This isn't really a review of the book : for that, or to order it , visit Amazon. This blog entry is sort of a personal perspective on re-reading "SoaNM" nearly twenty years later.
For those of you who haven't read it, "Soul of a New Machine" is the story of the people behind a new computer being designed at Data General in the late 1970s.
I'm fully re-reading this book after nearly twenty years. Normally, I re-read books after a couple of years, but this one got lent to someone who a) lives a long way away and b) never quite got around to reading it after a long time. I went and retrieved it in 2000 and started to re-read it early 2001.
I put it back on the bookshelf after reading the first 20 pages. It bored me.
Now, the funny thing is that when I first read "Soul of a New Machine", I was from cover to cover in a couple of days. What changed?
In 1999, I went through a number of shall we say "life change" which, for a while, turned me off computers. One of these was the failure of my software business. Another was the elopement of my wife with one of my employees, a software developer. I got very depressed. What would Dr Freud have made of it all? :-).
Now, more than two years on, things look very different again.
On Monday I picked the book up again and started reading it. And to my surprise, it was once more the interesting book I first read.
What's going on here? I'm back into computers again, for a start. There's a lot of fun things happened in technology since 1999 - the rise of blogging, for a start. And GPS-for-the-masses. I'm living with someone I love very much in a great apartment in Copenhagen. My life is stable again. I'm working in a different country in a different industry. I'm not earning as much, but I am getting an education.
But what does it mean? When I first read the book, I was a teenager who dreamt of getting into programming, who tinkered around a bit at home with his ZX-80 (later an Atari 400, then an 800) and fooled around a bit with electronics. One lucky break, 17 years and umpteen jobs later ... well, it didn't quite turn out the way I expected. Is that what my renewed interest in the book means? Am I yearning once again for a challenging software job where you work weekends and long hours for basic pay, where the reward is seeing your code ship in a product, and the intellectual stimulation is enough? If that's what it is, then I'm kidding myself, because I was never that good. A lot of my code never made it into a product. I know I have some of my work from 1997 and 1998 still chundering away on a deal-routing system in a high street bank in London (and New York and Singapore and probably Hong Kong). Whoopee-doo.
The environment that the book describes has gone - forever. Data General was described as being close to half-billion dollar company. I'm not sure, but even in these troubled economic times, I don't think a $500mn company is so huge. I world for a small pharma company, and their annual turnover is close to $250mn. Even taking inflation into account, that puts the value of my employer close to DG's value in the book at present day prices. The playing field was also, I guess, changing dramatically in the late 1970s for hardware and software companies in the US, so a book about DG five years later might have had the company at a much greater value. But then again, DG is now part of EMC, the storage vendors, and the North American Data General Users' Group shut down on October 31 2001. Eclipse and NOVA, like VAX and PDP before them, are solidly consigned to the category of legacy systems.
And attitudes have changed. Po Bronson drew the distinction in his excellent book about life in Silicon Valley, "The Nudist on the Late Shift", that software developers and techies in the late 90's were more likely to be free-wheeling haxx0r/contract types on massive hourly rates than "signed-up" corporate engineers on a fixed salary. Now the dotcom bubble has ... well, let's say deflated ... the contrast might not be so clear, of course. I've tried both approaches, and they've both got their ups and downs.
I think the poignancy of this disappeared world - the people and companies in "SoaNM", my own (largely unfulfilled) career potential, the occasional connection I've had with the experiences of the people in the book - has made it more appealing once again.
I'm receptive again to what it has to say. I'm missing the teamwork that the book describes. I miss the mental stimulation that programming brings.
But I think my next set of intellectual puzzles will be from a different direction. A student friend of mine from last year's Open University course, Ron Beemster, e-mailed me this morning to say he'd landed a PhD in bio-engineering. I'm really envious but also very happy for Ron. I'd like to go in that direction, too.
And that's what "SoaNM" has chimed with in me, again : the possibility of new paths to follow and a new set of puzzles to solve - and probably another new career ...Posted by daen at January 31, 2003 01:56 PM | TrackBack