The Soul of a New Machine | Tracy Kidder

Summary of: The Soul of a New Machine
By: Tracy Kidder


Get ready to dive into the fascinating world of ‘The Soul of a New Machine’ by Tracy Kidder. Relive the 1970s as we explore minicomputers’ history, particularly focusing on the intense competition and the emergence of superminis in the market. This summary chronicles the journey of Tom West, an engineering Vice President at Data General, and his team as they stealthily create a covert project called ‘the Eagle’ to rival the superminis being developed elsewhere. Despite minimal resources and low expectations, West assembles an extraordinary group of engineers, both young and seasoned, determined to design a breakthrough machine that changes everything.

Data General vs. DEC

The rise of Data General, a ruthless computer company that aimed solely for profits, and its rivalry with DEC, the biggest player in the industry, culminated in the development of a breakthrough computer that would change the industry for good.

In the late 1970s, the computer industry was dominated by a company called DEC, which held about 85% of the market. One of its competitors was Data General, a notorious and stingy company whose focus on profits was evident in even their bleak, concrete headquarters. Its practices were infamous, including rumors of torching a competitor’s factory. Despite this, Data General generated 20% profits, year after year until it grew to $508 million, landing 500th place on the Fortune 500.

As the market for computers grew, DEC created a “supermini” computer that everyone wanted. Learning that the market would be worth billions, Data General knew it needed to develop its “answer” to DEC’s VAX machine. Engineering Vice President, Tom West, bought and took apart the VAX machine, deciding that they could do better. What followed was a ruthless competition between the two companies to develop a breakthrough computer. The result was the Eclipse MV/8000, which would change the industry forever.

The Birth of the Eagle

Data General’s new research and development center in North Carolina was meant to be the primary site for the Fountainhead Project (FHP), the company’s new supermini. However, Tom West’s team in Westborough was left to work on older computers, which lacked excitement. Under the radar and with limited resources, West’s team decided to build a competitor to FHP, known as the Eagle. Despite being ignored by the rest of the company and working in a stifling basement, West’s team was determined to make the Eagle essential to the company’s success in the age of superminis.

Designing the Impossible

Tom West assembles a team of young graduates and experienced engineers to design a top-of-the-line computer that could contend with the VAX, despite doubts from others. West recruits Steve Wallach through deception and enlists every team member to agree to forsake any obstacles to the project’s success. The team’s enthusiasm and sense of pride in creating something new were their inherent rewards.

A Motivational Pinball Game

The book snippet discusses the motivational strategies used by West to inspire his team in producing quality work in minimum time. West’s management philosophy of “mushroom management” involved keeping the team isolated while giving individual responsibilities with unrealistic deadlines to create constant pressure and anxiety. The team was motivated to launch the product quickly, and quality was not always a priority. However, the central motivation was the chance to “play another game of pinball,” implying that the team would have an integral role in designing subsequent generations of computers. This approach was successful with young graduates and older engineers, who were excited to work on the forefront of computer production.

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