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The Soul of Our Work

I just finished reading Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of A New Machine book, which was highly recommended by a couple of people I follow online. My interest in the history of computers is relatively nascent. It’s only in recent years that I cultivated a deep interest in the history of computing and went back in time to learn more about the origin of computers and the story of innovation labs that changed the world. Apart from this, another relevant book I read was The Dream Machine about J.C.R. Licklider, covering his rich legacy and contributions in many areas of personal computers and today’s internet. That book was fantastic and very soon became one of my favorites in that genre.

To my surprise, “The Soul of a New Machine” exceeded my expectation in all possible ways. It’s an exceptionally well-written book that does an outstanding job in storytelling, exploring the process of human creativity and character building. A page-turner with many interesting high-level details on hardware and software engineering in early computers. I read the book mostly at night, before going to bed, and since the book was so engaging, I often had to pass my sleep time (sadly making it harder to wake up early for my morning workout) and stay late to not disconnect from the storyline. Since I was so inspired by this book, I thought it would be helpful to distill my learnings into words and share them with a broader audience in case other technologists find it intriguing.

The book is about a group of engineers who worked in a computer company called Data General in the 1970s. The team of engineers consisting of “Hardy Boys” (hardware team) and “Microkids” (software/microcode team) is led by the book’s protagonist Tom West who wants to build a new microcomputer. These were when personal computers were booming, with multiple players trying to make a dent in the market and invent the next cheaper, faster, and smaller computer. Computers in the 1970s were quite different from personal computers now, they were slower, and often programmers had to wait days for their turn to run programs with punch cards. There was no computer interactivity, and it was only the invention of time-sharing that enabled multi-tasking, allowing multiple people to work on a computer simultaneously by sharing the computer resources. In addition, computers were expensive, and not every company could afford them, and even if they did, it required an entire office room to store them due to their enormous size.

The book highlights the times in Data General when computers were moving from 16-bit to 32-bit systems and when Tom West convinced the company leadership to form a new team to work on a new 32-bit computer which was supposed to have more memory and faster central processing unit. The project was code-named “Eagle”. The book primarily discusses this process and how the team makes progress under strict deadlines. Apart from designing, building, and debugging the microcomputer, the book chronicles the work lives of engineers and how they navigate their relationships with their boss and co-workers under tremendous pressure.

The people management and what motivated the Eagle team were quite surprising for me because, in many ways, it was pretty different from what I’ve seen or experienced as a software engineer working in a tech company. Reading about human interactions and challenges, I’d naturally take parallels and try to compare them with my own experience. It made me think that our work environments and perception of work have changed quite drastically over the past five decades and, in some ways, not necessarily to the advantage of innovation.

What motivated engineers in the Eagle team in the 1970s wasn’t the compensation, benefits, or work-life balance but rather the collective mission to create something delightful for the world. They had a common goal and showed tremendous belief in their work. They were confident they could invent the new computer without realizing all its challenges. During the final stages of the project, when the deadline was pressing, some engineers did all-nighters to test and debug the new computer without complaining because they were too proud of their work and what they were after. In the author’s interviews, they mentioned fulfilling work as the number one driver of their happiness at work.

Building a new 32-bit computer required solving complex technical problems, often with novel solutions. The Eagle team would often form pairs and solve the problems together, but sometimes there will be a single engineer working days and nights to build a new simulator for the machine so the team could iterate faster. Some of the engineers in the team were new grads who saw the project as a huge opportunity to work alongside experienced engineers and learn from them. They saw their work as an experience for a lifetime.

Most engineers in the Eagle team contributed across the multiple layers of the stack, which you don’t often see in our industry now, where engineers specialize in frontend or backend technologies. There you have software engineers willing to go through the rabbit hole of hardware trying to debug bugs and find solutions.

The Eagle team worked hard because they cared about their craft and work. This created a culture of trust between engineers and management, giving engineers more autonomy in decision-making.

Seeing a group of people working together towards a common goal inspires me because it’s beautiful. I do want to maximize such experiences in my life where I can look back and be proud of my work regardless of how hard I worked or how many all-nighters I had to put up with.

I loved the book and highly recommend it to anyone curious about computers, hard work, and innovation. I think it’s essential that many engineers read books like this so they can take inspiration from the computer pioneers and find the hidden soul of work.

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