The Soul of A New Machine

The Soul of A New Machine by Tracy Kidder is a story of a computer project, set in late 70s. It covers bunch of underdogs inside a company, which itself is an underdog. Not only that, it has cornered itself in a dangerous position. Major competitive player have already moved to 32 bit, and underdogs have to match up or they will vanquish. I guess this is as thrilling as it gets in this industry.

Written for audience in 1980s, this book does great job of explaining the how the computers work, and what are the challenges in making such machine. You don't have to take my word for it, this book was awarded plenty to prove its potency. Although if you, like me, grew up in horizontal computing world, it might be hard to imagine vertical one.

One way to look at this book, is this is a story of successful project[1]. We have the insight of what kind people were attracted to this project, how they contributed to it, how they were inspired despite having low odds of realistic success, what kind of risks were taken along the way, and how they powered through tough problems.

But a long time has passed since the book was written and now we have another angle, in a traditional sense, this is a story of failed company, which had talent, money, and willpower to pull through. The organization made series of decisions along the way, which would be obvious red flags in hindsight. Being late to 32 bit train, pitting two teams against each other and then undermining one of them, and worst of all, not adapting after this near death experience.

[1] In general, in regard to both success and failure, I would caution about linking correlation to causation and trying to copy the behavior (May be turtleneck did not cause success, it just happened to be there). John Siracusa covers it eloquently here while discussing Creative Selection, another excellent book.