The Soul of New Machine

I recently finished a book by Tracy Kidder titled The Soul of a New Machine, which is a book about a team of engineers working in the early 80s to build a new personal computer.

The book is kind of interesting…kind of. Kidder basically joins this team and follows them through the roughly 2 year development time while slowly introducing the reader to the various members of the design group all the way from the managers down to the barely graduated tech geniuses working day to day in the lab.

The book does a good job breaking down stereotypes. All these guys (and just one girl) are computer people, but they aren’t dorks. They have all sorts of quirks, talents, and aspirations. Still, for some reason I didn’t feel like I got to know the characters that much, even after following them around their lab for so long. Also, a lot of the technical work is just straight up boring. Most of the middle of the book is spent with these people just huddling around these computers testing for errors (debugging).

The more interesting parts of the book are the one’s that describe the relentless work cycle of these men. Many worked for very little pay simply because they wanted the pride of having designed a complete computer. In many ways, the book nicely contrasts the supposedly rampant capitalism of the computer class with what in reality is a dedication to craftsmanship and the challenge of puzzles.

Lastly, there is a story about management. In fact, I think certain sections of this book would make a great business school textbook. The leader of the team, Tom West, is a master of influencing people and drawing out the best in them via various displays of anger matched with subtle displays of solidarity and concern. The book basically credits the eventual success of the computer to his superb management style.


1 Response to “The Soul of New Machine”

  1. 1 The Destructionist
    May 30, 2010 at 12:42 am


    Capitalism was founded upon basic principles: production, supply and demand, and capital accumulation. It is a social theory whereby prices are determined by profit and loss, as well as market interest and fluctuations.

    Although I understand the need for a free market enterprise, such a theory should not imply that we are willing to disregard our environment, or sacrifice the needs and comforts of our humanity in an attempt to realize higher profits (a.k.a., BP, Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, etc).

    Capitalism may be wonderful, but like anything else, it is still a flawed system. It’s a work in progress. It needs to be tweaked here and there in order to perfect its balance and to soothe the inordinate swings that occur day-to-day in our financial markets. If left unchecked, however, such a system will prove to be our economic downfall.

    How so?

    Well, for one thing, there is only so much profit a business can make from a product before it is left to cut costs in both quality and workmanship. In order to continually sustain a profit, businesses have to create those same products with lower quality ingredients and cheaper labor: which means that they must pull up stakes and move to other countries like China, Taiwan, or Mexico in order to survive. What does this eventually mean for people like you and me? It means that the very financial theory that promoted our country to super power status has turned on us. It means that the American workforce is now expected to work harder, longer, cheaper, and faster if we are to compete with the global economy now breathing down our necks.

    Where do we go from here?

    George Orwell had it right, to some extent, when he wrote his book1984. Many years from now, money will become worthless and the global populace will be employed and subject to hundreds (if not thousands) of individualized corporations that managed to survive attrition through merger aquisitions. It will be a feudalistic society: every corporation out for blood and vying for global dominance and absolute power. Our children and grandchildren will be there too: housed, clothed and fed by these various corporate entities; all the while being sent out on occasion, like brainless automatons, to errands of war, in an effort to absorb the weakest corporations into the fold. After all the dust settles, and everything is said and done, the remaining corporations will finally merge into a one-world government.

    Science fiction, you say?

    (…I’m left wondering.)

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