The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder
The computer revolution brought with it new methods of getting work done—just look at today’s news for reports of hard-driven, highly-motivated young software and online commerce developers who sacrifice evenings and weekends to meet impossible deadlines. Tracy Kidder got a preview of this world in the late 1970s when he observed the engineers of Data General design and build a new 32-bit minicomputer in just one year. His thoughtful, prescient book, The Soul of a New Machine, tells stories of 35-year-old “veteran” engineers hiring recent college graduates and encouraging them to work harder and faster on complex and difficult projects, exploiting the youngsters’ ignorance of normal scheduling processes while engendering a new kind of work ethic.
These days, we are used to the “total commitment” philosophy of managing technical creation, but Kidder was surprised and even a little alarmed at the obsessions and compulsions he found. From in-house political struggles to workers being permitted to tease management to marathon 24-hour work sessions, The Soul of a New Machine explores concepts that already seem familiar, even old-hat, less than 20 years later. Kidder plainly admires his subjects; while he admits to hopeless confusion about their work, he finds their dedication heroic. The reader wonders, though, what will become of it all, now and in the future. —Rob Lightner