book-reviews

The Soul of a New Machine

by Tracey Kidder

Rating: ★★★

I can see why this book won a Pulitzer. Kidder has a very strong journalistic asset, a style which consciously integrates the 'human element' -- the personal background and philosophies of various project members -- with hard-won analogies that explain the intricacies of his subject matter in a manner that the general public can consume. Whether describing complex internal politics, hardware faults or individual biographies, his text flows cleanly off the page, neither dry nor shallow in his treatment of the subject. There is always a detail presented to hook the attention, a narrative thread to follow, a character to understand.

The material was of course also timely (at the time), and no doubt contributed a lot of wider cultural insight into who computer engineers were, and how they worked. The fact that the Eagle was not on the whole a particularly significant machine actually helps here -- if this was a particularly unusual computer, one might wonder if the processes that produced it were also particularly unusual, and less representative of a whole industry.

A lot of Kidder's focus is not so much on the technical work and innovation, but on the management and culture surrounding the creation of the machine. The group he describes were essentially thrown into a pressure-cooker of technical work, with a boss who (having created a project against an uncertain background) barely acknowledged them while sheltering them from the rest of the organisation. The work is collaborative, but competitive -- engineers were routinely working incredible unpaid overtime simply to get things done. You feel like a generation of managers read details like this with no small amount of salivation. Skilled labour that self-motivates and under-bills?

It was a solid read, but one which failed to strike a chord with me. Elements of the culture described are certainly familiar, but I found nothing romantic or inspiring that built on that familiarity. With 40 years of perspective, the burning-both-ends nature of the work struck me as wasteful. Sometimes I did feel like I was reading a series of miniature biographies about people I wasn't interested in, and how they were brought together to make something even less interesting. Kidder's talent disguises that, but ultimately I can't give this one more than a nod of appreciation.