Getting infected

“He didn’t sleep for four nights. Four whole nights. And if that trip had been his idea of a vacation, where, the psychologist wanted to know, did he work ? “

“He didn’t want to fight for petty wins when there was a bigger game in town. And the bigger game was pinball. You win one game, you get to play the next. You win with this machine, you get to build the next. Pinball was what counted.”

Its a tough task not to relate to the characters and the story that Tracy Kidder unfolds before you in The Soul of a New Machine. He depicts heroism in systems engineering and makes circuit designing sound like the sexiest job ever. He ensures that you, despite being a mere reader, get the kind of adrenaline rushes the 30-odd team did as they set out to build the next-generation 32-bit minicomputer over that one year period.

The book has a Pulitzer prize to its credit and has been called the “original nerd epic” by many critics. Given all that, attempting to write a review would be sheer folly. Several people have done a great job of it before. Below however, is an attempt to log what I learnt from the book and what I enjoyed the most. The post is long and verbose, but it doesn’t count.  The hope is that the (usually non-existent) reader will be inspired somewhere midway to give up on the post and grab the book instead.  🙂

So what makes the book so likable ?

Bringing out something that is Transcendental

The technology that the book talks about is far outdated today. From minicomputers to  the age of handhelds, we have long taken for granted technology that the protagonists considered path-breaking. However, Kidder’s observations about the way engineers work, what keeps them driven, how teams deal with long-term challenging projects still remain valid in the current world. Even technically, there are certain insights he provides which really amaze you as they come true now . For instance, “A time would probably come when components would operate so quickly, that the distance the signals would have to travel would ultimately affect intimately the speed of most commercial computers“. Its something we take for granted now, but to have this insight 30 years back is brilliant.

The Author, his narration, his attitude
Hey, its a journalist trying to understand the computer industry. So on first thoughts, one probably doesn’t expect much of an insight on the technical side. I expected the book to be a “view from 20,000 feet above” of the intricate process. Wrong. The book taught me more interesting things than any course on computer design or architecture I took. The author claims that he struggled with the technical details, but eventually, in the book he brings them out as the most amazing analogies teachers could give. From microcode sequencing,page faults, instruction caches, logical  address spaces, privilege levels and protection rings – he has a simple, handy explanation in day-to-day parlance for anyone. He makes sure that not knowing the technicalities does not prevent the reader from appreciating the challenges that the engineers faced.

A peek into corporate dynamics
For those engineers who look at management with a sneer, this book is only bound to magnify that feeling. On one hand you have the brightest of people ever, facing impossible deadlines in designing something thats ground-breaking. On the other, there are the managers who seem to be practicing what they call the “Mushroom theory of management” – Keep them in the dark, feed them shit, and watch them grow.

  • A logic analyser costs ten thousand dollars, overtime for engineers is free.”

Bringing out a good technical product is about a lot more than making a good design  and getting it manufactured – thats the lesson one learns from the protagonist. Ah, the protagonist ! He is an engineer at heart but when circumstances demand, he strategizes, cooks up plots and gets more adorable with every move he makes. He is a perfectionist but also he knows when to move with the times, and write on his board – “Not everything worth doing is worth doing well”.

Dating the engineers, Up Close
Every now and then, you get something to keep you in awe of those people. It could be when the main designer spends twenty hours in the library hunting for quotes and flourishes to add to his ISA specs.

  • “They revealed the class of feelings that Wallach brought to his job. And with these, he had signed his name to his piece of the new computer.

Or it could be how the midnight programmers approached life.

  • Taking that machine apart was a fantastic high. Something I could get absorbed in and forget I had these other social problems.”

They talk and live engineering like a religion and their passion is contagious.

  • Writing microcode is like nothing else in my life. For days, nothing comes out. The empty yellow pad sits in front of me,reminding me of my inadequacy. Finally it starts to come. I feel good. That feeds it, and finally I get into a mental state where I am a microcode writing machine.”
  • “The pressure, I felt it from inside of me.”

People (yours truly is a good example) keep fumbling and keep flailing around trying to figure what leadership is. In that regard, the protagonist here is a rather uncanny phenomenon as a leader. He leads by example, but he also does a lot to turn his own team against himself. No one really knows whats on his mind. And yet, he evokes respect.

  • West is interesting. He’s the main reason why I do what I do.”

Working in teams
Team dynamics can be interesting and confusing at the same time. The book teaches you to accept it in whatever form it comes.

  • “Often Guyer leaves at around three in the morning. Veres comes in a few hours later, looks at Guyer’s notes in the logbook, the pictures he has taken on the analyzers. And he instantly knows whats wrong and how to fix it. They make a marvelous debugging team, but only when not working together.”

It happens. To even the best of us. Accepting it seems to be the best way to deal with it.

  • “I am going to a commune in Vermont and will deal with no unit of time shorter than a season.”

Being distraught, yet being happy
Theirs is a tough industry. To put it in the words of the author, the industry’s short product cycles lend projects an atmosphere of crisis.Computer
engineering is arduous in itself, and this makes it more intense. Hours are long; emotions get taxed. The technology changes every year and its hard to keep up with the kids fresh out of school. A long-term tiredness can easily creep over by your thirties.

The fun part is that these guys still discover things that keep them going. Be it messing with each others’ files, programming ridiculous AI onto each others’ terminals or getting yourself an unencrypted copy each time your boss sends something encrypted to his server.
Masochists they are, but that doesn’t stop them from being fun people to be with.

Random Musing – Of computers, engineering and life

  • The protagonist can lie to himself  🙂   – “I gotta keep life and computers separate, or else I ll go mad.”
  • Time in a computer is an interesting concept. When I sit in front of the logic analyzer, twelve nanoseconds is a big deal for me. And yet, when I realize how much longer it takes to snap my fingers,I have lost track of what a nanosecond really means.”
  • She’s romantic, foolish, unrealistic – everything an engineer’s not supposed to be. But I like her.”
  • He could write two to three hundreds lines of code in his mind, but he had a hard time remembering his own phone number.”
  • “I don’t care how computers get sold. I just build them”

You could say I am infected.  Seldom do you find a book which makes you fall in love with every alternate line.  For the reader (again, if existent) who bothered to read it all the way up to here – here is a list of books next on the infection spree (oh yeah, I am pretty free this semester or at least thats what the assumption is ) – It would be great to hear from you if you have views on the below list or other recommendations –