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In the late 1970s, a team of engineers worked on developing a faster minicomputer in a rush to save a company from failure. Unlike today, the pioneers fought for a new industry standard in computing in drab, suffocating offices for low pay and under the leadership of a hard-driving project manager. The design had to be completed and released in the market within a short period, and the challenges and struggles were real. This book lays the foundation for understanding what it took to develop the new precursor technology to the desktop PC. What sets this book apart is that it presents a humanistic perspective of the computer engineers who brought innovation to the marketplace. The inclusion of personal details about the dedicated engineers forever changed the image of technology developers as geeks.
The book Soul of a New Machine is set in the years 1978-1980, when computers were very slow. The story begins with Data General Corporation (DGC) deciding it wants to increase its market share in the computer industry and outpace the technology development of its main competitor, Data Equipment Corporation (DEC). It was a do-or-die strategy. In 1978, DEC introduced a 32-bit minicomputer called VAX. Immediately, DGC came under pressure to also introduce a fast 32-bit minicomputer to remain competitive. DGC had a successful 16-bit minicomputer called ‘Eclipse’ in the market, built by the Eclipse Team of 30 young engineers, and the goal was to produce a new product that would be compatible with the company’s existing computer. DGC needed people like those described in the book Be Fearless in order to experience the remarkable breakthrough needed.
Called the Fountainhead Project, DGC’s 32-bit design project got underway with an end goal of developing a product that would be superior to its competitor’s VAX. At the same time, a new project was presented to the designer Tom West, head of the small team maintaining Data General’s existing products as a backup plan in case the Fountainhead Project failed. DGC desperately needed a successful product development in order to survive as a company. West decided to lead the project which planned to design a 32-bit version of the existing Eclipse product and codenamed it ‘Eagle’. His approach followed the axiom in the book Creativity, Inc. It’s not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It’s the manager’s job to make it safe for others to take risks.
The Soul of a New Machine is a human story and not just a story about developing a new minicomputer. Tom West is initially driven to head the Eagle project because he wanted to prove his small group of employees could help DGC become more competitive through technology development. It was a competition, in his mind, with the Fountainhead Project. West is driven to succeed and drives his young engineers even harder. The engineers worked in a drab basement, were paid a small amount compared to what they could earn somewhere else and adhered to demanding 24/7 work schedules. West fit the description of the tyrants described in the book The No Asshole Rule, except he was not trying to destroy others at work. He just wanted the young professionals to excel and had a strange way of encouraging them. West’s management style was harsh, to say the least, especially from today’s perspective.
DGE had found itself caught in a position described in the book The Innovator’s Dilemma in which the established company would get pushed aside by competitors unless it was bold and willing to take risks. West was ready to take the necessary risks. The Eagle team was divided into the Hardy Boys who designed hardware and the Microkids who worked on software. Though West was abrasive and instilled fear in his team, the engineers were so obsessed with achieving project success that they adhered to his difficult expectations. For example, West demanded employees participate in “Signing Up” which required the employees to commit to foregoing friends, family and personal commitments to avoid distractions.
Kidder calls West’s management style “Mushroom Management” which goes like this: Keep them in the dark, feed them shit and watch them grow. West believed fear and anxiety would keep the engineers doing great work, and in this case, he was right. West clearly subscribed to what the author of the book Winning Through Intimidation believed. It is not just what you say, but how you say it verbally and through body language that gets results. West would walk through the engineers without engaging them and in a stern manner. Kidder does a lot of speculating as to the “why” of some of West’s behaviors. For example, Kidder believes that West was a difficult taskmaster, despite being unable to give salary increases or promotions, because he deeply believed personal responsibility should be the motivator. Many readers will decide West is a terrible manager despite his success, but Kidder believes West would have taken full credit for project failure and would want his engineers to keep their enthusiasm for innovation.
As the book the Messy Middle explains, projects have rocky but critical stages between beginning and end. Some projects still fail despite all efforts, and the Fountainhead Project is one of them. The Eagle project becomes the project that saves DGC, and this creates feelings of betrayal for the Fountainhead team. The Eagle project is completed, but the discord among employees in the company prevents the Eagle team members from getting appropriate recognition.
The book Soul of a New Machine is as much about how West and his team of new recruits rise to the challenge and succeed despite all odds as it is about developing the 32-bit minicomputer. The disorder of this project is the like disorder explained in the book Antifragile because project success was based on tension, stress and uncertainty. It is a documentary and captures at different stages the perspectives of West, the fresh college grads and the team leaders – Carl Alsing and Ed Rasala. It delves into company and management politics, decisions, and culture. You come to understand why the people behind the innovation are the ‘soul’ of the machine.
While reading the book, it’s impossible to not think of people like Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, who some employees called mean and a tyrant but had a laser focus on his vision. Jobs was courageous and relentlessly played offense to drive change, like the people in the book Return on Courage. The stories people tell of Jobs' management style are similar to the depiction of West. It is interesting that the computer industry, filled with brilliant people, has always been innovative through the efforts of young talented people who are dedicated to finding solutions, willing to work long hours and have a relentless vision of what is possible. These young innovators tolerate their tyrant bosses because they too have a vision of producing innovation.
It has been the same through the decades. The book Team of Teams says successful organizations embrace small groups of people able to freely experiment with a relentless drive to share. West instinctively understood this principle. It is the thrill of the hunt for the next great technology that is still leading to incredible innovations like Artificial Intelligence.
Tracy Kidder is a lauded literary journalist, a nonfiction writer, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and the winner of many other literary awards. Born in 1945, Kidder graduated from Harvard in 1967 and earned an MFA from the University of Iowa in 1974. He was a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army from 1967-1969 and is a Vietnam War veteran who was awarded a Bronze Star. Kidder’s book. Kidder wrote for the Atlantic Monthly during the 1970s. His first book was a critical failure, but the second book - The Soul of a New Machine - won the 1982 Pulitzer Prize and the 1982 National Book Award for nonfiction.
Kider’s long writing career has been prolific and includes many other bestselling works. He writes on a wide array of topics, including environment, architecture, railroads, etc. Ironically, as an undergrad, Kidder was fearful of science and technology, and avoided taking any courses involving these subjects. He learned all about computers while researching and writing The Soul of a New Machine. In 2010, Kidder was selected as the first A.M. Rosenthal Writer-in-Residence at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
He was enormously influenced by the writing styles of George Orwell and John McPhee. In addition to the book The Soul of a New Machine, his books include House, Old Friends, Home Town, Mountains Beyond Mountains, My Detachment, Strength in What Remains, and has co-authored two other books. His 2016 book A Truck Full of Money also won a Pulitzer Prize.
Kidder has earned numerous literary awards, including The Robert F. Kennedy Book Award in 1990; the New England Book Award in 1994; and the Lettre Ulysses Award in 2004, to name a few. You can listen to an interview with Kidder from NPR’s “Weekend All Things Considered” or watch Kidder discuss his reporting strengths in an interview at the Writer's Symposium By The Sea at Point Loma Nazarene University.