Tick-tock is a both chip architecture and a corporate strategy

18.27, Friday 15 Dec 2023

The breakthrough with computers, as opposed to tabulators, is that they are not hard-wired to follow a single set process. Instead they follow instructions and the instructions are recorded as just more data.

General purpose computing is a convention in the CPU which is so ancient that it is architecture. Every chip has at its heart a metronome, the clock. Every tick, the chip processes a new number. The convention is the von Neumann architecture which says that these numbers are interpreted differently, first data and then instructions, and repeat.

(Von Neumann was the canonical 20th century scientific super-genius behind computers, nuclear war, and interstellar self-replicating probes.)

All the instructions are executed according to a timing scheme based on the ticking of a built-in clock. The “instruction” cycles and “execution” cycles alternate: On “tick,” the machine’s control unit interprets numbers brought to it as instructions, and prepares to execute the operations specified by the instructions on “tock,” when the “execution” cycle begins and the control unit interprets input as data to operate”

Tick tock.

Ok and so famously Intel, the greatest computer chip company of them all, had its tick tock corporate strategy:

Under this model, every microarchitecture change (tock) was followed by a die shrink of the process technology (tick).

Great strategy is 50% something that is effective in the market.

And 50% something that creates alignment for the tens of thousands of people who are being asked to follow it.

Did tick-tock resonate so well for Intel because it rhymed with the von Neumann architecture at the heart of their work, the stuff they had their collective hands dirty with every day?

I’m sure of it.

Back when digital was new, I was at the BBC. One of the struggles was to get the organisation to think of “digital” (i.e. websites) as something ongoing. Something iterative. The default mental model was “TX”: transmission.

As an org the beeb often seemed chaotic. Yet there is never dead air on the radio or on TV. Everyone knew how to hustle around the moment of transmission.

So websites, at the time, would be talked about in terms of TX. Which wasn’t helpful. It will have changed in the two decades since.

I remember hearing that GitHub, once upon a time, allowed engineers to self-prioritise on whatever projects - which matches the grain of the underlying git protocol and git culture itself. Google, when I’ve encountered it, has always reminded me of a microcosm of the heady, churning web ecosystem. For better and worse.

At scale strategy is culture. Culture transmits most effectively along the magnetic field lines of familiarity. The iron filings of individual behaviour bend to the field but they also create the field.

So I think that corporations come to resemble their material in the same way that dog owners come to resemble their dogs. For some companies, by luck or design, this also aligns with success.

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