Friday, July 11, 2008

The Soul of a New Machine

I just finished The Soul of a New Machine, Tracy Kidder's 1981 Pulitzer Prize winning account of the creation of Data General's "Eagle" 32-bit mini-computer. The account was fascinating partly because it showed how much technology has changed in the intervening quarter-century. For instance, note this description of Tom West's office, the senior engineer spear-heading the project:

"It was tiny and windowless. A thick, jacketed pipe and a steel girder descended through it, down the face of a cinder-block wall. There were some gray metal chairs, a gray metal bookcase, a couple of small gray metal tables and a gray metal desk, the top of which was absolutely clean save for a single stack of papers with their edges perfectly squared. A Magic Marker board, at the moment displaying some incomprehensible diagram, hung on one wall. For adornments there were an old clock in a beautiful oak case, and on the wall behind West's back, a picture of a square-rigged sailing ship. On the wall beside him hung several photographs of computers."

It wasn't until the last sentence of that paragraph that I realized what was missing. The senior engineer, the man responsible for building Data General's next generation of 32-bit computers, didn't have a computer in his office. Computers were still something else at the time: they were for calculating, for bookkeeping, for computing, very occasionally for playing text games. But they weren't for communication. Sun Microsystems' recognition that "the network is the computer" was still more than a decade away.

But even more fascinating was how little has changed. Engineers remain engineers: in 1980 they worked long hours on incomprehensible projects because they loved the work; in 2008 they continue to work long hours on incomprehensible projects because they love the work. Of course engineers are motivated by money, but then, as now, they're even more motivated by the possibility of working on something new, interesting and challenging. They remain ambivalent about the long hours, the challenges and especially the politics, but few seem willing to give it up, and almost all claim to love it.

In 1981, as now, engineers and business people spoke very different languages. Nothing in the book was more sad than watching engineers who had worked thousands of hours of unpaid overtime turn their machine over to the folks from marketing and sales. The last paragraphs of the book close on an ironic, almost tragic note:

"At the end of the presentation for the sales personnel in New York, the regional sales manager got up and gave his troops a pep talk.

"'What motivates people?' he asked.

"He answered his own question, saying, 'Ego and the money to buy things that they and their families want.'

"It was a different game now. Clearly, the machine no longer belonged to its makers."

I sometimes marvel at how certain gifted engineers are able to work with computers, and the artistry they exhibit as they create beautiful and elegant solutions to the difficult problems I bring them. It makes me wonder if a silent, hidden capacity has existed throughout time inside at least some human beings, an aptitude which lay dormant through millennia of evolution and social change, until the day when Univac was unveiled, and the potential became actuality. To this small class of people, to live in an age prior to computers must have been something like living in a remote tribe which had lost all ability to speak; and turning on their first computer would have had all the glory and the wonder of Adam naming the animals.

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