Non-Records Books for Records Managers: Tracy Kidder’s “Soul of a New Machine”

By Mimi Dionne posted 10-09-2012 02:55


I finished recently Tracy Kidder’s “Soul of a New Machine”.   As I read it, I thought a lot about the first time I heard the Benny Goodman Trio’s 1935 recording of “Body and Soul” (Benny Goodman with the incomparable Teddy Wilson and the-creature-who-loved-to-hit-things Gene Krupa).

I was in my grandmother’s kitchen. She was cranky; I was ruining her favorite shrimp salad. Although the vegetables were cut precisely as she requested I wasn’t chopping them right. As I struggled to hold the knife in her preferred way, the quiet was broken by the occasional tinkering of a piano or xylophone.  An AM station that only played music from “the war years” floated around us.  Suddenly, she stopped harrumphing. “Oh, turn that up,” she sighed beatifically. She sat down and broke into a lovely grin. Her eyes grew distant. While I stood with my 11-year old back hunched over with resentment, she was elsewhere. But as the trio played – and the music seemed to last forever – I listened and relaxed. It was beautiful. It was profound. It massaged our tempers. The final bars dwindled away. She looked back at me and my wrongs were forgiven. “Shall we finish?” she smiled.

Not to sound too duckbill platitudinous, but I think we should remember more often that cultural milestones really do help us transcend into something…more.

Kidder’s book about “the Eagle project” at Data General Corporation (DGC) may have been published in 1981, but the story is as applicable today as it was groundbreaking then. The book describes how a group of fresh-faced engineers known as the “Hardy Boys” and “Microkids” assembled a “32-bit supermini” computer.

The book opens with the typical lure of information technology (“get in on the ground floor and make a lot of money!”) and a history of computers—a useful summary if you’ve never read up on the topic.  In its first decade, Data General produced the NOVA and the Eclipse, seemingly elegant machines built cheaply.  By 1978, the company hired too many people and neglected its customers. Losing market share, the bloat nearly asphyxiated Data General. “Things change fast in the computer business. A year is a hell of a long time. It’s like a year in a dog’s life,” said one engineer.   

A competitor released a breakthrough machine called the VAX 11/780 to industry applause. DGC’s pride was seriously hurt. West found a model and took it apart: the CPU and the small rectangular boxes known as the chips were now in public domain, so it was ok. West’s fears rested. It wasn’t a great computer. “What we need,” thought West, “is one opportunity--the Big Project—to top the market again.” Meanwhile DGC built a satellite office in the Research Triangle and sent at least half its staff down to North Carolina. DGC’s chief executive spoke nastily of those engineers remaining at corporate headquarters in Massachusetts. North Carolina’s engineers had more “can-do attitude” he said. They would build the new computer that would save DGC, he announced. Like hell, quietly thought West. He was having none of it and neither was his team.

This book is a lot like “Body and Soul”—it may be short and dense, it may transport you to an earlier era, but its descriptions are completely accessible and you needn’t be an engineer to understand. The story outlines West’s genius in assembling the team that assembles the contender. The author peppers the serious and multi-layered drama of corporate culture and innovative technology with amusing words and phrases like “sexy” applied to computers for the first time—descriptions that are almost their own cultural references today. Steeped in early project management, the familiar computer is constructed step-by-step. The reader doesn’t know who’s going to win the race, but if you’ve ever implemented a corporate-wide electronic records management system, you know *why* Massachusetts should win: they want it so badly and they kill themselves to cross the finish line with honor and the right to say, “it’s ours”.

Find a copy and start this book. It will take you a few months, but you’ll learn to appreciate it. Then you’ll learn to love it.

#Computers #of #history



10-16-2012 13:12

I've read "Soul of a New Machine" a couple of times over the years. I affirm its ability to capture the human element behind technological advances and how to overcome (or circumvent) resistance. It also chronicles the bizarre exultation that techies get when conquering a technical problem that is thoroughly obscure and inscrutable to most of humanity.
My recollection - it's been a few years - is that it's a pretty quick read once you get into it. For us oldsters it will take you back to a time when "easy-to-use" and "computer" could never be in the same sentence. - DD

10-12-2012 06:56

If ever a subject area needed books that didn't talk about it, Records Management is one. More than that, this book sounds very interesting, especially for someone like me, who worked on both Digital and DGC equipment during that time period. Why things gain traction is probably one of the things everybody in this industry wished they understood better. I'm hoping this may give some insight, but I think I'll read it for pleasure.