The soul of a new machine tells the story of a computer manufacturer in the ’80s trying to get a 32 Bit mini-computer to the market. It’s a documentary about engineering, management and politics surrounding the efforts to create the “Eagle” machine at Data General.
When I first read the book I was unaware that it was actually a documentary. For the first half of the book I thought it was a fictional tale about a fictional company. But after a while I realized it was about a real event.
I think this is mostly due to the writing style. And I don’t mean this in a negative way. It’s captivating, suspenseful and very interesting. It covers the technical aspects and explains them to the common Joe.
The reading pace in this book is extraordinarily fast, due to the aforementioned reasons.
The main story of the book follows a group working on the “Eagle Project” under Tom West at Data General. Due to some circumstances, the team had to work in “secret”, pretending to work on something different (some internal politics and feuds between a new R&D branch). You can feel the pressure laying on those engineers as a competitor is also working on a 32 Bit minicomputer and everybody wants to be the first to market.
Tracy Kidder covers a various range of topics in the book ranging from management and politics to engineering and technical challenges.
It covers details from the lives of some of the members of the team like their homes and families, but also digs deeper into their (tech) interest.
There is a whole chapter talking about zork or a zork like game, how the engineers used to play it and how they thought it relates to engineering in general.
It shows how different disciplines come together to build the soul of a new machine.
Every team inside the Eagle Team gets a section in the book. Some of the members are introduced and we get a closer look at their work. There are sections about Hardware engineers, Debugging, Software Engineers, Tech Fairs (or Conventions as we call them today) and management.
The level of detail on different technical and non technical topics from different perspectives (Tom West, experienced engineers, fresh graduates, media/background situation and company politics) is great.
Lessons from the soul of a new machine
While not being a technical book per se, the soul of a new machine has some interesting lessons for engineers, software engineers and managers handling engineers.
It shows how a lot of technical challenges were solved with ingenuity, brains, effort and a lot of time. The book also shows different aspects of the same problem (bringing a mini-computer to market), which can give the reader a broader understanding of “shipping a product” (Especially new software engineers).
One of my favorite quotes from the book is:
“As they say, the first step in fixing something is getting it to break.”Tracy Kidder, The soul of a new machine
which is one of the truest sentences I have ever read.
It takes into consideration and explains that most engineering work is invisible.
“Much of the engineering of computers takes place in silence, while engineers pace in hallways or sit alone and gaze at blank pages.”Tracy Kidder, The soul of a new machine
The book shows also how technology and computers relate to communication and that they will eventually turn into the same thing.
It’s a good book for engineers and management alike. The engineers can learn something about bringing a product to market (yeah, I mean you, with the 100000 unfinished side projects), and that sometimes “working” is good enough or even better than “perfect” when it comes to product development.
Managers could learn some insights on how to motivate a technical team, how they think and even how they live.
If you’re interested in this book, consider buying it on Amazon through my affiliate link.
If you want a more technical book, check out my review of The Art of Debugging with GDB.