Books, Reviews

Book Review – The Soul of a New Machine

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About 6 years ago, a sort of scandal rocked the gaming industry related to a blog post by a woman known as “EASpouse”. The blog post criticized EA’s labor practices at the time, which required employees to work massive amounts of unpaid overtime, as they were salaried employees. By massive, I mean about 12-16 hour days, 6 days a week, regularly. This was a big deal among gamers, because very few of us had ever had the opportunity to peek behind the curtain like this. It was likely that most of us viewed game development with a variation of the way that Roald Dahl as a child imagined the inside of the Cadbury Chocolate Factory near the boarding school he attended (which later led to Charlie & the Chocolate Factory).

The Soul of a New Machine, by Tracy Kidder shows that such working conditions are nothing new. The book follows the development process of Data General’s micro-computer (sort of like a rack mounted server, except it’s the size of the whole unit, but essentially only being one of the server nodes), that would be a successor to their Eclipse line of microcomputers, code named the Eagle, and later released as the MV/8000. The book goes into both the personal and technical aspects of the development process, profiling the various men (and a few women) involved in the project, and giving a description of the technical aspects of the process for the layman.

While the technical bits (pardon the pun), are enjoyable, the book’s strength, and where it spends most of its time, is in profiles of the people. The book paints a bleak picture of the inner workings of Data General. The working conditions at Data General, particularly on this project, are brutal. Much as with EA Spouse, employees are salaried, with no overtime pay, and work 12-16 hour days, 6 days a week. As the project goes on, project leads and younger employees are worn down. Often, employees at Data General observe that the company brings in a lot of new fresh recruits, and few stay at the company after they turn 30. Many of these new recruits drop out for various reasons, and often employees discuss the company’s sweat-shop like working conditions. As the project moves into the heat of summer, the air conditioning breaks, turning their windowless basement office into a sweltering oven, which they can’t even leave the door open for, for security reasons. Only after the employees strike do they fix the air conditioning.

By the end of the book, several of the project leads, themselves burned out, leave the company, and while some of the employees on the Eagle team stay on, many more have left.

Tracy Kidder got an impressive amount of access at Data General when he wrote this book, and while he’s honest and truthful about what happened there, Data General, at least to my 21st century mind, comes out of this book smelling like shit. I base this solely on what Data General does, and I know this because Kidder doesn’t whitewash – he thankfully calls it right down the middle.

While the book is never accusatory, it makes clear that Data General is a predatory employer. It preys on young, semi-idealistic college Engineering graduates, who don’t have a lot of job experience and are looking more for interesting problems to solve, interesting work to do, than a big paycheck. They promise them interesting problems, and briefly, very briefly, warn them that there will be long hours and possibly a limited social life, that this job will become their life. To meet the deadlines required of them they will have to give up friends, family, and the outside world, living only the job, for months or years at a time. Plus, because they’re salaried, despite all the hours they get that would be overtime, they’re only making their standard pay grade.

It chews up 22-24 year old kids, and spits them out at 30, burnouts who had great potential, but were consumed by their jobs. They don’t say if many of these former employees stay in the industry, and some certainly do – Ray Ozzie, creator of Lotus Notes and current Chief Software Architect at Microsoft is a Data General veteran. However, those who leave the industry with a sour taste in their mouth will probably leave worse off then they would be if they worked somewhere else. Had they been actually paid overtime, they could have possibly built a nest egg that could have allowed them to retire early, or to at least take their time looking for work elsewhere.

While some poor decisions related to processor architecture helped to kill Data General right before the dawn of the 21st century, it is my suspicion that the boom in Silicon Valley may have inspired a brain drain. Nicer weather, a less oppressive corporate culture. For people who wanted more money, there was the change to come in on the ground floor of companies which had the potential to be worth millions and get significant stock options. For those who preferred challenge, they could face whole new challenges when designing new systems and new architectures at the new companies in the Valley.

In summary, the book is a high resolution snapshot of the early days of the computer industry, before the internet started to permeate our lives in subtle ways – computerized tax processing, credit cards, ATM machines, and so on, leading up to the more overt ways it would later find its way in – Bulletin Board Services, E-Mail, and finally, proper web pages. People interested in the history of the computer industry will certainly find this fascinating. People who don’t care about the history of computing can still find something in the profiles of the people in this project, and how the project’s process slowly wears them all down.