The Observation Deck » Reflecting on The Soul of a New Machine


Long ago as an undergraduate, I found myself back home on a break from school, bored and with eyes wandering idly across a family bookshelf. At school, I had started to find a calling in computing systems, and now in the den, an old book suddenly caught my eye: Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine. Taking it off the shelf, the book grabbed me from its first descriptions of Tom West, captivating me with the epic tale of the development of the Eagle at Data General. I — like so many before and after me — found the book to be life changing: by telling the stories of the people behind the machine, the book showed the creative passion among engineers that might otherwise appear anodyne, inspiring me to chart a course that might one day allow me to make a similar mark.

Since reading it over two decades ago, I have recommended The Soul of a Machine at essentially every opportunity, believing that it is a part of computing’s literary foundation — that it should be considered our Odyssey. Recently, I suggested it as beach reading to Jess Frazelle, and apparently with perfect timing: when I saw the book at the top of her vacation pile, I knew a fuse had been lit. I was delighted (though not at all surprised) to see Jess livetweet her admiration of the book, starting with the compelling prose, the lucid technical explanations and the visceral anecdotes — but then moving on to the deeper technical inspiration she found in the book. And as she reached the book’s crescendo, Jess felt its full power, causing her to reflect on the nature of engineering motivation.

Excited to see the effect of the book on Jess, I experienced a kind of reflected recommendation: I was inspired to (re-)read my own recommendation! Shortly after I started reading, I began to realize that (contrary to what I had been telling myself over the years!) I had not re-read the book in full since that first reading so many years ago. Rather, over the years I had merely revisited those sections that I remembered fondly. On the one hand, these sections are singular: the saga of engineers debugging a nasty I-cache data corruption issue; the young engineer who implements the simulator in an impossibly short amount of time because no one wanted to tell him that he was being impossibly ambitious; the engineer who, frustrated with a nanosecond-scale timing problem in the ALU that he designed, moved to a commune in Vermont, claiming a desire to deal with “no unit of time shorter than a season”. But by limiting myself to these passages, I was succumbing to the selection bias of my much younger self; re-reading the book now from start to finish has given new parts depth and meaning. Aspects that were more abstract to me as an undergraduate — from the organizational rivalries and absurdities of the industry to the complexities of West’s character and the tribulations of the team down the stretch — are now deeply evocative of concrete episodes of my own career.

As a particularly visceral example: early in the book, a feud between two rival projects boils over in an argument at a Howard Johnson’s that becomes known among the Data General engineers as “the big shoot-out at HoJo’s.” Kidder has little more to say about it (the organizational civil war serves merely as a backdrop for Eagle), and I don’t recall this having any effect on me when I first read it — but reading it now, it resonates with a grim familiarity. In any engineering career of sufficient length, a beloved project will at some point be shelved or killed — and the moment will be sufficiently traumatic to be seared into collective memory and memorialized in local lore. So if you haven’t yet had your own shoot-out at HoJo’s, it is regrettably coming; may your career be blessed with few such firefights!

Another example of a passage with new relevance pertains to Tom West developing his leadership style on Eagle:

That fall West had put a new term in his vocabulary. It was trust. “Trust is risk, and risk avoidance is the name of the game in business,” West said once, in praise of trust. 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.

I can’t imagine that this paragraph really affected me much as an undergraduate, but reading it now I view it as a one-paragraph crash-course in engineering leadership; those who deeply internalize it will find themselves blessed with high-functioning, innovative engineering teams. And lest it seem obvious, it is in fact more subtle than it looks: West is right that trust is risk — and risk-averse organizations can really struggle to foster mutual trust, despite its obvious advantages.

This passage also serves as a concrete example of the deeper currents that the book captures: it is not merely about the specific people or the machine they built, but about why we build things — especially things that so ardently resist being built. Kidder doesn’t offer a pat answer, though the engineers in the book repeatedly emphasize that their motivations are not so simple as ego or money. In my experience, engineers take on problems for lots of reasons: the opportunity to advance the state of the art; the potential to innovate; the promise of making a difference in everyday lives; the opportunity to learn about new technologies. Over the course of the book, each of these can be seen at times among the Eagle team. But, in my experience (and reflected in Kidder’s retelling of Eagle), when the problem is challenging and success uncertain, the endurance of engineers cannot be explained by these factors alone; regardless of why they start, engineers persist because they are bonded by a shared mission. In this regard, engineers endure not just for themselves, but for one another; tackling thorny problems is very much a team sport!

More than anything, my re-read of the book leaves me with the feeling that on teams that have a shared mission, mutual trust and ample grit, incredible things become possible. Over my career, I have had the pleasure of experiencing this several times, and they form my fondest memories: teams in which individuals banded together to build something larger than the sum of themselves. So The Soul of a New Machine serves to remind us that the soul of what we build is, above all, shared — that we do not endeavor alone but rather with a group of like-minded individuals.

Thanks to Jess for inspiring my own re-read of this classic — and may your read (or re-read!) of the book be as invigorating!