Saturday, December 10th, 2011

The Soul of a New Machine
The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Somehow, I was under the impression that this book was about the creation of Digital Equipment Corporation’s VAX. So imagine my surprise when I started reading it and the author kept talking about some company called “Data General” which I’d never heard of before. (An interesting data point: the Wikipedia article on the computer developed in this book, the Data General Eclipse MV/8000, is a good order of magnitude shorter than the one on the VAX. But Data General survived as an independent company for a good year longer than DEC. I’m not sure what to make of this.)

So this book went smashing my expectations right from the start: it was about a computer I’d never heard of before made by a company I’d never heard of before and it was still fully engrossing. It turns out that this isn’t really the story of a specific computer made at a specific company by a specific team; instead, it’s the story of a Any Given Team of Computer Guys working to build Any Given Project. That they were working on crafting a CPU out of multiple wire-wrapped boards (which is just weird) is almost incidental.

It’s incidental because the technical aspects of the story seem to merely add charm. “He turned back to plug a logic analyzer into Gollum.” connects paragraphs to each other, but the real meat of the book is in describing the characters and personalities of each of the team members (particularly the main personality, Tom West who died earlier this year) and how each of them coped with the demanding schedules that such projects tend to demand.

This book is a fascinating bit of history (I’ve never knowingly used a computer without a microprocessor). It’s an engaging and engrossing look at what it means to build a high-tech product these days (the beards are a little shorter these days, but everything else sounds about right). It’s a good read. They don’t hand Pulitzers out to just anyone, after all.

Ultimately, any dissatisfaction I find in this book comes from my own biases. I’m a software guy and I find it much easier to relate to people working on software projects. So I probably tend to prefer something like Zachary Pascal’s Showstopper! which is the same sort of project history for Microsoft’s Windows NT.

However, I can’t help but compare this to a book I read last year, The Race for a New Game Machine by David Shippy. This newer book was simply awful. My holding it up to The Soul of a New Machine really serves to show just how good Soul is.