The book tells the story of Data General Corporation designing their first 32-bit minicomputer. You may be thinking “that sounds like the dullest thing I can possibly think of”, but it’s a wonderful and entertaining story. One of my favorite parts is in the Prologue. (see, it gets good quickly!)
The Prologue begins with a story of five guys who go sailing in order to enjoy a short, stress-free, vacation. Four are friends, but they needed a fifth, so they bring along an interested friend-of-a-friend: Mr. Tom West.
Tom West is the book’s protagonist and the project leader of the aforementioned new Data General 32-bit minicomputer effort. He became a hero to computer engineers after the publication of Soul of a New Machine.
But back to the sailboat—one evening, an unexpected storm assails the small boat. The storm is unexpected in timing, and also unexpected in strength—these amateur sailors fear for their lives. Tom West keeps his cool, takes charge, goes into action, and, to cut to the chase, the crew survives just fine.
Months after that sailing expedition, the captain, a member of the crew (who was a psychologist by profession), and the rest of the crew (sans West) are sitting around reminiscing:
The people who shared the journey remembered West. The following winter, describing the nasty northeaster over dinner, the captain remarked, “That fellow West is a good man in a storm.” The psychologist did not see West again, but remained curious about him. “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?And so the reader is launched into the riveting story of Data General creating the Eclipse MV/8000. It’s a story of corporate intrigue, late nights, tough debugging sessions, colorful personalities, and, against all odds, ultimately a successful and satisfying product launch.
Chapter Nine is dedicated to Tom; his upbringing, his home, and his daily routine. A funny Tom West anecdote:
Another story made the rounds: that in turning down a suggestion that the group buy a new logic analyzer, West once said, “An analyzer costs ten thousand dollars. Overtime for engineers is free.”But the entire book isn’t just about Tom West. It’s a beautifully crafted adventure story about how this group of eccentric hardware and firmware guys worked around the clock for over a year to produce a great machine. An example chapter title: The Case of the Missing NAND Gate. (!)
Wired magazine wrote a great article about the book. Here’s a snippet:
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.Mr. West died in 2011 at the age of 71.
I cannot do justice to this book—PLEASE do yourself a favor and pick it up. You will not regret it.
What about you? Is there a book that inspired you, or continues to inspire you in your vocation? Leave a comment!