The Soul of a New Machine

I first heard about the Soul of a New Machine book in a talk the CTO of Joyent, Bryan Cantrill, gave where he said that in the book this fresh graduate goes to work in this company and is told to build something impossible, an AI computer, and after a few months without anybody telling him that was impossible he comes back with the machine built.

From the get go I thought that was the premise of the book and that it was a fictional story. However, to my surprise, the story was not fictional and it was not about building an AI computer but instead bringing a 32 bit computer to life in the late 70s.

Building the impossible

The part the CTO of Joyent was talking about was probably the one where the lead of the Micro Software team, Alsing, kept asking West (the manager) to build a 32 Eagle simulator so that his team could test their software without waiting for the real machine to be built. West said the work would take to long but gives the green light to Alsing to go ahead. Alsing asked the fastest programmer he knew at the company, David Peck, employee number 257 to build the simulator. He also asked Neal Firth to work with Peck, Firth was a programming phenomenon and only 22 years old. Alsing put Firth to work under Peck, so Peck would help Firth along the way with his experience. Then Alsing brought Firth to the side and asked him how long would it take him to finish building the simulator, naively , Firth said 2 months, nobody told him that it would take much longer to build a simulator, Alsing estimated at least two years. Then to generate some healthy competition between Peck and Firth, Alsing took Peck to the side and told him that while Firth was building his full blown simulator he needed a quick and dirty one so that his team could start testing. After 2 months Peck had his quick and dirty simulator and a couple of months after that Firth finished his full blown one.

That story is so true, when you are a fresh graduate from college since you only worked on small projects and all of them were easy to complete you think real problems in the world will have the same level of complexity. Only after some field battles you realize the real complexity of certain projects. Nobody told Firth that the simulator couldn’t be built in 4 months, that’s why he built it.

Even when I think back on certain projects I worked after graduating from college, initially I would have a naive blueprint of the whole thing on my mind which I would only discover that it had lots of details missing while I was working on it. But just like Firth’s simulator case, I would figure it out and finish. Indeed, ignorance is bliss.

The motivation behind the computer

Overall the book was well divided into chapters where Kidder elaborated on the bios and responsibilities of the people working on the new computer. He made a really good job getting inside the minds of all the workers, ranging from the secretary, to the big manager, the interns and pretty much everybody that had a part in building the computer. He also connected all the dots and made the story very fluid with a beginning middle and end which makes you think that his writing is Fiction instead of a true story.

One common theme of the book that kept reappearing on every bio Kidder would write was that the engineers were not working for money. They had this internal code which they called “signing up” which they would commit their full energy into building the machine, that meant working long hours, weekends, literally focusing their whole life into building the machine. The engineers would say that the best reward was the fact that they were building something new, letting their creativity flow without boundaries. Being part of something bigger than themselves. That is the key. Being able to combine passion with work. However, there are so many stars that need to be aligned to foster that kind of environment, and that was the role of West, which Kidder depicts very well in the book.

Then it is very funny in the end, the day after the computer was introduced to the market the sales manager for Data General goes to the stage to rally his troops and say:

What motivates people?

He answers his own question:

Ego and the money to buy things that they and their families want.

That shows a very different mind set between engineers and sales people. The beauty is that without engineers sales people wouldn’t be able to sell anything and without sales people engineers wouldn’t be able to build anything since nobody would know what they built it.