Strong opinions, weakly held

The Soul of a New Machine

I’ve recently read two books about computing history, and I intend to write about them both. The first is Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine. Kidder was invited by Tom West of Data General to document the creation of a new computer–a 32 bit supermini designed to compete with the formidable VAX 11/780 from DEC.

The book covers the era when building a new computer meant building a new computer from the ground up. The idea of building a computer from off-the-shelf components had not yet arrived, companies built everything from scratch, and wrote all of the code for the new system, all the way down to the metal. Even for highly integrated, brand new systems like the iPhone, many more components sourced from third parties were used than companies like Data General, DEC, and IBM used back then. The original iPhone was built using an existing CPU, and an existing operating system. All of the hardware and nearly all of the software for the Data General system was produced specifically for that system. It is likely that no engineers work completely original systems any more, the costs are too high. It’s hard to read about that kind of work and not feel both nostalgic and intimidated.

At the same time, the mechanics of how projects are run feel familiar, especially if you’ve ever worked on a big project that started with an unrealistic deadline. In many ways, the book documents the computer industry at its worst, even as it cements the mythology of heroic engineering feats that seem romantic from a distance but are usually awful in the moment.

Kidder talks about two phenomena that really resonated with me. The first is the idea of the managers getting people to “sign up” – for the project and for specific tasks. The idea is that “signing up” meant showing a willingness to sacrifice whatever was necessary to complete the task, and to work impossibly hard on the project in general. The managers gauged job candidates on their likelihood of signing up, and turned down those they didn’t believe would. Having had a relatively long career in the computer industry, I’ve seen signing up from both sides. On one hand, as an engineer, you crave a project worthy of signing up for. Signing up only happens when you feel like you’re doing work of significance, that you’re experiencing an opportunity that surpasses any you thought you’d ever be offered.

By the same token, as a manager, you want to work on projects that you would be willing to ask people to sign up for, and you want to hire people who you feel like you can motivate to sign up. Managers must also know that intentionally exploiting people’s willingness to overcommit is almost certainly evil. One of the key attributes of a good manager is a commitment to do what’s in the best interests of the members of the team, whether they want you to or not.

Kidder also lays out the nominal and actual rewards of engineering work. The members of the Eagle team (that was the code name for the computer they were building) were ostensibly motivated by the pinball rule – if they won, their reward was getting to play again. The members of the team toiled in anonymity, even within Data General, and weren’t going to get big bonuses no matter how well the project did. In theory, they did what they did in hopes of getting the opportunity to work on even bigger and better projects in the future. In reality, they did it because they were a team, and because they were committed to their craft. This is a set of values deeply understood by anyone who takes pleasure in building things. The building of new things is both the job and the reward. If you do well, you may get to build bigger things. More importantly, though, at the end, you brought forth order from chaos. What else does a person need?

All great books on history both illuminate the past and highlight the universal, and Kidder’s book meets that standard. I found it to be an incredible page turner. I don’t want to spoil the story, so I’ll say no more. As soon as I finished the book, I wanted to get out my computer and start writing some code.

The other book I just finished is Andrew Hodges’ Alan Turing: The Enigma, about which I have so many thoughts that I’m finding them difficult to organize. I’ll write more about it later.


  1. Interesting to read this, to see what people take away from the book. I think my original friendship with Steve Champeon was predicated on me reading on his blog that he’d read this. I am the eleven year old kid that goes bike riding with my dad in one part of the book. My younger sister isn’t even mentioned at all. I should pick up that book and read it again. I’m at my dad’s house now and he has maybe thirty copies of it. I think he had one edition of every copy that was printed, in every language.

    At my dad’s memorial service a few years ago, Tracy Kidder spoke about meeting my dad and about the weird jumpstart his career got when that book touched a nerve and won him the Pulitzer. One of the things he said that stuck with me was that it was clear that the book, the writing it and the subsequent notoriety for both him and my father, had been good for him. He was never clear, even in the subsequent decades where he and my father stayed in touch, if it had been good for my dad.

    I think subsequent decades in technology-as-profession have meant that there are more different sorts of ways to work in technology that don’t have to become all-encompassing “mushroom management” situations. Where people can have jobs and non-job lives. I’m always stoked to see people (it seems to be mostly men, but not always) getting into tech because they want to build things. I’m even more stoked when they’re able to have realistic life/work balances, that that’s become part of what you expect out of a job, even as you get to build great things, one of the great things that is supposed to be built is you.

  2. This was one of the first books that my grandfather gave me in an informal book club that we had from when I was about 12 until he died 7 years later. That period had more to do with how I understand the world then anything since.

  3. It may have been on my “to read” list longer than any other book.

    Jessamyn, thanks for the comment. I definitely got the sense that your dad’s work style and the demands of his job didn’t leave much room for anything but his career. I do see the book as a cautionary tale in that sense.

  4. I read excerpts in a magazine–New Yorker? Atlantic?–before the book first came out, then for several years worked with DG minis–both 16 and 32 bit. With a little time off for a refresher, I could probably write Eclipse assembler adequately. I really liked the MV/Eclipses and the AOS/VS operating system.

    It was interesting to go back and read the book after this. Some of the decisions look questionable in light of what happened in the 1980s and since. Originally they wanted to build something with a VAX-like instruction set. This is to say that the instruction set was rich, with instructions covering all sorts of operations. This was great for its day, but turned out to be hard to speed up. The lowered price of memory pointed the way to RISC and shorter instructions. Then they preserved the old 16-bit instruction set within the 32-bit instruction set. This meant, among other things, four general-purpose registers only, and no register-relative byte addressing.

    Then, of, course, Intel proceeded to eat everybody’s lunch, and it didn’t really matter whether you had a rich instruction set like the VAX or a reduced one like the SPARC.

  5. Just wanted to say thanks for turning me on to The Soul Of A New Machine. I just finished it yesterday and really enjoyed it.

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