Research principles from the legendary Xerox PARC

Founded in 1970 as Xerox's R&D division, PARC was a dream factory that brought the world laser printing, Ethernet, the graphical user interface that led to Windows and the Macintosh, ubiquitous computing, and many other technologies that we now take for granted. Why made the place so damn special? Alan Kay, who pioneered networked computing while at Parc, lays out a few of the principles of the research community of which Parc was a hub:

1. Visions not goals

2. Fund people not projects — the scientists find the problems not the funders. So, for many reasons, you have to have the best researchers.

3. Problem Finding — not just Problem Solving

4. Milestones not deadlines

5. It’s “baseball” not “golf” — batting .350 is very good in a high aspiration high risk area. Not getting a hit is not failure but the overhead for getting hits. (As in baseball, an “error” is failing to pull off something that is technically feasible.)

6. It’s about shaping “computer stuff” to human ends per the vision. Much of the time this required the researchers to design and build pretty much everything, including much of the hardware — including a variety of mainframes — and virtually all of the software needed (including OSs and programming languages, etc.). Many of the ARPA researchers were quite fluent in both HW and SW (though usually better at one than the other). This made for a pretty homogeneous computing culture and great synergy in most projects.

7. The above goes against the commonsense idea that “computer people should not try to make their own tools (because of the infinite Turing Tarpit that results)”. The ARPA idea was a second order notion: “if you can make your own tools, HW and SW, then you must!”. The idea was that if you are going to take on big important and new problems then you just have to develop the chops to pull off all needed tools, partly because of what “new” really means, and partly because trying to do workarounds of vendor stuff that is in the wrong paradigm will kill the research thinking.

8. An important part of the research results are researchers. This extends the “baseball” idea to human development. The grad schools, especially, generally admitted people who “seemed interesting” and judgements weren’t made until a few years down the road. Many of the researchers who ultimately solved most of the many problems of personal computing and networking were created by the ARPA community.

"What made Xerox PARC special? Who else today is like them?" (Quora)

Notable Replies

  1. One of the most important enablers of world-changing research is to FUND it.

    Part of the reason that Xerox and AT&T funded critical, world changing research in the 50's through 80's was because past high corporate tax rates favored investment in long-term projects and infrastructure. Once the corporate tax rates were reduced, much of the corporate funding for long-term investments and research disappeared.

    Here are a couple interesting links on the historical corporate tax rates:

    Note how the drop in the highest corporate tax rates in 1986 and 1987 parallels the end of the "Golden Era" of Xerox PARC.
  2. Another oddly counter-intuitive enabler of fundamental research is a restrictive patent office. After all, you don't need to fund an expensive division of research scientists and engineers if the patent on rounded corners gets the same legal respect as a patent on lasers. Instead, it is much more profitable to fund a small number of patent lawyers and crank out thousands of trivial and obvious patents.

    Here is a few fun links on the rise of the patent society and it's non-correlation with economic progress:

  3. tekk says:

    I'm not convinced that it's a problem of a meritocracy in the way that you suggest though; in fact you sort of address it in your own post. It'd be a problem that has to be solved before, fix the accident of birth part.

    There's always something to be said about different experiences even not counting that, although it's hard to qualify that objectively.

  4. Well, when I find someone who's had the prerequisite environmental influences and lifetime of access to knowledge that's required to integrate multiple academic disciplines without being stuck in a tedious orthodoxy, they're usually from pretty similar backgrounds. For example they typically had extensive access to expensive libraries from a very early age.

    Personally I treasure the exceptions​.

  5. "What made Xerox PARC special? Who else today is like them?"
    Not the companies founded by the two guys who once "borrowed" a lot of PARC's ideas.

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