Book review: The Soul of a new Machine

The soul of a new machine -- book cover.jpg

The Soul of a new machine by Tracy Kidder is the story of the engineering team tasked with creating a new 32 bit processor. The goal is to build the Data General Eclipse MV/8000. Kidder follows the entire process of how the team build the machine in a short amount of time and with little resources.

Even though the book is old it holds up quite well as the technology is not a major concern of the book. Instead it focuses on the team and how the engineers work together. The soul of the machine is the team that built it. This is great!

The overall approach is understandable and as an engineer I can still follow what they are trying to achieve and the problems they struggle with. It shows how a bunch of people create a product by sheer will and against all odds. This is impressive and is what makes this book unique. 

The management philosophy

What I really struggle with though is the management philosophy of Data General which is a major part of the book: Mushroom management, keep the employees in the dark and feed them bullshit.

The engineers struggle with impossible deadlines and are given very little resources. Management expects engineers to do huge amounts of overtime for free, while at the same time it is not even clear if the processor will ever see the light of day. Although it seems to have worked out in this case, I think this is a route to misery. More often than not you will find out at some point that the whole thing just does not work. People will start to walk away and and the whole project collapses.

Now it is not really the fault of Tracy Kidder as he just documents how Data General worked, but it annoyed me a lot while reading. Kidder does not directly endorse this philosophy, but still implies that it is a great achievement by management to get the project done. I personally rather think the project got done despite the all mismanagement.

The real problem is that now, thirty years later managers still seem to think that the books provides valuable lessons about how to manage engineers. And this is very misguided. Reading some of the reviews for “The Soul of a new Machine” on Amazon where the reviewer advocates this kind of management style gives me shudders.

This book is outdated not because of the technology that does not hold up, but because of the philosophy and ethics that do not hold up. It belongs to the pile of outdated books (it can join “The mythical man month”) that should only be read for their historical relevance. There is nothing to learn here.

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