The More Things Change: A Review of The Soul of a New Machine

January 20, 2012

Already in my career I’ve experienced enormous passion, burnout, extraordinary dedication to my team and projects, and depression. I’m sure many others have as well. Has it always been this way with technology? I often wonder if this rollercoaster is necessary, healthy, or normal.

I recently saw a recommendation for Soul of a New Machine, which tells the story of a team of engineers at Data General who built a new 32-bit computer in the late 1970s. The book is fascinating. Thirty year later, many of its descriptions of the project and the way the team worked and was treated could apply to any modern project.

The plot summary will no doubt sound familiar to you: A team of mostly young, mostly male engineers works grueling hours to build something amazing in too short an amount of time. They succeed, albeit a bit over their original schedule. Despite the project’s commercial success, the team is denied both recognition and financial rewards and many end up leaving the company. Almost all of them ultimately enjoyed it and would (and did) do it again.

There were many pieces of this story that resonated with me.


Work is a Drug

On overworking Tom West, the manager of the team in the book, says:

That’s the bear trap, the greatest vice. Your job. You can justify just about any behavior with it. Maybe that’s why you do it, so you don’t have to deal with all those other problems.

Why deal with the unpredictable world, when the controllable world of creation is available? It’s code as escapist drug, and I love to get high on it. Mundane things like cleaning my house, and more serious ones like taking care of my health, are all easy to avoid while fixing bugs or starting a new project.

It’s both possible and important to find a balance.

The team’s secretary, who was much more than her title suggests, suffered and succeeded with the rest of the team. Even she says:

I would do it again. I would be very grateful to do it again. I think I would take a cut in pay to do it again.

Even as I recover from projects that burned me out, I am constantly thinking about how to do new ones. In fact, while I’m doing any project, I’m already thinking about doing another. This sounds like drugs again. But they are good drugs.

Harassment and Treatment of Women

The book describes how some team members tormented the lone female engineer. This is something that still happens today, and it’s terrible. And people then wonder why there are so few women in our industry.

In addition to that, at the end when they hand out the peer awards, their award to the woman was for putting up with them, not for any of her actual accomplishments.

Betty Shanahan was that lone woman, and it looks to me that she deserved more than just an award for thick skin. She’s the CEO of the Society of Women Engineers, and she was “a member of the design team for the first parallel processing minicomputer and manager of hardware design for subsequent systems.” She later moved to the business side of technology, and I wonder if that had anything to do with her having to put up with the Eagle team’s harassment.

How Something is Done is Important Too

Often we judge things by their properties, but one can also rightly judge something by how it is made. Shoes made from child labor are less good than those made in other ways.

Kidder, the book’s author, discusses this:

In The Nature of the Gothic John Ruskin decries the tendency of the industrial age to fragment work into tasks so trivial that they are fit to be performed ony by the equivalent of slave labor. Writing in the nineteeth century, Ruskin was one of the first, with Marx, to have raised this now-familiar complaint. In the Gothic cathedrals of Europe, Ruskin believed, you can see the glorious fruits of free labor given freely. What is usually meant by the term craftsmanship is the production of things of high quality; Ruskin makes the crucial point that a thing may also be judged according to the conditions under which it was built.

By this kind of measure, is the work many teams do good? Is the Eagle computer that Tom West’s team built really a success since the team worked much overtime, suffered divorces and other problems, and in the end received little to no reward?

I think it’s time for entrepreneurs and workers in our industry to demand better. Our outputs will be better if they are made sustainably, and not just by the measure above. In retrospect, maybe the reviewers of LA Noire should have taken into the account the trials of its developers; it certainly would not have fared well.

Freedom of Expression

I want to hire resourceful people. I want to describe a general outline of a design and not have to describe it in intricate detail in order for them to build it.

It turns out that this is critical for happiness. If we’re told exactly how to do something, it takes much of the creativity and fun out of the work.

Engineers are supposed to stand among the privileged members of industrial enterprises, but several studies suggest that a fairly large percentage of engineers in America are not content with their jobs. Among the reasons cited are the nature of the jobs themselves and the restrictive way sin which they are managed. Among the terms used to describe their malaise are declining technical challenge; misutilization; limited freedom of action; tight control of working conditions.

You must trust those you work with to be resourceful. If you don’t trust them, you will end up micromanaging them into unhappiness, and you will also remove their valuable creative input from your product.

There is a balance to be struck with feedback. The Eagle engineers thought that the managers didn’t appreciate their efforts, but in reality, some of this was them trying to stay out of the way. Kidder asked the Tom West’s boss:

Had the Eagle project always interested him or had it grown in importance gradually?

“From the start it was a very important project.”

Was he pleased with the work of the Eclipse group?

“Absolutely!” His voice falls. “They did a hell of a job.”

But some members of the team felt that they had been rather neglected by the company.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” he says. “That’s frequently the case. There’s often a conflict in people’s minds. How much direction do they want?”

I’ve had this same issue with investors as well. You don’t want them to meddle with your company or your product, but you also want their advice and guidance. It’s possible to go too far in either direction, but mostly you hear about stories where investors meddle too much. I personally think it’s probably better to err on the side of too little help than to end up with too much meddling.

The Venture Capitalists

Even thirty years ago, the VCs had a bad rap. Tom West was asked in a Wired article years after the book’s publishing why he stayed at Data General until he retired:

“You could do new products and companies within the company, rather than shag some venture capitalist and kill yourself for five years.” To be an entrepreneur, he says, “you have to be interested in networking, even with fools.”

This is another reason why I would prefer to bootstrap companies if at all possible.

Tom West ended up working on many interesting projects at Data General, but ultimately, none of them got the support or recognition they deserved. The other members of the Eagle team spread out and started or worked for new companies, and in general seemed much happier.

Final Thoughts

In the end, it’s both a fascinating tale of heroism and creativity and a saddening tale of undervalued and underpaid engineers. I am both emboldened to keep following my passions and more mindful of its dangers. My troubles are not unique - not even modern. Thirty years after this book was written, I feel like it could have been written yesterday.

The More Things Change: A Review of The Soul of a New Machine - January 20, 2012 - Jack Moffitt