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The Soul Of A New Machine 1st Paperback Edition Edition
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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.
Top Customer Reviews
When it was first published, the book was a narrative of what was then `modern' technology, where the central processing units (CPU) or `brains' of commercial minicomputers and mainframe computers were built up on large circuit boards from individual, specialized integrated circuit chips, with each chip integrating dozens or hundreds of discrete components. This compares to today's microcomputers where the entire CPU is placed on a single chip incorporating tens of thousands of discrete functions, all taking up no more room than the average credit card. Now, the book is more a history of how this technology was developed, and yet its picture of how people work in teams developing technological projects will probably never go out of date.
The irony of this book is that the computer being developed by the team described in this book, a 32 bit Eclipse computer developed by the Data General corporation, a competitor to the larger and very successful Digital Computer Corporation (Digital), did not really achieve any major breakthrough in technology. While it was intended to compete with a new generation of Digital VAX machines, it ended up being just barely faster than VAX's in a few special tasks. In fact, in a conversation I once had with some Digital engineers, they said that when they went head to head with Data General in bidding for a computer sale, the only thing they had to do was bring out Kidder's book to demonstrate that the Data General box was yesterday's news. Data General may have had the last laugh, as ailing Digital was bought out by Compaq, which has since merged with H-P, further submerging the once great Digital presence in the commercial computer world. Meanwhile, Data General is still around, albeit not the presence it once had when the `minicomputer' was the great alternative to the IBM monoliths in the glass houses.
That does not detract from the fact that this is still a terrific story. I have read it several times and still quote from it after nearly thirty years of reading from it the first time. My favorite image is of the engineer who quit the project to become a farmer, so that the smallest unit of time he had to deal with was the season. My second favorite quote (which may not be original to this book, although this is the first time I ran into it) is that the management style on the project was the mushroom theory. That is, `Keep them in the dark and feed them s**t'.
As I see from Kidder's new introduction, this essay was a bigger accomplishment that it seemed originally, as Kidder was closer to being a Luddite than he was a techie in love with the latest computer tool which, at that time, would have been standalone word processing machines produced by companies such as IBM and Wang. In spite of that limitation, he manages to make it interesting to both the average reader and someone like myself who is (or at least was) familiar with the inner workings of computers.
I also tend to see Kidder's book as the fountainhead of a whole wave of new style journalistic book length works. I almost like to believe that Kidder made possible the writing careers of my foodie-writing hero, Michael Ruhlman (`The Soul of a Chef' and `The Making of a Chef'). The similarity in title of Ruhlman's book with Kidder's title is, I think, not an accident.
So, this is not only a history of a major moment in computer history, it is a superb picture of the dynamics of people in technical development teams and the challenges of achieving a technical goal.
Must read for everyone.
When you're young and you get interested in something, you get _passionate_ about it. Maybe it's because you don't know the importance of money and responsibility yet, but you really get into a sport, or hobby, or any other interest, and you do that hobby or play that sport, you write stories or fix cars, making whatever sacrifices you need to just so you can do this thing you love, not because you want to make money at it, or gain respect or admiration, but because it gives you priceless rewards and satisfaction. And it's a purest love you can have. When you grow up, you get disillusioned, from paying bills and other responsibilities. You lose the spark. You start doubting your interest in what you used to love, be it the mechanic who used to love cars but has grown jaded, or the teacher on a low income who has to deal with unruly students and demanding parents.
The Soul of a New Machine is a throwback to that youthful perhaps almost a bit naive passion. It's about the antithesis of the 9-5, where if the pay is horrible, you couldn't care less, you still work overtime. This pure struggle, the essence of a profession, is what makes the book so great. It's the most archetypal element of a career or profession, the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that only something you put your soul and your sweat and blood into, can give you. In that basement in Data General, this beautiful dream became real in the form of the Eagle minicomputer. If you've felt the kind of spark that drove those young men before, this book will remind you. And if you haven't, maybe this book will kindle a new passion in what you do.
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.