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The Soul of A New Machine Paperback – June 1, 2000
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The computer revolution brought with it new methods of getting work done--just look at today's news for reports of hard-driven, highly-motivated young software and online commerce developers who sacrifice evenings and weekends to meet impossible deadlines. Tracy Kidder got a preview of this world in the late 1970s when he observed the engineers of Data General design and build a new 32-bit minicomputer in just one year. His thoughtful, prescient book, The Soul of a New Machine, tells stories of 35-year-old "veteran" engineers hiring recent college graduates and encouraging them to work harder and faster on complex and difficult projects, exploiting the youngsters' ignorance of normal scheduling processes while engendering a new kind of work ethic.
These days, we are used to the "total commitment" philosophy of managing technical creation, but Kidder was surprised and even a little alarmed at the obsessions and compulsions he found. From in-house political struggles to workers being permitted to tease management to marathon 24-hour work sessions, The Soul of a New Machine explores concepts that already seem familiar, even old-hat, less than 20 years later. Kidder plainly admires his subjects; while he admits to hopeless confusion about their work, he finds their dedication heroic. The reader wonders, though, what will become of it all, now and in the future. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Library Journal
Pulitzer Prize winner Kidder's 1981 volume was published when mini-supercomputers were still the stuff of science fiction. How the world has turned. Though technology has grown immeasurably since then, this volume still serves as an interesting history of the machine that conquered the world.
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
The company HQ is based in Massachusetts. What complicates matters is that the CEO establishes a new R&D center in North Carolina where he hopes the new 32-bit mini computer will be built. The new R&D center however, creates a major rift between the engineers who stayed in Massachusetts and the ones who work in North Carolina - as both groups want to be in charge of development. A major feud begins, but basically the group in North Carolina wins and gets to build the new 32-bit system.
However, the story begins in Massachusetts....
Tom West, an engineering manager in Massachusetts, manages to convince the management that it would be worthwhile to have a 'back-up' 32-bit computer system, that was perhaps backwards compatible with their old 16-bit systems. It would be a sort of 'insurance' so to speak in case development efforts in North Carolina took too long.
With a handful of experienced engineers as team leaders, he recruits essentially fresh college graduates and works the hell out of them to create a rival 32-bit computer system.
Over the course of the book, it becomes apparent that the North Carolina facility - despite having more resources, money, engineers, etc. - will not in fact be able to launch their product in a timely fashion. West's team of new recruits really does need to release their product in order for the company to continue competing in the mini-computer market.
The book is not written so much on the technical details of the project, but rather is more of a 'documentary' of the experience of being on the product development team.
The level of detail this book captures, and at each level (from West's perspective, the perspective of a number of the fresh college graduates, his experienced Team Leaders who speculated on West's motives in driving everyone so hard, the background situation of the company and management) is perfect.
Looking back historically, one could easily just conclude that the Massachusetts team succeeded for all sorts of technical reasons. But there were a lot of interesting human reasons for why the project succeeded. For one, the project should have never been started in Massachusetts in the first place. The company management did not seem to have any clear idea of what to put their engineers to work on (or even really know what they were working on) and a wily manager was able to sneak the project by, masquerading it as something else.
As engineer on a product development team for a robotic system, I can 100% relate to this book.
The ridiculous management decisions, the company politics, engineers working insane hours on esoteric problems, the strange culture of engineers, the product launch and general lack of appreciation for the engineer's work afterwards - it's amazingly well captured in this book, and I was surprised at how my current company and previous company experiences relate so strongly to the product development described here.
What I liked most about it, was that a lot of the decisions made by West, the company, etc were highly irrational, if you looked at them from the company perspective. The company SHOULD have only had one group working on the development project. West SHOULD have explained to his team the importance of what they were working on and perhaps been more involved on the day to day decisions of the project, just as the VP of Engineering SHOULD have been more cognizant of what West's entire team was up to. (The author writes about 'mushroom management' in the book - keep 'em in the dark and feed 'em *edited by Amazon Censors*). But in reality, for often political reasons, feuds, the strange driven personality of a particular manager, the strange management practices of the CEO, all of these mistakes get made, and yet a 32-bit mini computer gets built and saves the company in the end anyway.
It's a great book because it is all true.
I am not sure how interesting this would be for someone that doesn't work in product development, but for me, I see this mistakes made in my company every day. It's amazing how much individual personalities, and strange coincidences can drive a project.
An additional tidbit, Wired magazine did a follow up with all of the engineers years after this book was written:
Google 'O, Engineers!', 'Soul of a New Machine, Wired' in case Amazon gets rid of the link.
A great book.
At the end of this book I found myself split on two separate opinions:
1. The ability for a team to come together and against all expectations to produce something faster then anyone expected. This was an amazing feat.
2. Given the right circumstances, a strong leader, fresh college graduates, managers willing to push, and a lofty high goal, a team and it's members can be pushed to work 80 to 100 hours a week for years to achieve said lofty goal for a company that only pays them for 40 hours a week. It's shows the ability to create/exploit cult like behavior to create something new.
I have no doubt that a similar story could be made for countless products. We hear stories of the first Macintosh and iPhone, and how much work and sacrifice was put into these products. We praise the iPhone and Mac as being revolutionary products, but what if in the end it was just a normal product. This is the story of that machine.
Tracy Kidder captures a technical world and gives a clear picture at the tremendous challenges of building a state of the art computer system, that must be backwards compatible with legacy architecture, all while doing it in an easy to read manner (and a brilliant original perspective).
It is a heroic, true life story. It was (and still is) one of my all-time favorite books.
The story is 35 years old now so parts of it may sound quaint to someone up on the latest technology, but it takes nothing away from this being a great story of a group of people pursuing the state of the art and reaching it despite all of the obstacles put in their way. The author includes profiles of some of the team members giving the story a more human feel as well.