The Soul of a New Machine

I’ve just finished reading The Soul of a New Machine by Tracey Kidder. It’s a brilliantly written non-fiction account of creating a new computer in the late 70s under massive time constraints. It describes the characters involved, their leadership styles and creative processes, and has a healthy but very readable dose of technology. Lots of it really resonated with me.

“Engineers want to produce something,” said Wallach. “I didn’t go to school for six years just to get a paycheck.

Nearly all of the people involved are motivated not by money but because they had bought into the project - they wanted the feeling of achievement you get from creating something, the kudos from their peers and the feeling of being part of a team. The message is that non-financial motivation is more powerful than financial motivation. This rings true with me, I’ve been motivated professionally by believing in what we do - helping the NHS & public sector be more efficient and making life easier for our internal and external customers.

Similarly, I love shipping code, code that doesn’t get shipped isn’t making a wide difference and isn’t being appreciated and I soak up every morsel of appreciation I can get from our users.

It’s not all sunny in the book - the flip side of how motivated the team was is that their work/life balance was seriously out of kilter. A joke develops about the wives lonely night club, which is uncomfortably close to home.

One hardware designer, suffering from burnout after struggling with bugs which he’d put himself under pressure to address, left a note saying “I’m going to a commune in Vermont and will deal with no unit of time shorter than a season.”, which I can certainly empathise with!

Tension in the book is provided by the race to meet a deadline, which leads the most protagonistic character to say “not everything worth doing is worth doing well”. This is a nice succinct phrasing of an idea I have to put across sometimes - that something may not be perfect but it’s a significant improvement over the status quo, let’s get it in people’s hands.

That fall West had put a new term in his vocabulary. It was trust. “Trust is risk, and risk avoidance is the name of the game in business,” West said once, in praise of trust. He would bind his team with mutual trust, he had decided. When a person signed up to do a job for him, he would in turn trust that person to accomplish it; he wouldn’t break it down into little pieces and make the task small, easy and dull.

This passage puts into words something that I know I can struggle with at times. I have to be mindful not to fall into the trap of over-specifying, not just due to risk aversity but sometimes you start something and want to finish it and make sure it’s done your way, even though it might be better to delegate it to someone else who might take a different route to get to the same place.

There is much more within The Soul of a New Machine that feels directly relevant to my experiences and it is a tale I’ll definitely reread later on. I’d recommend that anyone who is part of, or leading creative or engineering teams give it a read.