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Soul of a New Machine de Tracy Kidder
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Soul of a New Machine (1981 original; edició 1982)

de Tracy Kidder

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2,330455,041 (4.05)45
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. "Fascinating...A surprisingly gripping account of people at work." --Wall Street Journal… (més)
Membre:retry
Títol:Soul of a New Machine
Autors:Tracy Kidder
Informació:Penguin Putnam~trade (1982), Edition: Third Printing (of First UK Edition), Hardcover, 294 pages
Col·leccions:La teva biblioteca
Valoració:***1/2
Etiquetes:No n'hi ha cap

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The Soul of A New Machine de Tracy Kidder (1981)

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  stravinsky | Oct 20, 2021 |
USA, ca 1990
Indeholder "A good man in a storm", "1: How to make a lot of money", "2: The wars", "3: Building a team", "4: Wallach's golden moment", "5: Midnight programmer", "6: Flying upside down", "7: La machine", "8: The wonderful micromachines", "9: A workshop", "10: The case of the missing nand gate", "11: Shorter than a season", "12: Pinball", "13: Going to the fair", "14: The last crunch", "15: Canards", "16: Dinosaurs", "Epilogue", "Acknowledgments".

Historien om et team, der laver en ny computer til Data General. ( )
  bnielsen | Jul 21, 2021 |
There are many, many project management books that purport to reveal the ultimate system for surmounting the myriad challenges to releasing a product on-time, in-budget, and with all the promised features. It's a popular and useful genre, even if much of the material is just reshuffled and rebranded old bromides, but sometimes the most helpful and memorable way to offer project management advice is to just pick a single case study and dive in deep to explore the group dynamics that result - or don't - in a successful product. I'd previously read Mountains Beyond Mountains, Kidder's excellent profile of Dr. Paul Farmer, and this much earlier work, which won him a Pulitzer, is just as detailed, thoughtful, and revealing. It's about the race from 1978 to 1980 by one team of computer engineers at Data General to develop and release a 32-bit "minicomputer" (one of the many charmingly antiquated terms that will give those who know their industry history a smile) called the Eclipse in competition with another, more-prestigious team that's been given a more glamorous project in a shiny new office, with the fate of the company looming in the background. Heroes and villains are the keys to great drama, and so as the narrative follows the protagonists, who are working on "Eagle", a 32-bit extension of the existing 16-bit line of computer hardware instead of the brand-new computer of their dreams that they imagine their counterparts are gleefully assembling, their struggles to design, build, test, debug, and actually finish a computer without more hacks, kludges, and shortcuts than are absolutely unavoidable in such a short time take on a mythic glow that anyone working on a big project in the tech industry under a tight deadline will immediately recognize, despite the passage of nearly 40 years.

If I had to pick a single part of the book that best-represents why the book would make a worthy addition to a computer engineering syllabus, it would be the chapter "The Case of the Missing NAND Gate". It's an almost self-contained episode towards the end of the book, where, late in the development cycle, several engineers are attempting to debug an erratic logic failure, which occurs just often enough to be indicative of a real problem but not so often as to be easily reproducible. Kidder relays the team's efforts to determine if this diagnostic failure is at root a software or a hardware issue, with an amusing layer of "antagonistic camaraderie" on top of their troubleshooting, as all of them had a hand in designing the machine and each wants to solve the problem but none wants to have the root cause bear their fingerprints. This was back in the era when computer design involved the frequent use of oscilloscopes and it was often a genuine question if chips on a board weren't properly spaced for optimal signal timing, so fans of vintage computing will really enjoy as Kidder walks the reader through the finer points of system caches, assembly microcode, page faults, and logic gates while various engineers, working in shifts, propose and reject theories to explain the anomaly. It's a genuine puzzle, and Kidder does a great job explaining just what the problem is and why it's so difficult to diagnose and eventually solve, translating the arcane technical details of the fault with the various components of the system architecture until it's not just lucid but even enthralling. Here's his rendition of one potential explanation from one engineer named Guyer:

"The diagnostic program originally puts the target instruction at address 21765, and then, sometime later on, it moves the target instruction to 21766. But the IP never gets word of the change, though the System Cache does. Now, sometime after the target instruction is switched from mailbox 21765 to 21766, the program directs Gollum to execute the instruction at 21766. The IP receives this command and looks through its cache. It says to itself, in effect, 'Mailbox 21766? I've got that address and there's an instruction in it. Let's run it.' But in the I-cache, the target instruction is still at 21765, and mailbox number 21766 contains an error message. In short, the I-cache contains an outdated piece of memory. Why didn't it get updated along with the other parts of the memory system? Maybe, Guyer writes, the System Cache is to blame. The System Cache is supposed to know exactly what is in the I-cache. If an instruction or data gets moved to a new address, the System Cache is supposed to tell the IP to throw away the outdated mailbox and get the new one, the one with the target instruction in it. Somewhere back in the program, Guyer figures, the System Cache lost track of what was in the I-cache. It forgot that the IP had the target instruction in mailbox 21765, and so, when the change was made in the location of the target instruction, it never told the IP to get rid of the old, outdated mailbox. Guyer likes this hypothesis. He records it with mounting enthusiasm; and describing it later, he repossesses the feeling, speaking rapidly, gesturing with both hands. Then he stops, puts his hands on the table, and says, 'Of course, it was completely wrong.'"

