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The Soul of A New Machine Paperback – June 1, 2000
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-- Jeremy Bernstein, New York Review of Books
From the Back Cover
- Publisher : Back Bay Books (June 1, 2000)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 320 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0316491977
- ISBN-13 : 978-0316491976
- Item Weight : 10.6 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.55 x 1.1 x 8.25 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #109,108 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Being set in the late 1970s, the book provides the reader with an authentic glimpse into a bygone era when yellow legal pads and pencils were essential engineering tools. What's surprising is the similarities to modern-day. Engineers are still wrestling with the same fundamental questions: can machines think, what are the ethical implications of computing, what's the perfect balance between done and right? Then and now, engineers are attempting to cope with the "long-term tiredness" resulting from the rampant pace of innovation that can render a recent graduate more skilled than an industry veteran. The human component remains the most perplexing. In the end, "people are just reaching out in the dark, touching hands." The book serves as a refreshing reminder that although technology evolves at a breakneck pace, the design process remains much the same.
In conclusion, The Soul of a New Machine should be required reading for business and engineering students alike. The enduring lessons are to hire smart people, enable them, and get out of their way. Engineers thrive on agency and the potential to materialize their conceptions. No amount of external motivation can breathe commiserate vitality into a design process. If you are an engineer or a manager, do yourself a favor: read and understand The Soul of a New Machine.
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.
This book is about engineers and the culture of engineering more than anything else. It’s about smart young men who pour their lives into projects in order to see them succeed. It’s about their lack of social skill, their strange coping mechanisms, and their bonds of brotherhood and friendship. Such displays are familiar to anyone who has spent much time around engineers. In Kidder’s telling, these engineers give this product supreme meaning for a couple years of their life.
Kidder’s journalistic act won a Pulitzer Prize. It’s amazing how he transforms mundane engineering practices into a fast-paced drama. His ability to empathize with average engineers (especially as a non-engineer) confounds me. He describes this scene as exciting for the masses when most non-engineers would consider such adventures as boring. This work still interesting to read almost forty years later.
So what is the soul of a computer? To Kidder, it’s about working hard on a project to which one has given supreme importance. It’s about a team coming together despite their social hang-ups. It’s about pushing a product out only to have marketers and business-people claim its inventive force as their own. It’s about not just the circuit boards and software but the people who create the computer for us.
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But by the end it did feel very much like the journey, albeit shorter and just about this one machine, in the TV series Halt and Catch Fire. Pioneers, doing groundbreaking things, with no vast reference library and quite often inventing their own wheels, or making wheels out of wire.
I'd recommend it for anyone interested in feeling like you were in the team working to get their 32bit machine out of the door and working long hours to achieve it.
I used to work in computer manufacturing in the 1980's and a lot of this resonated with me, although not on the same scale.
The book was well researched and well written.
It might have a relatively narrow readership but if it is in your field of interest you should enjoy it.
This book is an account by Kidder, a non-techie journalist, of building a 4.5 MHz 32-bit computer, The Eagle, in the late 70s from discrete logic gates and before the advent of modern CPUs (like the Motorola 68000, Intel 8086).
The work to build such a computer is chronicled wonderfully, like a mission to the moon or deep below the sea. It starts with the project manager (Tom West), then his deputies and drills down to the juniors who designed the ALU, cache (each occupied a separate logic board in the day) etc (all from discrete logic gates!) and the team who wrote the microcode.
It tells the story from a non-technical viewpoint although you can recognise the design characteristics in a modern cpu. It is part historical account, part management lesson, part how to motivate the troops. It still stands up to being read 30 years after it was written about a now-long dead computer!
Buy it and enjoy the read.
p.s. It inspired me to install Colossal Cave Adventure which they used to debug The Eagle on my Raspberry Pi.