Book Reviews

The Soul Of A New Machine by Tracy Kidder

ISBN-13: 978-0316491976
Publisher: Back Bay Books
Pages: 320

Back in the 1970s, Data General was known as the "Darth Vader of the computer industry". The company had some success selling their 16-bit Eclipse machines, but times were changing; DEC had just released their 32-bit VAX and it was clear where the future was. The soul of a new machine is the story of Data General's struggle to create a new computer to compete on the 32-bit market.

The road that lead to the new machine was long and, as is typical for larger corporations, littered with politics. For their next generation of machines, Data General gathered a team of senior engineers at their research facility in North Carolina. Amongst the developers left behind at the headquarters in Westborough was Tom West. West launched a classic skunk works project to compete with North Carolina on the race to develop the 32-bit on time. What struck me as unique was West's strategy of relaying on young college graduates in the project. While those young engineers may lack experience of such complex work, they bring something extremely valuable to the table: drive, passion and inner motivation. West combines that with classic mushroom management - "keep them in the dark and feed them shit". The developers, working long and odd hours, basically dedicate all their time to the machine. As a software developer, I understand what motivates them; the creative rush and the satisfaction you get from developing something new. Of course, West and Data General understood that and took advantage of it. At first, it may seem like a win-win situation. But I hold it for shortsighted. The book mentions that few developers are older than 35 - no wonder; for how long can you keep a pace like that? The motivation for a true developer is obviously not money, but the pay should be fair and the working conditions acceptable. To me, none of that was the case at Data General.

The soul of a new machine earned Kidder a well-deserved Pulitzer prize. Kidder gives a good overview of the technology behind a computer, but it's only a superficial description. However, the real strength of the book is the portraits of the people inventing the machine. Computers may have changed a lot in the last 30 years, but people certainly haven't. Kidder's descriptions and analyzes of the motivational factors behind the tremendous drive of the developers is as valid today as ever. Combine this with Kidder's gift for telling a good story. The result is a terrific book that I highly recommend.

Reviewed January 2009