The book is also notable for broader reasons. Massachusetts was a much larger center of the technology industry in the 1970s and 80s than it is today, and the "Route 128" cluster competed directly with Silicon Valley for talent and prestige. However, the Eclipse team's main antagonists were not in California but in North Carolina, giving the modern reader a glimpse of the "flight to the Sunbelt" in embryo that has helped the Research Triangle, among other places, at Massachusetts' relative expense. Data General was founded by former employees of Digital Equipment Corporation; I've read articles arguing that Massachusetts' relatively strict enforcement of noncompete agreements was a major force that drove tech firms to less strict jurisdictions, but that doesn't seem to have been as large an issue here as the typical lure of lower taxes. However, prospective MBAs should scrutinize closely the decision by corporate management to have two different teams working on overlapping products, as ultimately the highly-regarded North Carolina team working on the prestigious brand-new 32-bit machine (dubbed "the Fountainhead Project", with hilarious irony) was upstaged by the "Eagle" team, whose less-ambitious 32-bit extension of the 16-bit Eclipse became a huge moneymaker for the company. Now, hindsight is 20/20, and it's obviously impossible to consistently tell ex ante if internal competition, which is often positive, will in the end have wasted resources. After all, the Eagle team did produce an extremely successful product, although we don't know how much was spent on the Fountainhead team. But lack of clear focus is always risky, and corporate politics can have damaging downstream effects on teams of even very smart people.

But any look into the subtleties of nerd psychology has to account for the fact that the drive to create cool technology is often far more powerful than any corporate folly, even and perhaps especially if that involves extremely long hours of hard work. Occasionally the concept of "mushroom management" is invoked, which turns out to mean "put 'em in the dark, feed 'em shit, and watch 'em grow", and one paradoxical upside of not being the top brass' favorite project is that, with protective leadership, that can actually mean more opportunity to produce. There's an interesting detail in the life story of Tom West, the top manager for the Eagle project: "He went to Amherst College, in western Massachusetts, where he studied the natural sciences. He did so without academic distinction, and it happened that Amherst was just then embracing a new Calvinist fad called the underachiever program: young men whose brains seemed much better than their grades were expelled for a year, so that they might improve their characters. At Amherst, certainly, and possibly in the entire nation, West became the first officially branded underachiever. It was something he'd always remember." This story takes place after the end of the naive cyberhippie movement of the Whole Earth Catalog/"All watched over by machines of loving grace" era, so that technoromance had been firmly replaced by a more modern engineering sensibility, but there's still poignancy of the ceremony at the end of the project, where the team members come to grips with how much of themselves they've put into what would be released as the Data General Eclipse MV/8000, elevates what could have been just an unusually lengthy product diary into an account of creation that justly deserved its Pulitzer. One of the engineers had a typical complaint:

"What a way to design a computer! 'There's no grand design,' thinks Rosen. 'People are just reaching out in the dark, touching hands.' Rosen is having some problems with his own piece of the design. He knows he can solve them, if he's just given the time. But the managers keep saying, 'There's no time.' Okay, Sure. It's a rush job. But this is ridiculous. No one seems to be in control; nothing's ever explained. Foul up, however, and the managers come at you from all sides. 'The whole management structure,' said Rosen. 'Anyone in Harvard Business School would have barfed.'"

Maybe, but the reason why his project shipped and his rival's didn't wasn't because he had superior consultants from Harvard. As Kidder recounts from attending a trade conference: "It seemed to me that computers have been used in ways that are salutary, in ways that are dangerous, banal and cruel, and in ways that seem harmless if a little silly. But what fun making them can be!" ( )
1 vota aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
40 years later, this book is still the definitive narrative of what life at a tech company is life. From the focused vision of engineers, to the political battles of upper management, to the relationship with marketing, to the creepy guys the sole woman on the team had to put up with ... it's all still the same. It's been on my to-read list for a while, wish I'd gotten to it sooner.

It's also fascinating to look up the career trajectories of the engineers involved (many of them are still working, usually as VPs/CEOs).

An underrated part of this book is just how good the technical writing is. It goes from "all computer data is 1s and 0s represented by different voltages across a circuit" to accurately describing a thorny bugs with registers, gate logic, the team is struggling with quickly and clearly. If the book was just this stuff, it would be a towering achievement of writing.

As an aside, if you've watched Halt and Catch Fire you'll be shocked at how much season 1 is lifted from this book: The overall plot of a rogue executive starting a computer project; the strategy to hire recent grads who won't know how daunting the tasks they are given are; the team getting obsessed with the game Adventure (the episode where Bos gets stuck in the maze is directly lifted from the book); at one point, Cameron even bemoans the machine's soul. I hope Tracy Kidder got royalties. ( )
1 vota bishnu83 | Apr 6, 2021 |
About 6 years ago, a sort of scandal rocked the gaming industry related to a blog post by a woman known as "EASpouse". The blog post criticized EA's labor practices at the time, which required employees to work massive amounts of unpaid overtime, as they were salaried employees. By massive, I mean about 12-16 hour days, 6 days a week, regularly. This was a big deal among gamers, because very few of us had ever had the opportunity to peek behind the curtain like this. It was likely that most of us viewed game development with a variation of the way that Roald Dahl as a child imagined the inside of the Cadbury Chocolate Factory near the boarding school he attended (which later led to Charlie & the Chocolate Factory).

