In TroubleMakers, Leslie Berlin offers a gripping account of the formation of Xerox PARC. This famous lab was responsible for a dizzying array of innovations, listed on Wikipedia as including “laser printing, Ethernet, the modern personal computer, graphical user interface (GUI) and desktop paradigm, object-oriented programming, ubiquitous computing, electronic paper, amorphous silicon (a-Si) applications, and advancing very-large-scale integration (VLSI) for semiconductors.” It raises the obvious question of how the features of the organisation facilitated innovation which such regularity and it seems there was much in its planning from which contemporary universities could learn a lot. From pg 92:
Goldman proposed that Xerox locate the research center in a university town with an “intellectual night life” that would attract and benefit researchers. Within the center, he envisioned three laboratories to target basic sciences, systems science, and computer science. He also had a few specific ideas for future products that might emerge from the labs—“ a machine which is half xerographic printer and half computing machine,” for example. But the essence of his plan could be distilled to seven words: hire great researchers and leave them alone. He told Xerox’s top management to expect nothing useful from PARC for at least five years.
PARC relied on its relationship to the university, offering the virtues of an academic life without the vices traditionally associated with it. As she goes on to write on pg 97,
PARC also offered high salaries and excellent resources. PARC researchers could easily interact with others at SRI and Stanford, particularly the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL). They could attend or give talks on campus, or meet with people visiting one of the other institutions. Several of the researchers from Taylor’s lab taught classes at Stanford. A job at PARC offered the intellectual stimulation of an academic career without teaching or publication demands.
Berlin paints a rich picture of a profoundly collegial environment, orientated towards enabling the creativity of the researchers and removing barriers upon its exercise through a process of community-building amongst people who nonetheless tended to be ardent individualists. From pg 97:
There was only one inviolable administrative requirement in Taylor’s lab. Once each week, everyone had to be in the beanbag room for a meeting. Taylor did not care when his researchers got to work or what they wore while there. It did not matter when they went to lunch or whether they shaved. But he wanted them in the beanbag room every Tuesday—and he expected them to stay for hours. The meetings served as the intellectual pulse of the lab and a way for him to keep the team moving in the same direction. The gatherings also reveal the inner workings of what both Thacker and Lampson have described as Taylor’s “magical” leadership. Taylor opened the sessions with administrative issues such as available billets and announcements of upcoming visitors. He then moved on to solicit project reports and ask for social announcements. Many members of the group, young and single, biked together in the hills or grabbed lunch at the Alpine Inn (fondly called “Zotts”) in the rural town of Portola Valley, a few miles from PARC. Researchers shared long weekend hikes among the coastal trees in the misty coolness above the valley. They barbecued at one another’s houses and worked on one another’s basement workshop projects. Taylor, a competitive tennis player, enjoyed challenging the best players at PARC to hard-core, sweat-streaming matches on the court behind his neighbor’s home. Afterward, the players would adjourn to Taylor’s house. “The Dr Pepper was cold, the doors were open, a breeze was blowing through, and everyone was always welcome to come in,” recalls Bob Metcalfe. 27
This required a great deal of creative management, some of which could be more accurately described as indulgence. But it served a purpose and created an environment in which scientists experience themselves as working autonomously towards collectively-derived ends, freed from the institutional pressures they would otherwise subject to because of Taylor’s careful and forceful mediation of the wider corporate environment within which PARC was embedded. From pg 98:
Taylor listened and took careful notes. He knew that truly creative computer scientists tend to be opinionated individualists. He catered to that tendency. When the group was preparing to move to a new building, he polled every researcher to determine the ideal phone system. All twenty researchers wanted Touch-Tone phones rather than the old-fashioned rotary dial, but beyond that, there was little consistency. One did not want any secretarial backup, but nine wanted the so-called Alan Kay switch that transferred incoming calls immediately to an attendant without interrupting the intended recipient. Five shunned the message waiting light, while seven wanted an intercom line. 28 Customized phones may seem trivial, but they are an example of a feeling that Taylor created at PARC—the sense that he was working for the researchers, rather than the other way around. Every week, once the social and administrative housekeeping were out of the way, Taylor brought the group to the heart of the meeting. “A time for half-baked ideas,” he called the sessions. A researcher would present work in front of a blackboard and set all the rules of engagement. Could he be interrupted with questions? V Were people allowed to interject at all? Would he talk for an hour and invite discussion for two more? Or would he toss out only a few ideas before opening the floor? Taylor called the featured presenter the “dealer” because the speaker set the terms much as a dealer sets out the rules of a poker game. Soon enough, the meetings themselves came to be called Dealers.