The Soul of A New Machine (Anglais) Broché – 1 juin 2000
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--Jeremy Bernstein, New York Review of Books --Ce texte fait référence à une édition épuisée ou non disponible de ce titre.
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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was developed, and yet its picture of how people work in teams developing technological projects will probably never go out of date.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.
That does not detract from the fact that this is still a terrific story. I have read it several times and still quote from it after nearly thirty years of reading from it the first time. My favorite image is of the engineer who quit the project to become a farmer, so that the smallest unit of time he had to deal with was the season. My second favorite quote (which may not be original to this book, although this is the first time I ran into it) is that the management style on the project was the mushroom theory. That is, `Keep them in the dark and feed them s**t'.
As I see from Kidder's new introduction, this essay was a bigger accomplishment that it seemed originally, as Kidder was closer to being a Luddite than he was a techie in love with the latest computer tool which, at that time, would have been standalone word processing machines produced by companies such as IBM and Wang. In spite of that limitation, he manages to make it interesting to both the average reader and someone like myself who is (or at least was) familiar with the inner workings of computers.
I also tend to see Kidder's book as the fountainhead of a whole wave of new style journalistic book length works. I almost like to believe that Kidder made possible the writing careers of my foodie-writing hero, Michael Ruhlman (`The Soul of a Chef' and `The Making of a Chef'). The similarity in title of Ruhlman's book with Kidder's title is, I think, not an accident.
So, this is not only a history of a major moment in computer history, it is a superb picture of the dynamics of people in technical development teams and the challenges of achieving a technical goal.
Must read for everyone.
When you're young and you get interested in something, you get _passionate_ about it. Maybe it's because you don't know the importance of money and responsibility yet, but you really get into a sport, or hobby, or any other interest, and you do that hobby or play that sport, you write stories or fix cars, making whatever sacrifices you need to just so you can do this thing you love, not because you want to make money at it, or gain respect or admiration, but because it gives you priceless rewards and satisfaction. And it's a purest love you can have. When you grow up, you get disillusioned, from paying bills and other responsibilities. You lose the spark. You start doubting your interest in what you used to love, be it the mechanic who used to love cars but has grown jaded, or the teacher on a low income who has to deal with unruly students and demanding parents.
The Soul of a New Machine is a throwback to that youthful perhaps almost a bit naive passion. It's about the antithesis of the 9-5, where if the pay is horrible, you couldn't care less, you still work overtime. This pure struggle, the essence of a profession, is what makes the book so great. It's the most archetypal element of a career or profession, the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that only something you put your soul and your sweat and blood into, can give you. In that basement in Data General, this beautiful dream became real in the form of the Eagle minicomputer. If you've felt the kind of spark that drove those young men before, this book will remind you. And if you haven't, maybe this book will kindle a new passion in what you do.
Tracy Kidder captures a technical world and gives a clear picture at the tremendous challenges of building a state of the art computer system, that must be backwards compatible with legacy architecture, all while doing it in an easy to read manner (and a brilliant original perspective).
It is a heroic, true life story. It was (and still is) one of my all-time favorite books.
engineers tasked with building a new computer for Data General. The
project is led by a curt manager with a methodology he calls mushroom
management (keep them in a damp, dark place, and feed them shit) that
would be impossible to instate in any sensible company these days. The
project is of highest significance for the company, and everything is
due yesterday, everyone working in a frantic pace to get the computer
out the door before their rivals within the same company beat them to
it. The pressure and the intense pace of work is tangible all through
the book; especially in the chapters on the debugging of the computer,
one gets a very solid sense of how difficult it should be to fix
horribly complicated hardware bugs under such intense pressure.
Soul of a New Machine hails from a time when the separate parts of a
computer were actually built and tested by hand; a time when the CPU
and the ALU resided on separate boards, a computer was debugged using
oscilloscopes, and when finished, occupied three cabinets. For people
of later generations who grew up with computers that came simply
within a shiny black box, the story of these engineers provides a nice
perspective of where the computer industry came from, and how the
computer market could have developed in many other directions.
The bigger question Kidder is after is what drives young, talented
people to spend most of their waking hours on a new computer. The
engineers he follows all have successful academic studies behind them,
and are technically inclined, having broken and fixed electrical
devices since their childhood. They all admit that money is not really
the driving factor (they are not getting any money for the overtime
they work). What these young people are driven by is the
responsibility they are trusted with (doing the complete design for a
fundamental part of a new computer) which they wouldn't get in other,
more established companies, the team spirit the stressful situation
leads to, and the feeling of belonging up there with the major figures
of the computer revolution.
As the Pulitzer prize would lead one to expect, Kidder does a great
job of depicting the daily life of the Data General engineers.
Especially interesting are how the teams create coping mechanisms to
make it through the grueling schedule, and the lore and humor that
surrounds the people and artifacts (My favorite: "An oscilloscope is
what cavemen used to debug fire"). Unfortunately, the text frequently
feels cold, only tracing the surface of the figures, maybe due to a
voluntary journalistic distance. Some pages read like a software
manual, precise and professional, but lacking the human depth and
warmth. With a little less distance, it might have been possible to
get closer to the real reasons people loose themselves in complicated
Being in a small software organization for the last 4 years and having experience a tripling in size and about the same in revenue, it was very easy for me to find parallels to my company's growth, the people and the experiences that were at Data General when the computer was built. Here are some of the (summed up briefly) that I found:
1. Speech Period (pep ralley) 2. Leader becoming more and more distant 3. Need to be doing something interesting 4. Mushroom Theory of Management (put them in the dark, feed them s*$# and watch them grow). 5. Everyone burns out 6. All of the sudden, its just a job 7. The gunslinger 8. Management has changed and its no longer the same place ... and many others
I think that anyone reading the book curious of parallels in businesses (regardless of what they do), would find this book a good source of info.