Tracy Kidder

The Soul of a New Machine

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The Soul of a New Machine Summary

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Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine (1981) is a nonfiction account of a team of underdog engineers who build a state-of-the-art minicomputer despite tremendous odds. Led by a cold, demanding boss and faced with severe budget and manpower constraints, the engineers work under grueling conditions to deliver a machine that outperforms the computing products made by bigger and better-funded competitors. The team’s model for success would influence countless upstarts in Silicon Valley, for better or worse. Meanwhile, Kidder’s characterization of computer engineers as bold and passionate visionaries transcended the era’s prevailing clichés about “tech geeks” and forever transformed the way society views the computing industry.

When the book begins in the late 1970s, Data General is one of a small group of firms fighting for a share of the burgeoning “minicomputer” industry. About the size of a closet and costing up to $25,000 apiece, minicomputers are precursors to the desktop PCs that would dominate the 1990s. A small but significant player in the industry, Data General begins to see its sales plummet after longtime market leader DEC releases the state-of-the-art 32-bit VAX computer. Desperate to build its own 32-bit machine and spurred on by a tax dispute with the state government, Data General relocates most of its operation from Westborough, Massachusetts to a new facility in North Carolina. Known internally as the Fountainhead Project, this new department becomes ground zero for Data General’s single-minded efforts to take down the VAX, consuming the majority of the firm’s resources, attention, and talent.

Meanwhile, back at its Massachusetts office, a small group of employees who refuse to uproot their families are tasked with maintaining Data General’s existing products. The senior member of this skeleton crew is a designer named Tom West, whose prickly demeanor befits his role as leader of the slighted, angry engineers left behind. Not content to coast along while the rest of Data General works to save the company, West—with the scarcest of resources at his disposal—decides to lead his own project, codenamed Eagle, aimed at dethroning DEC’s VAX. Though he characterizes the gambit to his boss as a backup plan in case the Fountainhead Project fails, West is confident he can improve upon the VAX’s design and establish a new industry standard.

If revolutionizing the computing industry is difficult on its own, doing so with minimal support proves to be a harrowing effort fraught with tremendous challenges. Confined to a drab, suffocating basement, the Eagle team’s makeshift facility gets as hot as an oven when the company forgets or declines to pay for air conditioning. West only pays his engineers a pittance compared to what they could earn elsewhere; nor can he pay them overtime, even though he frequently demands twenty-hour days and seven-day workweeks. Facing oppressive work conditions and enormous odds, West recruits a group of young recent graduates—chosen, he claims, because “they didn’t know yet what was impossible.”

The Eagle team is separated into two divisions: “Hardy Boys,” in charge of hardware, and “Micro Kids,” who handle the microchip software commands. They thrive in the face of West’s highly unorthodox style, a volatile cocktail of fear, bombast, and belittlement. West’s approach, though potentially alienating, leaves no room for non-believers, thereby inspiring cult-like devotion to his cause. The obsessive atmosphere is helped along by a concept West calls “Signing Up,” which requires all team members to forgo family, friends, and other commitments that distract from building the perfect machine. To help cement the team’s single-minded focus, West tells his engineers they are the company’s last hope, while the rest of the company views their work as Plan B at best.

Having established both obsession and isolation, West introduces his most powerful motivators: fear and paranoia. Kidder calls this Mushroom Management: “Keep them in the dark, feed them shit, and watch them grow.” West works to keep the progress of each computing component a secret, so at any given time he can spring unrealistic deadlines on engineers, perpetuating the kind of anxiety West believes is necessary for great work.

Although West’s tactics seem cruel, Kidder frequently reminds the reader that it’s all done in service of greater goals. When West walks through the main floor of the facility as if the hardworking foot soldiers don’t even exist, it’s not because he’s a standoffish jerk, Kidder theorizes; it’s that he hopes to position himself as a villain or scapegoat so if the project fails, the engineers will blame West instead of themselves. And when Kidder describes West’s tendency to induce unnecessary anxiety in his engineers by exaggerating the urgency and importance of their work, he doesn’t frame West as a taskmaster. Rather, he’s depicted as someone who understands that one of the most powerful motivators—absent salary hikes or promotions, which West can’t offer anyway—is personal responsibility.

This emphasis on individual responsibility makes each engineer feel like the hero of the story. Unfortunately, and through no fault of West’s, this backfires when the Fountainhead Project misses its deadline and the Eagle becomes Data General’s last chance to save itself. When the Eagle is completed, despite performing ten percent faster than the VAX, West’s engineers aren’t treated as heroes by the rest of the company. Instead, the Fountainhead Project feels betrayed by the Eagle team for stealing its glory. That sense of betrayal lingers toward the Eagle division, which in turn feels that the company isn’t sufficiently grateful for its accomplishments.

The final indignity is that, throughout the Eagle project, West tells his engineers that the reward for their hard work won’t be money, but the chance to “play again,”—a metaphor for pinball. Yet many of the Eagle’s principal figures—who, in Kidder’s estimation, really are responsible for saving the company—don’t even get that chance.

The legacy of The Soul of a New Machine has little to do with any one product or engineer. Its legacy is in how Kidder, years before Steve Jobs and Elon Musk became cultural icons, elevates computer engineering into the realm of high drama and heroic struggle, depicting what was long considered a boring and nerdy pursuit as something sublime. In a twenty-year retrospective, WIRED’s Evan Ratliff describes the book’s impact: “The engineer as artist, scientist, visionary; the computer builder as protagonist, even celebrity—these cultural figures came into being in Kidder’s Soul and provided a new framework for understanding the progress of the industry.”