The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder

Posted On July 01, 2016 , 12:00 AM Contador HarrisonBook Reviews Periscope

Front cover of the book
Front cover of the book

The Soul of a New Machine is a book that was first published before I was even born but a tech industry insider, this book remains one of my favourite when it comes to tracking back the history of technology industry. Tracy Kidder tracks a team of engineers at Data General Corporation working on an innovative new computer and his troy follows the life of the project and those involved in it for over a year, from the background of the undertaking until its completion.Back in the 1960s and 1970s, there used to be a minicomputer company was actually quite successful for some time and competed with the giant DEC.In the late 1970s, the company began the “Eagle project” – a 32-bit enhancement of their existing “Eclipse” minicomputer line, Data General’s answer to DEC’s mythological VAX computer. The development process of Data General’s micro-computer end up being successor to their Eclipse line of microcomputers, code named the Eagle, and later released as the MV/8000. The author goes into both the personal and technical aspects of the development process, profiling the various men and credit to him a few women involved in the project, and giving a description of the technical aspects of the process for a commoner.Kidder does a superb work of capturing their essence, and combining them into a coherent account. The result is a gripping tale of of hope and anxiety, of will power and despair, and of immense dedication. This book won Kidder 1982 Pulitzer-Prize-winning work of book-length reportage in what many insiders describes as the best technology development project ever written.Kidder begins with a distinctively literary model, the quest story, with its heroes and obstacles to overcome against great odds under constraints of time and sets it in the context of the electronics firms that surround Boston.

First inside page of the book
First inside page of the book
The war between Data General and DEC was fierce according to the author
The war between Data General and DEC was fierce according to the author

The specific focus of his tale is an actual sequence of events, the efforts of a small team of engineers at Data General Corporation to create a new minicomputer that would work faster and handle more information than competitive models. In addition, the workers in Massachusetts are trying to develop their version of this computer faster than other Data General engineers in North Carolina. The odds are great, since the Massachusetts engineers are prohibited from using one element of technology reserved for the team in North Carolina which would have made their work easier. Along the way, various aspects of the engineers’ lives are revealed. Some are characteristic of many engineering projects, while others are unique to the peculiar circumstances. At times the personal lives of various members are emphasised, while at others the team wide social pattern gets the stage. Overall, Data General is a predatory employer that preys on young, semi-idealistic college Engineering graduates, who don’t have a lot of job experience and are looking more for interesting problems to solve, interesting work to do, than a big paycheck. They promise them interesting problems, and briefly, very briefly, warn them that there will be long hours and possibly a limited social life, that this job will become their life. To meet the deadlines required of them they will have to give up friends, family, and the outside world, living only the job, for months or years at a time.

Building a team at Data General was ideal for conceiving ideas about machines
Building a team at Data General was ideal for conceiving ideas about machines
Midnight programmer chapter made me feel like modern day coders live in heaven
Midnight programmer chapter made me feel like modern day coders live in heaven
La Machine chapter is a reminder how the world has changed over the years  when it comes to treating employees
La Machine chapter is a reminder how the world has changed over the years when it comes to treating employees

Some sections dwell into semi-technical situations and anecdotes, while others deal with management and politics. All of these combine into a well-orchestrated hymn to the Man behind the Machine.The author paints a bleak picture of the inner workings of Data General. The working conditions at Data General, particularly on this project, are terrible. Employees are salaried, with no overtime pay, and work 12-16 hour days, 6 days a week. As the project goes on, project leads and younger employees are worn down. Often, employees at Data General observe that the company brings in a lot of new fresh recruits, and few stay at the company after they turn 30. Many of these new recruits drop out for various reasons, and often employees discuss the company’s sweat-shop like working conditions. As the project moves into the heat of summer, the air conditioning breaks, turning their windowless basement office into a sweltering oven, which they can’t even leave the door open for, for security reasons. Only after the employees strike do they fix the air conditioning.Kidder’s achievement in this book are incredible as the computer is the product of technology that has transformed old electronic systems and bringing into being devices such as video game, hand held calculator and the home data processing system. Yet, to the uninitiate, the language of computer such as hardware, software and the like is at the vest least confusing. Kidder takes the reader within the world of the computer engineer to bring him and his work alive and make them meaningful. I also learned in the book, the bigger game was “pinball”. “You win one game, you get to play another. You win with this machine, you get to build the next.” Pinball was what counted.I found his writing very exciting as it opened my eyes beyond the horizon like the draconian management techniques whose tale Kidder has narrated. However, company got into financial trouble in the 1980s, plodded through the 1990s and was acquired by EMC in 1999.

Workshop chapter is simply jaw dropping encounter
Workshop chapter is simply jaw dropping encounter
I learned in the book, the bigger game was "pinball"
I learned in the book, the bigger game was “pinball”
Dinosaur chapter was an interesting read
Dinosaur chapter was an interesting read

Towards the end of the book, several of the project leads leave the company, and while some of the employees on the Eagle team stay on, many more have left.Tracy Kidder got an impressive amount of access at Data General when he wrote this book and he’s honest and truthful about what happened there.This book chronicles the early days of the computer industry, before the internet age. People interested in the history of the computer industry will certainly find this a must read. The book could be criticized for being unbalanced in favor of the heroic. While the factual accounts appear reasonably balanced, the overall emotional tone is not. Also, some characters recieve a fairly shallow treatment. Indeed, Tom West, arguably the central character, still remains a mystery to the reader when the strory is over. But this does little to overshadow the brilliantly original perspective Kidder presents.He went away from the basement and left this note on his terminal: “I’m going to a commune in Vermont and will deal with no unit of time shorter than a season.”  Anyone engaged in engineering in general, and computer-related in particular will certainly enjoy it as the author manages to capture the spirit that drives the computer and electrical engineers and programmers in their work. True, these people were sacrificing social life for the sake of work, but they had a whole computer to build, almost from scratch, and this computer was to be the greatest ever and this is the only thing that really mattered. I do think that this is what makes engineering the engrossing occupation it is, the drive to create. Create something better than what already exist.The book also has many interesting insights into the computer industry. Although written and published over 35 years ago, these things are all relevant today.Moreover, reading this book made me actually understand that at its core, the computer industry hasn’t really changed that much in the past 35 years. Although 95% of the companies mentioned in the book don’t exist today, their spirit and employees reside in those of us in the industry today.

Back cover of the book
Back cover of the book