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The Soul of A New Machine (1981)

by Tracy Kidder

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2,650525,592 (4.04)50
Tracy Kidder's "riveting" (Washington Post) story of one company's efforts to bring a new microcomputer to market won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and has become essential reading for understanding the history of the American tech industry. Computers have changed since 1981, when The Soul of a New Machine first examined the culture of the computer revolution. What has not changed is the feverish pace of the high-tech industry, 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. The Soul of a New Machine is an essential chapter in the history of the machine that revolutionized the world in the twentieth century. "Fascinating...A surprisingly gripping account of people at work." --Wall Street Journal… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 50 (next | show all)
This book is kind of weird because Kidder just jumps in without providing a lot of context about the book's project. There is no helpful introduction to let the reader know what they are going to get out of this book.

Kidder closely observed the process of bringing a new computer to life at Data General, a company that built computers in the 1970s. DG was known for being a cut-throat rebel on the market. When they saw that their competitors were building a computer with entirely new architecture that was going to be a game-changer, they realized that they needed to come up with something even better, but there was disagreement within the company about how to do it. This book covers the creation of their Eagle computer, which was a renegade project within the company.

The book goes into excruciating detail about various managers' leadership styles, ultimately hailing the project leader West as a kind of behind-the-scenes hero who on the surface seemed to have only superficial involvement but was actually the mastermind behind the whole thing. It delves a lot into the corporate culture, and how employees were expected to devote their lives to the project: there was no work-life balance. Kidder also gives little biographies of a lot of employees, looking at how their personalities helped or hindered their work.

The book also includes excruciating detail about how the Eagle computer was built and how it works. Anyone interested in computer science will find this fascinating... people who are not interested in computer science will find it tedious (I fall somewhere in the middle). There are long chapters about late-night debugging sessions and how engineers solved specific problems.

This book is a useful historical record of a pivotal time in computer science, and the amount of detail is impressive, but I found it a slog to read. ( )
  Gwendydd | May 18, 2024 |
Hold on to your hats, kids! We're taking a trip back to the late 70s, where there were more than 2 or 3 types of computer to choose between, but they cost half a million dollars and were the size of refrigerators. This book relates the development of a new computer at Data General, a highly successful manufacturer of the time, though forgotten today.

This is really one of those plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose things. While it is so much of its era - maybe the bronze age of the computer industry - so many things have barely changed. Seeing which things are identical and which are unrecognizable is one of the fascinating things about this extremely interesting book.

Having worked in the broad field of computing for 15 years, the processes of developing and delivering a technical project were at the same time familiar and alien to me. The speccing, creating, iterating, integrating, debugging are described very convincingly and were very recognizable. But the way those things were achieved - the equipment used, the amount of documentation, the way issues were tracked - was all very different to practices today (and for good reasons at the time). I would have enjoyed a bit more technical detail, but then I imagine that I'm a bit more technically proficient than the target audience.

The characters of the engineers, their goals, and the counter-intuitively dysfunctional ways of getting the most out of them is remarkably similar to what one might encounter in the field of computing today (to be honest, I'm only familiar with development on the software side, but I assume the same broadly hold true on the hardware side). This project tended to use much younger engineers than standard in the industry, and motivated them by giving them a high level of responsibility for their particular areas - which meant they felt that they had to work ridiculous hours. This was good for those involved, but also meant that the creation of the machine was much cheaper than it would have been with more experienced people working regular hours (that said, it also came with a higher risk of failure).

Additionally, the office politics of a large tech company are well depicted, and should be instantly recognisable to anyone who's ever worked in such an organisation.

The story of the creation of the machine has some strong parallels with Revolution in the Valley - about the develpoment of the first Mac (remarkably only about 5 years later). In both, the computer was thought of (at most) secondary importance within the companies building them. And both had a team of highly-motivated, young engineers driving them forward, with ridiculous workloads, and thriving on their "outsider" status. Data General's computer was not revolutionary like Apple's, but that is not really what this book is about. It is a fascinating insight into the inner workings of the computer industry - a field which affects all our lives and yet is somewhat opaque. It is remarkable both as a historical account, and also for how relevant it is today.
( )
  thisisstephenbetts | Nov 25, 2023 |
I read this many years ago, probably in the early 1980's (as I was working in the IT field it was very relevant). I became a Kidder fan, and have read several of his books since. ( )
  jjbinkc | Aug 27, 2023 |
This was interesting for its own merits, a snapshot back into a specific time (and a specific project) of the computer industry.

But I found it *really* interesting for the description of personalities, work-life balance issues, issues of burn-out, feelings (and description) of people becoming 'battle-hardened' veterans, constant in-fighting... it captures beautifully many of the issues that (in large part, though not solely) lead me to leave (aka, run screaming away from) the software/tech industry 30 years after the events described here. It was in fact shocking to read those descriptions and to realize just how 'cultural' the tech culture is (for better or for worse.) ( )
  dcunning11235 | Aug 12, 2023 |
Good descriptions of complex decisions about hardware and software and organization. ( )
  mykl-s | Aug 11, 2023 |
Showing 1-5 of 50 (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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All the way to the horizon in the last light, the sea was just degrees of gray, rolling and frothy on the surface.
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ISBN 0140062491 is for The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. Amazon has the title and author for the film "Norma Jean" by Ted Jordan, but the cover for Tracy Kidder's book.
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Tracy Kidder's "riveting" (Washington Post) story of one company's efforts to bring a new microcomputer to market won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and has become essential reading for understanding the history of the American tech industry. Computers have changed since 1981, when The Soul of a New Machine first examined the culture of the computer revolution. What has not changed is the feverish pace of the high-tech industry, 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. The Soul of a New Machine is an essential chapter in the history of the machine that revolutionized the world in the twentieth century. "Fascinating...A surprisingly gripping account of people at work." --Wall Street Journal

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