The Soul of a New Machine
December 8, 2022 4:31 PM - Subscribe

The experiences of a computer engineering team racing to design a next-generation computer at a blistering pace under tremendous pressure.

What follows is the current marketing copy for the book, which I don't necessarily vibe with (and purposely didn't include in the main post) after reading it and thinking about the current state of tech and labor versus capital, but could be an interesting catalyst for discussion. I also want to note that one of the main characters is quite closely related to an extremely notable Metafilter member (they have been public about it, but I will let them disclose it if they want to), so I hope any discussion can keep that in mind.
Tracy Kidder's "riveting" (Washington Post) story of one company's efforts to bring a new microcomputer to market won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and has become essential reading for understanding the history of the American tech industry.

Computers have changed since 1981, when The Soul of a New Machine first examined the culture of the computer revolution. What has not changed is the feverish pace of the high-tech industry, the go-for-broke approach to business that has caused so many computer companies to win big (or go belly up), and the cult of pursuing mind-bending technological innovations.

The Soul of a New Machine is an essential chapter in the history of the machine that revolutionized the world in the twentieth century.
posted by General Malaise (13 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This was a great, well written, and fascinating read. The details of things that seem common and ordinary jump out of the page as something novel and remarkable. Thinking of a basic CPU as a series of cards and wires and instructions and problems is something I probably never thought about in the nascent days of the computer.

But what some may say is a heroic struggle and an epic win, maybe some can see a little more complicated. We see people working around the clock, a nearly total lack of women or diversity, a what can only be generously be called a "bro culture," a place in the time it existed.

The personalities really strike you. There may be a little problem, with also what we saw with the original Friday Night Lights by Buzz Bissinger, where the journalist really gets too close to their subjects and maybe doesn't see what a journalist should be seeing, or, really should be asking. That three dimensional characterization and humanization both makes the book a more interesting read but does pull back a little from any interrogation you end up wondering why didn't happen.
posted by General Malaise at 4:39 PM on December 8, 2022

Thank you for posting this. I’d love to hear people’s opinions about whether this holds up and is worth reading today.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 5:08 PM on December 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

I think it definitely holds up and is worth reading today, but you really have to enter with a more critical eye than I think the author either demanded or asked for.
posted by General Malaise at 6:23 PM on December 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

Yep, required reading in my 1988/89-ish CE/CS class (forget which). I liked it, still do a thing that's in there somewhere of when being faced with a hard problem going rogue for a couple of days while figuring it out.

There was a recent (like past couple of weeks) post on Hacker News about this book. The mefite in question shows up and talks about it (as they have done here on MetaFilter may times in the past. Might just be better to go hunt for that post than make them do it all over yet again here.

Haven't read it since first or second reading way back then. Probably still interesting. It's much like the old Jargon File, really a telling of the era at the time.
posted by zengargoyle at 7:04 PM on December 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

It's been years (literally twenty years) since I read this, but two things stick with me. First: the messy, kludgy business of patching code and fixing bugs (has any book ever described this so well?) and the compromises the engineers have to make to get the product finished and out the door. Second: the ending, where they listen to the pitch from the marketing team and suddenly realise that the machine they've created (and sweated blood over) doesn't belong to them any more.
posted by verstegan at 10:30 PM on December 8, 2022

The engineers they hired got the machine made, but only one person was indispensable: Tom West.
posted by infinitewindow at 12:17 AM on December 9, 2022

This is absolutely worth reading today – I read it a few years ago and still think it's one of the best books about technology I've read.

Also, Tom West's daughter is Mefi's own Jessamyn West, the current owner of Metafilter! Jessamyn has written about her relationship with the book, most recently here, so I don't think this is a secret at all.
posted by adrianhon at 3:04 AM on December 9, 2022 [3 favorites]

Worth noting that the excellent Halt and Catch Fire (Fanfare) shares a lot of DNA with The Soul of a New Machine, whether or not it was directly inspired. There is a meaningful moment in the show where you see the book fairly prominently, in fact.
posted by adrianhon at 3:07 AM on December 9, 2022

I read this shortly after it came out in paperback, when I was in high school. I was playing Adventure for the first time around the time I was reading it and remember bumping into the same points in the game that Kidder talked about, which I thought was pretty cool. It taught me a lot about what to expect from the tech world, but also helped normalize some of the remarkable levels of dysfunction in the tech world, which I ended up having to un-learn. I think of the book fondly, but I haven't read it since some time in the 90's, so I'm not sure how it holds up.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:46 AM on December 9, 2022

This post is somewhat timely in terms of the technology, since over the last few weeks, the company that now owns the Data General Nova and Eclipse software has been making their huge collection of software and documentation available under a hobbyist license for use in emulators.
posted by offog at 9:55 AM on December 9, 2022 [2 favorites]

Just finished reading this (for the third or fourth time) a couple of days ago. I enjoy it a little more every time, partly because I've grown older and gotten more insight into companies and managers, and also I get more and more interested in the history of computing. It's an interesting portrait of its time, just on the cusp of the advent of the microcomputer. News of the release of software for emulation of the DG minis is very exciting!
posted by lhauser at 5:52 PM on December 11, 2022

When I was a kid in the 1980s, I once asked my Dad what he really did for a living. I knew it was in tech, but I didn't really know.

He handed me a copy of this book, said, "This is required reading for anyone who works for me."

After reading it, I asked him, "So are you like Tom West or Edson DeCastro?"

"A little bit of both."
posted by Thistledown at 5:03 AM on December 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

I mentioned this book over here and got pointed here.

I called Kidder "sly" there, and I think I stand by it. He does come across as a little too enraptured by the whole breakneck speed and intensity of the development and I think yes, he doesn't really question the boys'-club thing enough -- ISTR that one of the Microkids is a woman, but it's Rosemarie's mother-duck role that gets more of his attention.

But also: I think he does know full well that he's painting a very deliberate picture of a toxic, exploitative, and unsustainable work environment. The Data General basement, in the book, feels less like a workplace and more like a cult. It's not a good man in a storm, or building the porch, or putting a bag on the side of it that sticks with me most; it's the burnout moment: "I'm going to a commune in Vermont and will deal with no unit of time shorter than a season."
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 6:11 PM on July 18, 2023 [1 favorite]

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