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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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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.
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.
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.
If you want a look into this world this book still provides a great view.