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Quotations from The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder (1978)

Posted in Book Reviews, Hardware Engineering, Technology by engtech on September 04, 2007

I’m going to celebrate Labour Day with the only book I’ve ever read that captured what it’s like to work at building integrated circuits. The Soul of a New Machine is a Pulitzer Prize winning book written in 1978 by a reporter named Tracy Kidder. Hat tip to Scott Rosenberg, or rather to James Fallows, for turning me on to this book by comparing it to Dreaming in Code. If you’ve read the book, you’ll probably find this interview with Wired (2000) interesting, as it catches up with the old team.

soul of a new machine

Rather than pontificate on what the book meant to me, I’m going to cut and paste some quotes from another reviewer on Amazon.

Review by B. Marold (Bethlehem, PA United States)

When it was first published, the book was a narrative of what was then `modern’ technology, where the central processing units (CPU) or `brains’ of commercial minicomputers and mainframe computers were built up on large circuit boards from individual, specialized integrated circuit chips, with each chip integrating dozens or hundreds of discrete components. This compares to today’s microcomputers where the entire CPU is placed on a single chip incorporating tens of thousands of discrete functions, all taking up no more room than the average credit card. Now, the book is more a history of how this technology was developed, and yet its picture of how people work in teams developing technological projects will probably never go out of date.

The irony of this book is that the computer being developed by the team described in this book, a 32 bit Eclipse computer developed by the Data General corporation, a competitor to the larger and very successful Digital Computer Corporation (Digital), did not really achieve any major breakthrough in technology. While it was intended to compete with a new generation of Digital VAX machines, it ended up being just barely faster than VAX’s in a few special tasks. In fact, in a conversation I once had with some Digital engineers, they said that when they went head to head with Data General in bidding for a computer sale, the only thing they had to do was bring out Kidder’s book to demonstrate that the Data General box was yesterday’s news. Data General may have had the last laugh, as ailing Digital was bought out by Compaq, which has since merged with H-P, further submerging the once great Digital presence in the commercial computer world. Meanwhile, Data General is still around, albeit not the presence it once had when the `minicomputer’ was the great alternative to the IBM monoliths in the glass houses.

Favorite Quotations from The Soul of a New Machine

Computer were relatively scare, and they were large and very expensive. Typically, one big machine served an entire organization. Often it lay behind a plate glass window, people in white gowns attending it, and those who wished to use it did so through intermediaries. Users were like supplicants. The process could be annoying. P14

A company was more likely to asphyxiate on its own success. Demand for its products would be soaring, and the owners would be drawing up optimistic five-year plans, when all of a sudden something would go wrong with their system of production. They wouldn’t be able to produce the machines that they had promised to deliver. Lawsuits might follow. P33

A heroic metaphor for success in the computer business: “The major thing is avoiding the big mistake. It’s like downhill ski racing: Can you stay right on that edge beside disaster?” P35

[Seymour Cray and Co.] had come to build what are generally acknowledged to be the fastest computers in the world, he quintessential number-crunchers. Cray was a legend in computers, and in the movie Cray said that he liked to hire inexperienced engineers right out of school, because they do not usually know what’s supposed to be impossible. P77

[On joining a high tech company] Going to work for the Eclipse Group could be a rough way to start out in your profession. You set out for your first real job with all the loneliness and fear that attend new beginnings, drive east from Purdue or Northwestern or Wisconsin, up from Missouri or west from MIT, and before you’ve learned to find your way to work without a road map, you’re sitting in a tiny cubicle or, even worse, in an office like the one dubbed the Micropit, along with three other new recruits, your knees practically touching theirs; and though lacking all privacy and quiet, though it’s a job you’ve never really done before, you are told that you have almost no time at all in which to master a virtual encyclopedia of technical detail and to start producing curcial pieces of a crucial new machine. And you want to make a good impression. So you don’t have any time to meet women, to help your wife buy furniture for your apartment, or to explore the unfamiliar countryside. You work. You’re told, “Don’t even mention the name Eagle outside the group.” “Don’t talk outside the group,” you’re told. You’re working at a place that looks like something psychologists build for testing the fortitude of small animals, and your boss won’t even say hello to you. P79

Wallach had now spent more than a decade working on computing equipment. He’d had a hand in the design of five computers — all good designs, in his opinion. He had worked long hours on all of them. He had put himself into those creatures of metal and silicon. And he had seen only one of them come to functional life, and in that case the customer had decided not to buy the machine. P93

That was what made it fun; he could actually touch the machine and make it obey him. “I’d run a little program and when it worked, I’d get a little high, and then I’d do another. It was neat. I loved writing programs. I could control the machine. I could make it express my own thoughts. It was an expansion of the mind to have a computer.” — Alsing, P126

There’s no such thing as a perfect design. Most experienced computer engineers I talked to agreed that absorbing this simple lesson constitutes the first step in learning how to get machines out the door. Often, they said, it is the most talented engineers who have the hardest time learning when to stop striving for perfection. West was the voice from the cave, supplying that information: “Ok. It’s right. Ship it.” P158

He would bind his team with mutual trust, he had decided. When a person signed up to do a job for him, he would in turn trust that person to accomplish it; he wouldn’t break it down into little pieces and make the task small, easy and dull. P173

“With Tom, it’s the last two percent that counts. What I now call ‘the ability to ship product’ — to get it out the door.” — Rasala P188

Above all, Rasala wanted around him engineers who took an interest in the entire computer, not just in the parts that they had designed. He said that was what was needed to get Eagle out the door on time. P199

The very word, engineer, dulled the spirit. It was something your father might be interested in.

Typically, a machine gets built and sent to market and in its first year out in public a number of small, and sometimes large, defects in its design crop up and get repaired. As the years go by, the number of bugs declines, but although no flaw in a computer’s design might appear for years, defects would probably remain in it– ones so small and occurring only under such peculiar circumstances that they might never show up before the machine became obsolete or simply stopped functioning because of dust in its chips.

“The way to stay on schedule is to make another one.” — Rasala P246

“It doesn’t matter how hard you work on something. What counts is finishing it and having it work.” — Holberger P252

[Small companies would] announce a new product and then for one reason or another they wouldn’t be able to produce it in sufficient quantities to meet their obligations. They’d asphyxiate on their own success. But a small company had to court disaster. It had to grow like a weed just to survive. P312

Almost every commentator has assured the public that the computer is bringing on a revolution. By the 1970s it should have been clear that revolution was the wrong word. And it should not have been surprising to anyone that in many cases the technology had served as a propr to the status quo. P317

Most computer companies have boasted that they aren’t just selling machines, they’re selling productivity. But that clearly isn’t always true. Sometimes they’re selling paper-producers that require new legions of workers to push that paper around.

But maybe a time would come when the computer would run every aspect of a person’s life. “Then we get tired of it. We start growing plants or something. Maybe slowly we will turn around and go away from it. If computers take something away from us, we’ll take it back. Probably a lot of people will get screwed before that happens.” — Holland P325

“I’ll stop asking questions and let you go home. You look tired.”
“It’s a long-term tiredness,” said Rasala.
“Going home won’t solve it,” said Blau. P334

“That’s the bear trap, the greatest vice. Your job. You can justify just about any behavior with it. Maybe that’s why you do it, so you don’t have to deal with all those other problems.” — West P367

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