On The Soul of a New Machine
July 28, 2012 Leave a comment
I recently finished reading The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. I selected this book based on its appearance on Martha Heller’s blog posting entitled Leadership Books Recommended by CIOs and Technology Executives: http://blog.hellersearch.com/Blog/bid/124393/Leadership-Books-Recommended-by-CIOs-and-Technology-Executives . The Soul of a New Machine was recommended by Dave Berry.
This book is a fascinating recount of Data General’s effort to bring a new computer to the market. Through the stories we re-live moments of “drama, comedy, and excitement” as an engineering team works day and night in the goal of developing a computer – project code “Eagle”. The author focuses on the natural tension that exists between the engineers and their management. Particularly that of a focus on product vs. the market and the race to develop the next computer.
Within this book are numerous lessons on technical leadership, management and organizational dynamics. The lead on the effort (Tom) is a strong believer in grass-root effort and had the ability to build a team, rally them toward a common cause and lead them to success.
As mentioned on the cover: “What has changed little, however, is computer culture: the feverish pace of the high-tech industry, the mystique of programmers, the entrepreneurial bravado that has caused so many start-up companies to win big (or crash and burn), and the cult of pursuing mind-bending technological innovations. By tracing computer culture to its roots, by exploring the “soul” of the “machine” that has revolutionized the world, Kidder succeeds as no other writer has done in capturing the essential of the computer age.”
A fun classic read with numerous applicable lessons!
Below are two excerpts that I found particularly relevant:
1- “Software compatibility is a marvelous thing. That was the essential lesson West took away from his long talks with his friend in Marketing. You didn’t want to make a machine that wasn’t compatible, not if you could avoid it. Old customers would feel that since they’d need to buy and create all new software anyways, they might as well look at what other companies had to offer; they’d be likely to undertake the dreaded “market survey”.”
2- “Adopting a remote, managerial point of view, you could say that the Eagle project was a case where a local system of management worked as it should: competition for resources creating within a team inside a company an entrepreneurial spirit, which was channeled in the right direction by constraints sent down from the tip. But it seems more accurate to say that a group of engineers got excited about building a computer. Whether it arose by corporate bungling or by design, the opportunity had to be grasped. In this sense, the initiative belonged entirely to West and the members of his team. What’s more, they did the work, both with uncommon spirit and for reasons that, in a most frankly commercial setting, seemed remarkably pure.”