I spent a lot of my college years voraciously ingesting whatever I could get my hands on in our university libraries. Even in high school, I’d spend part of my lunch hour in the school library, so the sudden accessibility of so many different books was a godsend in many ways.
One of the books I remember checking out was The Soul of a New Machine, which detailed the odyssey of a group of engineers in building a new 32-bit minicomputer. At this point, I knew I wanted a career involving computers, and so it instantly fascinated me, and it gave me a vivid picture of the work and the camaraderie I’d hope I would encounter in industry.
I’d bought a copy right after reading it then, at a used books shop across the school; years later, I gave that copy to a friend and work colleague as a gift, as I had highly recommended it to him previously.
I picked it up again about a month or so ago, after having ordered a replacement from Amazon, and I ingested it in my spare time, in between builds and in the rare occasions when I was on a bus to somewhere. Admittedly, I was also inspired to re-read it after Bryan Cantrill wrote a post reflecting on it, and I thought I could see whether it was still the book I remembered a decade or so ago.
A lot has changed since the book came out, and even since I read it the first time around; there are still things in the book that seem timeless. Deadlines still slip, and sadly technology is still a male-dominated industry, although I’d like to think we are moving towards greater equality on that front.
Now that I’m actually a working engineer (and I use that term tentatively), I could very much relate to a lot of the experiences of the heroes of the story, those engineers building the Eagle: the Hardy Boys and the Microkids. The sheer joy in building something was something I had picked up on in college, and which spoke to me in reading it now, having worked for some time. There is a bond in teams sharing in a vision in building something greater than them, and that motivation is sometimes hard to capture.
There’s a certain romance to it, admittedly, and in reading Bryan Cantrill’s reflections on it, and Jessie Frazelle’s tweets about it, I could see how much Soul of a New Machine is a romance in the sense of a medieval romance: it is a story of engineers building a machine, structured as a tale of heroic deeds and chivalry, of a sort.
There’s the whole deal about “signing up”, about joining into the cause – how Tom West and his lieutenants got everyone on board in building the machine, or how one engineer’s thoughts on how they’d tackle backwards compatibility as, perjoratively, being “a bag on the side of the Eclipse”, and how West was able to change the perspective of that engineer to see why it was important to do it that particular way.
In re-reading it, I’m also struck by the dark side of the story though. the technique of mushroom management: keeping folks in the dark and, to quote, “feeding ‘em shit”. Or the whole boy’s club atmosphere. In hindsight, there are also the things that I’d glorified in my youth: the long nights and the march to build, at the expense of life outside of work.
I’m no saint: I’ve spent chunks of my career working long hours to get a feature shipped, or to meet some mystical deadline. It’s not something I’d advocate now, especially as I firmly believe in balancing work and life, lest your life is entirely subsumed by work: and what kind of life is that then? Soul of a New Machine is indeed a romance, in that it does glamorize the long hours, glossing over the consequences.
Not a perfect book by far, I’d say, and it is a product of its time, lacking the other voices that in the present day enriches our workplaces and our views. That said though, if you ever wanted to see what drives me and those like me in my industry, I wouldn’t hesitate recommending it.