Thursday, March 29, 2012

What Bell Labs Taught Me About Effective Design

In his book, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, Jon Gertner offers a sweeping history of Bell Laboratiories (aka "Bell Labs" or "The Labs") that highlights its role as the birthplace of some of the 20th century's most influential technologies.

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For me, Bell Labs is not an abstract American success story. It's personal. I spent the first decade of my career in the Bell Labs Signal Processor Laboratory in Whippany NJ. I can't really say I used The Labs as a springboard to change the world at large, but Bell Labs changed my world by teaching me that selfish design — designing for myself — is the catalyst for creating works that have meaning for others.

The Labs was a great place to be a young engineer. It offered a unique combination of freedom, responsibility, and access to knowledge and expertise. About 18 months after being hired out of grad school, I got the asssignment that would define my career. I was challenged to, within 30 days, design and demonstrate a prototype program for creating dataflow signal processing systems visually, including code generation.

Teletype 5620, nee Blit.
I immediately grasped in my mind what I wanted gred (as it was called) to be, inspired by months of experimenting with the Blit graphics terminal, which ran Bell Labs research scientist  Rob Pike's landmark ovelapping bitmap layers windowing system. Studying the Blit source code taught me everything I ever needed to learn about guru-class programming.

There are two approaches to design. Either make something so simple there are no obvious defects, or make something so complicated there are no obvious defects. (C.A.R. Hoare) The Blit source — compact, elegant, every element stripped to its essence — showed me that the path of simplicity not only satisfies, but also educates and enlightens.

I also came to realize, from studying designs I admired from other Bell Labs researchers, that establishing your own guiding principles for the success of a design and holding to them — selfish design — is the surest path to "fitness for use," a definition for product quality championed by our Laboratory Director, AT&T Fellow Caryl Pettijohn. If something works perfectly for you, chances are it will work for others; conversely, if something doesn't work well for you, it probably won't do better for anyone else.

Armed with these principles, I got the gred prototype for the Blit done on deadline, and it went on to become a great success with many spin-offs, the project that defined my career at The Labs. I was able to continue working on it at least part-time for the better part of 5 years increasing its capabilities and scope until it was perfect. And I can say gred was perfect because I was its #1 power user. I designed it for me. It had effective symbology, the exact number of features it needed, and I could readily defend why every feature was incorporated into the design, and why others were left out. More importantly, gred never went offline during these design iterations, and at every step it was the best solution available.

Rob Pike is famously quoted regarding his team's motiviation to invent the Blit: "it wasn't that we wanted high-performance graphics on everyone's desk; we just wanted high-performance graphics on our desks." I didn't start what has become In Aurem because I wanted everyone to have high-resolution digital restorations of their analog audio titles; I just wanted high-resolution digital restorations of my titles. And, by again selfishly staying true to my guiding principles for audio restoration, the effort has paid benefits to others as well.

            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #26           

Title: Building the Perfect Beast
Artist: Don Henley
Genre: Rock
Year: 1984

The same summer I set out to build the perfect visual editor for signal processing graphs, ex-Eagle Don Henley released his first solo record, a hit-making machine. The Boys of Summer became one of the gred project theme songs, eternally linked through my Bell Labs colleagues' rewrite of a line involving "a Dead head sticker on a Cadillac." I can still hear it in my mind.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. If you are a Bell Labs alum, what was the coolest invention you saw during your time at The Labs?