15 Apr 2019, 22:38

Review: The Soul of a New Machine

After seeing glowing praise from Jessie Frazelle and Brian Cantrell for The Soul of a New Machine I decided that I had to give it a look. (And then I promptly got hooked by Amazon’s “buy this too” recommendations and grabbed Where Wizards Stay Up Late and Hackers for good measure. I guess I’m on something of a history of computing bender) These books were a great way to spend some of the extra time I found myself with during last month’s challenge.

TSoaNM is definitely worth reading. It’s the rare kind of technical journalism that not only captures the experience of what it’s like to create systems but also really gets into the details of the challenges and explains them in a way that doesn’t over-simplify them but doesn’t sacrifice clarity either. What I think surprised me the most was just how relatable the engineers and their environment were, despite the 40 year time difference and the fact that I’ve never worked with hardware. So many of engineering tropes that I’m familiar with were recognizable. There’s a part near the end where two engineers finally solve an elusive bug and just as they’re declaring victory, they sse that a different test has started failing. One of the most dreaded feelings an engineer can experience, captured perfectly. Or perhaps the most relatable part was the feeling many of the engineers had of not being able to set down a particular problem once it had hooked them, but having to dive in and obsess over it until it could be understood. Despite all the differences in technology, some things just never change.

The cast of characters is interesting too, composed of archetypes that feel familiar. I think it’s interesting to see which one you identify with the most. For me there’s no question that it’s Ed Rasala:

“And I may not be the smartest designer in the world, a CPU giant, but I’m dumb enough to stick with it to the end.”

Rasala was far from dumb though. He was just somewhat puzzled and, at the same time, bent on self-improvement”

“I’m an implementer. I’m not going to go out and invent anything. But making it work is fun.”

“Somewhat puzzled and bent on self-improvement” wouldn’t be a half-bad description of how I see myself. Not the smartest, not the dumbest, but just intent on learning and determined to see things through and make them work.

It’s interesting too that this this story with all of the drama and long hours doesn’t exactly wrap up with an ending fit for a movie. The Eagle doesn’t end up igniting the world and going on to be a landmark in computing history. The team receives accolades and moves on, drifting apart into other projects or other companies. Despite the limited lasting impact, no one seems to regret the effort that they put in. They shipped something they were happy with, and often that’s enough. Being deeply engaged in the creative process is intensely rewarding on its own, and getting to finish the project and get it out into the world is even better.

One of my best work experiences had similar elements. It was demanding and difficult but I was working with great people in a creative environment building something big and new. We were given a great deal of latitude to solve problems ourselves and work independently. Meetings were largely unnecessary as informal conversations and debugging sessions provided a constant source of communication and feedback. Entire weeks went by working completely on a maker’s schedule. And it was great when we finally shipped, but also kind of a let down. Projects like that are hard to move on from. Even when you’re working with many of the same people, the energy just isn’t the same.

On a final note, I found it interesting that even that early on in computing there were concerns about the possibilities for undesirable outcomes in the application of technology. Upon surveying the myriad of computer vendors at the National Computer Conference, the author wonders about the implications of a digitized society on privacy, employment, and warfare among other things. From where stand today it’s clear that many of those concerns were well-founded. Norbert Wiener’s fear that development would fall “into the hands of the most irresponsible and venal of our engineers” seems sadly accurate in light of today’s business models that value “engagement’ over quality, privacy, and security. And yet, despite these possible ends we can’t help but design and create systems

…it seemed to me that computers have been used in ways which are salutary, in ways that are dangerous, banal, and cruel and it ways that seem harmless if a little silly. But what fun making them can be!