Book review: The soul of a new machine

Writer Tracy Kidder won a Pulitzer prize in 1982 for The soul of a new machine. It’s the true story of a team of engineers at Data General who are designing the next generation of micro-computer.

I first read the book ten years ago, while I was still at university, and while it’s still an excellent read, my perspective on the story has changed completely.

The book depicts an almost inhuman struggle. The team members give their all to finish the machine in time. It’s a crucial product for the company, but somehow they’re never given all the resources they need.

The team leader, Tom West, is a very withdrawn person. One young engineer who’d just been hired to the project, recounts how he went into West’s office, introduced himself, put out his hand to say hello – and West just sat there looking at him. He beat a hasty retreat.

When I first read the book, I was impressed with how they fought to complete the project. I thought the way they all worked overtime (unpaid, of course) was heroic. The long nights of debugging, sacrificing time with friends, families and hobbies to finish sooner.

Also, there was a lot of infighting within the team, and between the team and the rest of the company. And almost everybody hated Tom West.

In spite of all this the machine was finished, and became a big success for Data General.

And I actually felt a little jealous back then. I wanted to be part of a team that works so hard, against such odds, and then achieves the goal. I wanted to do that.

But today I think that maybe they created much of the struggle themselves. Why does work have to be hard? Could they have structured the project in such a way, that people actually had a good time on it? And could they have achieved the same results (or better) that way?

I can’t know, if they could have designed the machine just as well with a positive atmosphere. But the question I ask myself today is: If you can’t do it, without people suffering to the degree they did on this project – then is worth doing?

The book is very entertaining, and an easy read, and I recommend it highly. The book contains some interesting tech info about the computer they’re building, but if you’re a non-techie you can skip that, and you won’t miss anything important to the story.

Completely irrelevant factoid: I did my very first programming at university on a Data General Eclipse.

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