Twenty years ago, Tracy Kidder published the original nerd epic. The
Soul of a New Machine made circuit boards seem cool and established a
revolutionary notion: that there's art in the quest for the next big
Nestled into a wicker rocking chair, among his framed maritime charts
and teetering piles of sailing books, Tom West could easily pass for a
salty old sea captain. In fact, rocking back and forth on his porch in
the foggy coastal town of Westport, Massachusetts, wearing a worn-out
T-shirt and sandals, he'd prefer it that way.
"Nobody in this town knows who I am," he says. "I don't talk about what
I did. They don't ask." He leans back slowly, lightly gripping the
chair's armrests with weathered hands. "It offends me when people think
they know me because of the book."
The book, to West and others who lived its story, is Tracy Kidder's The
Soul of a New Machine. The 1981 best-seller and Pulitzer Prize winner
chronicles the dramatic efforts of West and his team of engineers at
Massachusetts-based Data General to build a minicomputer known to its
creators as "the Eagle."
In the 20 years since Soul made West a minor high tech celebrity for
his gruff, competitive management style and brooding technical vision,
PCs and workstations have supplanted minicomputers. After a long
struggle in one hardware market or another, Data General too
disappeared, swallowed up last year by storage giant EMC. Almost all of
the Eagle project's engineers and managers abandoned the sinking
company in the early '80s, scattering to the four corners of the high
tech world and beyond. West stayed at Data General, finally retiring
two years ago to the anonymity of his Westport home, his four boats,
and the wireless server he designed and built in his basement.
To someone who knows West only from the book, he does at first glance
defy its characterizations. For one thing, he's no longer the thin,
bushy-haired figure Kidder describes. At 60, he sports a hearty gray
beard and a healthy captain's belly. He's also lost his aversion to
engineers who work on computers at home - he spends much of his time
these days on the Internet. More striking is his demeanor, which, in
stark contrast to the book's portrayal, borders on jovial. Today, West
talks easily about what it's been like to have such a public record of
one part of his life. "It was an odd experience, that's for sure," he
muses. "I think I remember the story more than the event. Most events
happen and I file them away. This one happened over and over again."
More than a simple catalog of events or stale corporate history, Soul
lays bare the life of the modern engineer - the egghead toiling and
tinkering in the basement, forsaking a social life for a technical one.
It's a glimpse into the mysterious motivations, the quiet revelations,
and the spectacular devotions of engineers - and, in particular, of
West. Here is the project's enigmatic, icy leader, the man whom one
engineer calls the "prince of darkness," but who quietly and
deliberately protects his team and his machine. Here is the raw
conflict of a corporate environment, factions clawing for resources as
West shields his crew from the political wars of attrition fought over
every circuit board and mode bit. Here are the power plays, the
passion, and the burnout - the inside tale of how it all unfolded.
Over two decades, Soul has endured as the high tech story by which all
others are judged. "It was the first book to describe the inner
workings of the technology groups,"says Novell CEO Eric Schmidt, "and
it did a good job of getting into the psychology of leadership. The
corporate maneuvering was both fascinating and abhorrent to me."
Soul demanded that followers of technology thereafter see their subject
with a new, astute eye. "I had never read such a book covering the work
of engineers," says Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak. "The readers got to
'live' with these engineers for a while. It's easy to consider
engineers inhuman and hackers dangerous threats when you don't know
them. I was very sad at the end, that the engineers were not
better-respected and marketing folks here were credited with the
computer." The engineer as artist, scientist, visionary; the computer
builder as protagonist, even celebrity - these cultural figures came
into being in Kidder's Soul and provided a new framework for
understanding the progress of the industry.