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The Soul of A New Machine (1981)

par Tracy Kidder

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2,270425,010 (4.04)45
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… (plus d'informations)
Récemment ajouté parPaulLinsay, szarka, edickey, tomh5908, i9t, ugcCyTGLrPCgMkWbiyV, bishnu83, kapheine
Bibliothèques historiquesWilliam Gaddis
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» Voir aussi les 45 mentions

Affichage de 1-5 de 41 (suivant | tout afficher)
40 years later, this book is still the definitive narrative of what life at a tech company is life. From the focused vision of engineers, to the political battles of upper management, to the relationship with marketing, to the creepy guys the sole woman on the team had to put up with ... it's all still the same. It's been on my to-read list for a while, wish I'd gotten to it sooner.

It's also fascinating to look up the career trajectories of the engineers involved (many of them are still working, usually as VPs/CEOs).

An underrated part of this book is just how good the technical writing is. It goes from "all computer data is 1s and 0s represented by different voltages across a circuit" to accurately describing a thorny bugs with registers, gate logic, the team is struggling with quickly and clearly. If the book was just this stuff, it would be a towering achievement of writing.

As an aside, if you've watched Halt and Catch Fire you'll be shocked at how much season 1 is lifted from this book: The overall plot of a rogue executive starting a computer project; the strategy to hire recent grads who won't know how daunting the tasks they are given are; the team getting obsessed with the game Adventure (the episode where Bos gets stuck in the maze is directly lifted from the book); at one point, Cameron even bemoans the machine's soul. I hope Tracy Kidder got royalties. ( )
1 voter bishnu83 | Apr 6, 2021 |
About 6 years ago, a sort of scandal rocked the gaming industry related to a blog post by a woman known as "EASpouse". The blog post criticized EA's labor practices at the time, which required employees to work massive amounts of unpaid overtime, as they were salaried employees. By massive, I mean about 12-16 hour days, 6 days a week, regularly. This was a big deal among gamers, because very few of us had ever had the opportunity to peek behind the curtain like this. It was likely that most of us viewed game development with a variation of the way that Roald Dahl as a child imagined the inside of the Cadbury Chocolate Factory near the boarding school he attended (which later led to Charlie & the Chocolate Factory).

The Soul of a New Machine, by Tracy Kidder shows that such working conditions are nothing new. The book follows the development process of Data General's micro-computer (sort of like a rack mounted server, except it's the size of the whole unit, but essentially only being one of the server nodes), that would be a successor to their Eclipse line of microcomputers, code named the Eagle, and later released as the MV/8000. The book goes into both the personal and technical aspects of the development process, profiling the various men (and a few women) involved in the project, and giving a description of the technical aspects of the process for the layman.

While the technical bits (pardon the pun), are enjoyable, the book's strength, and where it spends most of its time, is in profiles of the people. The book paints a bleak picture of the inner workings of Data General. The working conditions at Data General, particularly on this project, are brutal. Much as with EA Spouse, 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.

By the end of the book, several of the project leads, themselves burned out, 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 while he's honest and truthful about what happened there, Data General, at least to my 21st century mind, comes out of this book smelling like shit. I base this solely on what Data General does, and I know this because Kidder doesn't whitewash - he thankfully calls it right down the middle.

While the book is never accusatory, it makes clear that Data General is a predatory employer. It 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. Plus, because they're salaried, despite all the hours they get that would be overtime, they're only making their standard pay grade.

It chews up 22-24 year old kids, and spits them out at 30, burnouts who had great potential, but were consumed by their jobs. They don't say if many of these former employees stay in the industry, and some certainly do - Ray Ozzie, creator of Lotus Notes and current Chief Software Architect at Microsoft is a Data General veteran. However, those who leave the industry with a sour taste in their mouth will probably leave worse off then they would be if they worked somewhere else. Had they been actually paid overtime, they could have possibly built a nest egg that could have allowed them to retire early, or to at least take their time looking for work elsewhere.

While some poor decisions related to processor architecture helped to kill Data General right before the dawn of the 21st century, it is my suspicion that the boom in Silicon Valley may have inspired a brain drain. Nicer weather, a less oppressive corporate culture. For people who wanted more money, there was the change to come in on the ground floor of companies which had the potential to be worth millions and get significant stock options. For those who preferred challenge, they could face whole new challenges when designing new systems and new architectures at the new companies in the Valley.

In summary, the book is a high resolution snapshot of the early days of the computer industry, before the internet started to permeate our lives in subtle ways - computerized tax processing, credit cards, ATM machines, and so on, leading up to the more overt ways it would later find its way in - Bulletin Board Services, E-Mail, and finally, proper web pages. People interested in the history of the computer industry will certainly find this fascinating. People who don't care about the history of computing can still find something in the profiles of the people in this project, and how the project's process slowly wears them all down. ( )
1 voter Count_Zero | Jul 7, 2020 |
This work, written about four decades ago, tells the true tale of how a team of computer engineers built a new computer. In an era contemporaneous to Apple Computer’s founding, Data General computers built affordable new computers for the masses. A group of engineers built a new circuit board that eventually pushed itself to the forefront of the market.

This book is about engineers and the culture of engineering more than anything else. It’s about smart young men who pour their lives into projects in order to see them succeed. It’s about their lack of social skill, their strange coping mechanisms, and their bonds of brotherhood and friendship. Such displays are familiar to anyone who has spent much time around engineers. In Kidder’s telling, these engineers give this product supreme meaning for a couple years of their life.

Kidder’s journalistic act won a Pulitzer Prize. It’s amazing how he transforms mundane engineering practices into a fast-paced drama. His ability to empathize with average engineers (especially as a non-engineer) confounds me. He describes this scene as exciting for the masses when most non-engineers would consider such adventures as boring. This work still interesting to read almost forty years later.

So what is the soul of a computer? To Kidder, it’s about working hard on a project to which one has given supreme importance. It’s about a team coming together despite their social hang-ups. It’s about pushing a product out only to have marketers and business-people claim its inventive force as their own. It’s about not just the circuit boards and software but the people who create the computer for us.

( )
1 voter scottjpearson | Jan 25, 2020 |
An inside look at the development of an early 32-bit computer at Data General. The project, codenamed Eagle in the late 70s, is a sort of missing link of hardware & system design between the early titans of informatics/computation (Shannon, Von Neumann, Wiener) and our modern day software/hardware enterprises (e.g., Microsoft, Apple).

Kidder has a sharp eye for the interesting aspects of influence, organization, and team culture as he recounts the arc of Eagle's development through the eyes of key contributors. ( )
  stonecrops | Nov 26, 2018 |
A very nice story of how a small team of engineers works to create a new computer for Data General in the late 1970s. The computer is not particularly groundbreaking, a new 32-bit computer that is software-compatible with the old 16-bit model. But the story is remarkable for its insights into how the work got done. It explains the characters, their motivations, some technical details (at just the right detail)—and is filled with memorable and realistic anecdotes. It is well paced, well written and well organized, a very nice piece of sociology. ( )
  breic | Jun 18, 2018 |
Affichage de 1-5 de 41 (suivant | tout afficher)
"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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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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