved and let you come to your own conclusions and theories.

“Prediction #1: Technology scaling will continue to deliver benefits to certain markets

#2: Beloved computing abstractions will fail, opening new opportunities for innovation

#3: Democratization of technology will result in a golden age for computer architecture”

“By 2030, the rise of open source cores, IP, and CAD flows targeting these advanced nodes will mean that designing and fabricating complex chips will be possible by smaller players.”

“Hardware startups will flourish for the reasons that the open source software ecosystem paired with commoditized cloud compute has unleashed software startups over the past decade.”

Thanks for reading my cheese ball post! I truly believe it’s a great time to be alive and a passionate builder!