The Soul of a New Machine, by Tracy Kidder shows that such working conditions are nothing new. The book follows the development process of Data General's micro-computer (sort of like a rack mounted server, except it's the size of the whole unit, but essentially only being one of the server nodes), that would be a successor to their Eclipse line of microcomputers, code named the Eagle, and later released as the MV/8000. The book goes into both the personal and technical aspects of the development process, profiling the various men (and a few women) involved in the project, and giving a description of the technical aspects of the process for the layman.

While the technical bits (pardon the pun), are enjoyable, the book's strength, and where it spends most of its time, is in profiles of the people. The book paints a bleak picture of the inner workings of Data General. The working conditions at Data General, particularly on this project, are brutal. Much as with EA Spouse, employees are salaried, with no overtime pay, and work 12-16 hour days, 6 days a week. As the project goes on, project leads and younger employees are worn down. Often, employees at Data General observe that the company brings in a lot of new fresh recruits, and few stay at the company after they turn 30. Many of these new recruits drop out for various reasons, and often employees discuss the company's sweat-shop like working conditions. As the project moves into the heat of summer, the air conditioning breaks, turning their windowless basement office into a sweltering oven, which they can't even leave the door open for, for security reasons. Only after the employees strike do they fix the air conditioning.

By the end of the book, several of the project leads, themselves burned out, leave the company, and while some of the employees on the Eagle team stay on, many more have left.

Tracy Kidder got an impressive amount of access at Data General when he wrote this book, and while he's honest and truthful about what happened there, Data General, at least to my 21st century mind, comes out of this book smelling like shit. I base this solely on what Data General does, and I know this because Kidder doesn't whitewash - he thankfully calls it right down the middle.

While the book is never accusatory, it makes clear that Data General is a predatory employer. It preys on young, semi-idealistic college Engineering graduates, who don't have a lot of job experience and are looking more for interesting problems to solve, interesting work to do, than a big paycheck. They promise them interesting problems, and briefly, very briefly, warn them that there will be long hours and possibly a limited social life, that this job will become their life. To meet the deadlines required of them they will have to give up friends, family, and the outside world, living only the job, for months or years at a time. Plus, because they're salaried, despite all the hours they get that would be overtime, they're only making their standard pay grade.

It chews up 22-24 year old kids, and spits them out at 30, burnouts who had great potential, but were consumed by their jobs. They don't say if many of these former employees stay in the industry, and some certainly do - Ray Ozzie, creator of Lotus Notes and current Chief Software Architect at Microsoft is a Data General veteran. However, those who leave the industry with a sour taste in their mouth will probably leave worse off then they would be if they worked somewhere else. Had they been actually paid overtime, they could have possibly built a nest egg that could have allowed them to retire early, or to at least take their time looking for work elsewhere.

While some poor decisions related to processor architecture helped to kill Data General right before the dawn of the 21st century, it is my suspicion that the boom in Silicon Valley may have inspired a brain drain. Nicer weather, a less oppressive corporate culture. For people who wanted more money, there was the change to come in on the ground floor of companies which had the potential to be worth millions and get significant stock options. For those who preferred challenge, they could face whole new challenges when designing new systems and new architectures at the new companies in the Valley.

In summary, the book is a high resolution snapshot of the early days of the computer industry, before the internet started to permeate our lives in subtle ways - computerized tax processing, credit cards, ATM machines, and so on, leading up to the more overt ways it would later find its way in - Bulletin Board Services, E-Mail, and finally, proper web pages. People interested in the history of the computer industry will certainly find this fascinating. People who don't care about the history of computing can still find something in the profiles of the people in this project, and how the project's process slowly wears them all down. ( )
1 vota Count_Zero | Jul 7, 2020 |
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"The Soul of a New Machine is first of all a good story, but beyond the narrative, or rather woven into it, is the computer itself, described physically, mechanically and conceptually. The descriptive passages will not ''explain'' computers to the average reader (at least they did not significantly increase my own very superficial knowledge), but they give a feeling, a flavor, that adds to one's understanding - as broadly, or even poetically, defined."
 
this is from a retrospective review of the book, nearly twenty years after its publication.

December, 2000

"More than a simple catalog of events or stale corporate history, Soul lays bare the life of the modern engineer - the egghead toiling and tinkering in the basement, forsaking a social life for a technical one."
 
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ISBN 0140062491 is for The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. Amazon has the title and author for the film "Norma Jean" by Ted Jordan, but the cover for Tracy Kidder's book.
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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. "Fascinating...A surprisingly gripping account of people at work." --Wall Street Journal

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