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The story behind ‘skunkworks’

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

In some ways, the story of Tom West and Data General—captured in The Soul of a New Machine—became the foundational story of American information technology.

West drifted around as a folk singer and worked at a Smithsonian observatory before finishing his physics degree at Amherst and landing at Data General, whose existence was threatened by 1978.

Data General let him set up a secret “skunkworks” project staffed by misfits and propelled by creative challenge and competition. In West’s “pinball management” style, if you succeeded at one task, you got to move up to a harder one. That model later spread to Silicon Valley.

His 32-bit Eclipse MV/8000, launched in 1980, was deemed miraculous. Briefly, Data General surged past all competitors.

West never repeated that trick, but he may have saved the company, and without him, Data General and his skunkworks would have died in 1980.

— Adapted from “Data General’s Tom West dies,” Chris Mellor, TheRegister.com.

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