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The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder
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The Soul of a New Machine (original 1981; edition 2000)

by Tracy Kidder

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Title:The Soul of a New Machine
Authors:Tracy Kidder
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The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder (1981)

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I probably first read this twenty five years ago, at a time when I had an interest in the IT trade. Since then, when I see a copy going cheap I pick it up to give it as a gift to some young geek. Now, as then, it has a certain charm and capacity to put some serious perspective around what is usually a very narrowly focused business.

Others have written nearly everything that needs to be said about this book. It's best to remember it's not a tech book written about building technology, but essentially it's a journalist's story about technology. It's interesting to read it alongside Kidder's other book-length investigations. You begin to get a sense of his talent to get inside other people's passions, and appreciate what good journalism is about.

It's a pity the edition I have isn't illustrated. For those who want to see what they're reading about there is an excellent site specializing in old Data General equipment, titled rather reverently, The Soul of a Great Machine. As a bonus, there's some photos there of the team that built the MV/8000. ( )
  nandadevi | Oct 18, 2014 |
That this book won the Pulitzer is no surprise. It combines a deft hand at journalism with a subject that at the time was probably little known, though now, 30+ years later, it is very well known. It is chic now to be geek.

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. ( )
  DWWilkin | Apr 11, 2014 |
The title cannot be more appropriated, as it follows the creation of a computer, from the very first idea to the final product and how it "becomes alive".

It was surprising to read today a book about building a computer in the early 80s and discover that although the game has changed (now is software instead of hardware) the spirit remains the same: individuals with passion for technology push forward the state of technology. ( )
  ivan.frade | Apr 7, 2014 |
I was expecting and hoping to like this book, but I feel like it was fighting with itself between telling the story of the technology and telling a story about the people involved as characters. it's so crowded to keep track of. will be discussing it in class tomorrow. So we shall see. ( )
  ewillse | Mar 23, 2014 |
I was expecting and hoping to like this book, but I feel like it was fighting with itself between telling the story of the technology and telling a story about the people involved as characters. it's so crowded to keep track of. will be discussing it in class tomorrow. So we shall see. ( )
  PatienceFortitude | Mar 6, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 27 (next | show all)
"The Soul of a New Machine is first of all a good story, but beyond the narrative, or rather woven into it, is the computer itself, described physically, mechanically and conceptually. The descriptive passages will not ''explain'' computers to the average reader (at least they did not significantly increase my own very superficial knowledge), but they give a feeling, a flavor, that adds to one's understanding - as broadly, or even poetically, defined."
 
this is from a retrospective review of the book, nearly twenty years after its publication.

December, 2000

"More than a simple catalog of events or stale corporate history, Soul lays bare the life of the modern engineer - the egghead toiling and tinkering in the basement, forsaking a social life for a technical one."
 
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0316491977, Paperback)

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

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:41:31 -0400)

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