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The Soul of A New Machine Paperback – June 1, 2000
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"It has the ring of truth....For readers who would like to know what it takes to make a computer, how computers are organized, and who the people are who put them together, I strongly recommend The Soul of a New Machine. I do not know anything quite like it".
-- Jeremy Bernstein, New York Review of Books
From the Back Cover
Computers have changed since 1981, when Tracy Kidder indelibly recorded the drama, comedy, and excitement of one company's efforts to bring a new microcomputer to market. What has changed little, however, is computer culture: the feverish pace of the high-tech industry, the mystique of programmers, the go-for-broke approach to business that has caused so many computer companies to win big (or go belly up), and the cult of pursuing mind-bending technological innovations. By tracing computer culture to its roots, by exploring the "soul" of the "machine" that has revolutionized the world, Kidder succeeds as no other writer has done in capturing the essential spirit of the computer age.
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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.
On the other hand, even after having read the entire book I still don't really get the feeling I understand what made a couple of the central players tick. Maybe the author never really figured it out either. Anyway, it's well written and well worth reading, especially if you can relate to the way things were "way back" at the tail end of the 70s and the early 80s.
In the early 80s such was not the case. Data General, left the stage in 1999 when it was acquired by another company. But when it was making new computers, and the men assigned to make new computers, that was a time little grasped by the world.
Kidder is able to inform us of that time, but then he also goes to extremes such as always describing like a terrible dime store mystery, each member of the team when he introduces them. What he thinks might be infusing these sketches with depth actually reads like details from an index card that have to be injected in a particular order.
Then, he does not seem to have a computer persons understanding of a computer. He breaks up the distinction between hardware and software and thinks he gives us and overview of what the two are doing but as a geek, as a writer of software and a electronics lab guy in high school, I am at a loss to understand what he was trying to say. That disconnect just does not hold up. We want to understand more about the boards constructed and how system language was so important on a new 32 bit project.
Kidder captures that a team went in and built a computer that had not been built before, but there were other 32 bit computers out there already and profiling the first, the challenges to overcome from 16 bit to 32 bit, or really focusing on why this 32 bit was so much better, was needed. This is not anywhere near the iconic Insanely Great. And for that it suffers.
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one of the best books ever, fascinating read for any techie who would like to check out the human side of big development...Read more
But more so it’s a great inspiration for anyone who hates the “Bros” the mindless drones who spread like cancer...Read more