Cover of The Soul of a New Machine
Until 1981, books about computers were written by nerds, for nerds. You know the type--"How to Get the Most Out of Your Daisy Wheel Printer." That all changed with the publication of Tracy Kidder's The Soul Of A New Machine. All of a sudden, designing a computer was a noble adventure, with all the excitement of a novel. I still remember reading the book's Prologue in the Andover Bookstore, instantly buying it, and then rushing home to finish it that night.
The Soul of a New Machine is about the work and sweat involved in designing Data General's Eclipse MV/8000 (codename "Eagle") computer. At the time, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), Data General (DG), Prime Computer, and Wang Laboratories were selling minicomputers like hotcakes to departments who were tired of having to deal with uppity mainframe programmers. I worked at Wang Laboratories at the time--one of DG's rivals--and it was a heady time: Wang was growing faster than Google is now.
You worked 12-hour days and loved it. The Soul of a New Machine captured that excitement, with all the little details that were true: Space Planning swooping in and moving the entire department (usually at the most crucial time), and warring development teams playing chicken with development schedules ("I can develop that OS in 12 months." "I can develop that OS in 10.5 months." "I can develop that OS in..."). The battle for resources was brutal. In 1981 I was working in programming, supporting Wang Manufacturing. I remember coming in one morning to see a new programmer we'd just hired from DG staring in wonder at his workstation. "It's still here!" he said. "Huh?" "It's the end of the quarter and our computer is still here!" "What's so odd about that?," I asked. "At DG, at the end of the quarter, manufacturing comes around at night, steals your computer, packages it up, and sends it out to customers so it can meet its revenue numbers."
With its novelistic approach, the book influenced an entire generation of books that came after it, such as Showstopper! The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft and Dreaming in Code: Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest for Transcendent Software (my review of Dreaming in Code is here). While the technology described in The Soul of a New Machine is now dated, the human dynamics are not, and I still recommend it to non-technical people who want to get a feel for what it's like to work in the computer industry.
To give you a taste, I'll leave you with some excerpts from the Prologue:
In the glow of the running lights, most of the crew looked like refugees, huddled, wearing blank faces. Among them, Tom West appeared as a thin figure under a watch cap, in nearly constant motion. High spirits had apparently possessed him from the moment they set sail, and the longer they were out in the storm, the heavier the weather got, the livelier he grew. You could see him grinning in the dark. West did all that the captain asked, so cheerfully, unquestioningly and fast, that one might have thought the ghost of an old-fashioned virtuous seaman had joined them. Only West never confessed to a queasy stomach. When one of the others asked him if he felt seasick too, he replied, in a completely serious voice, that he would not let himself. A little later, he made his way down to the cabin, moving like a veteran conductor in a rocking, rolling railroad car, and got himself a beer.
West was at the helm, the tiller in both hands, riding the waves; he was standing under a swaying lantern in the cabin studying the chart; he was nimbly climbing out onto the foredeck to wrestle in a jib and replace it with a smaller one. And when the captain decided to make for shelter, very late that night, at a little harbor with a passage into it that was twisty, narrow and full of tide, it was West, standing in the bow, who spotted each unlighted channel marker and guided them safely in….
The psychologist, meanwhile, was waiting for West to got to sleep. He had not done so for more than a few hours altogether. By the third day, when they were sailing in sunshine with a gentle breeze, the psychologist expected to see signs of exhaustion appear in West. Instead, West put on his bathing suit and took a long vigorous swim beside the boat.
Back at a restaurant near Portland before they’d gone out into the storm, while they’d been sharing the meal that most of them soon regretted, West had told them, “I build computers.” Although he spoke at some length about certain extraordinary sounding, new computing systems, the others came away uncertain about what role, if any, he had played in their construction. The felt only that whatever he did for a living, it was probably interesting and obviously important….
On another occasion, just to make conversation, one of the crew asked West what sort of computer he was building now. West made a face and looked away, and muttered something about how that was work and this was his vacation and he would rather not think about that.
The people who shared the journey remembered West. The following winter, describing the nasty northeaster over dinner, the captain remarked, “That fellow West is a good man in a storm.” The psychologist did not see West again, but remained curious about him. “He didn’t sleep for four nights! Four whole nights.” And if that trip had been his idea of a vacation, where, the psychologist wanted to know, did he work?