MIS40670 – The Soul of a New Machine – Tracy Kidder

The book is a journal record of a computer engineering team in their quest to design the next generation computer Eclipse MV/8000 at a Silicon Valley minicomputer vendor called Data General in 1980. The book was published in 1981 and won the 1982 National Book Award for Nonfiction and a Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. This book is a story of building a computer, from start to finish, told in the form of an epic journey. It goes in depth on the leaders & teams involved, strategy used, the internal politics and how they all integrated and produced a pioneer system of their time. Being an employee of software organizations for the last 17 years and having experience in working for a small pioneer company called i-Flex Solutions and witnessing it’s growth to double in size and more in revenue, I could find parallels to the growth, the people and the experiences that were at Data General when these events took place.

The plot of the book revolves around the incubation of an idea among a group of senior managers to outdo a different group which was tasked with a mainstream project in another location with in the company to design a computer which would be better than the one brought to the market by their competitor DEC. The leader of this side-lined group was Tom West and the book records how he put together a team of few senior designers who were not part of the main stream project and were in-fact thought fit for a more mundane & humble job of designing enhancements for an existing product line. It describes how West took risks in not only new technology but also thinking out of the box in relying on new college graduates (who have no experience in designing anything so complex) to make up the bulk of his design team. The book follows many of the designers like Steve Wallach, Ed Rasala as they give up every waking moment of their lives in order to design and debug the new machine on schedule.

The work environment followed by the engineering team did not follow the traditional methods of management but instead Tom West & Carl Alsing promoted the top-down management method where many of these innovations were started at the grassroots level. Instead of management coercion the team members were motivated by their leaders to work harder voluntarily to complete the project on-time. The book highlights that in order to make people give their best it is important for managers to ensure that work itself is challenging and rewarding. Many of the engineers stated in the book that, “They don’t work for the money“, meaning they work for the challenge of inventing and creating. The motivational system is akin to the game of pinball, the analogy that if you win this round, you get to play the game again; that is, build the next generation of computers.

A running theme in the book is the complex interplay between engineering quality and time to market: the engineers, challenged to bring Eclipse to market on a very short time-frame, are encouraged to cut corners on design. Tom West described his motto as “Not everything worth doing is worth doing well,” or “If you can do a quick-and-dirty job and it works, do it.” The engineers, in turn, complained that the team’s goal is to “put a bag on the side of the Eclipse“— in other words, to turn out an low quality product in order to have it completed more quickly.

The leader Tom West in the documented project practices the ‘”Mushroom Theory of Management” — “keeping them in the dark, feeding them shit, and watch them grow.” That is, isolating the design team from outside influences and, instead, using the fear of the unknown to motivate the team. The “Soul” of the new machine comes from the dedicated engineers who bring it to life with their endless hours of attention and toil. The soul is theirs, stored in silicon and microcode.

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