Wednesday, December 15, 2010

October 17, 1982 Q&A with Tom West and Tracy Kidder on "The Soul of A New Machine."

Folks who have read Tracy Kidder's book, "The Soul of a New Machine," will get a kick out of this transcription of a one-time event in Massachusetts in 1982 where Kidder and his book's real-life protagonist, Data General computer designer Tom West, reluctantly answer questions posed by an audience of computer enthusiasts. Both are candid, humble and very funny. In the photo Tracy Kidder is on the left and Tom West is on the right.

In 1984, when I was a sophomore at UMaine at Orono, my English professor, Richard Brucher, assigned us Kidder's book and a paper on it. Brucher was a huge fan of the book, though he did not let on how much (he had published a long analysis of it the year before).

I liked the book a lot, turned in my paper and got it back from Brucher covered with strident brackets and the words "So what?" all over the margins. I stopped by his office the next day and asked what he meant with all the "So Whats?" He said they meant my paper was at best hitting on one cylinder and I could do much better.

But what does "So What?" mean? I demanded. He said, "Every time you say something you need to stop and ask 'so what?'"

That was 26 years ago. I still have the copy of "Soul of A New Machine" I bought for Brucher's class. I've read it now about 6,000 times. Brucher's deadly red words of 'So What?' still haunt me every time I write.

Among all the compelling threads in "Soul ... " is the one where Kidder, the reporter and writer, and all of the people he is observing are all forced to ask themselves over and over ... 'So What'? Why am I doing this? Why are we doing this? For whose benefit? To what end? Why this instead of something else? Why even bother? Why not just go home? Why?

The closest antithesis to Kidder's book is Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, wherein Melville describes the day to day life of men dutifully and robotically doing the most boring job in the world -- copying with quill pen over and over lengthy, abstruse legal documents for an equally bored Manhattan real estate lawyer -- except for Bartleby, who decides to 'prefer' not to do the work anymore but 'prefers' to loyally stay at his desk but no longer do any work.

Kidder has said he began writing "Soul ..." as a magazine article upon the suggestion of his editor at Atlantic Monthly, Richard Todd, because Kidder at the time could think of 'nothing to write about.' He said he was shocked when one of the first computer engineers he met at Data General Corporation, Carl Alsing, took him aside in the cafeteria and described in terms more suited to Celtic battle myth what it was like to work at Data General building machines designed to manipulate large numbers at high speed.

Kidder berates his subjects, asking them over and over, 'why do you work so hard for so little'? He gets the computer designers to trust him enough to give him honest and questioning answers. Was Kidder the first journalist who ever took the time and interest to ask these questions of an engineer? Probably.

Kidder seems to have genuinely liked the people he interviewed, although interviewing is a pale word given how much time he spent with them, and they seem to have genuinely liked him. The proof this was not just a show is the discordant note from his sit-down interview with Data General's president, Edson de Castro. Intentional or not, Kidder's description of his interview with de Castro makes you feel like both are getting root canal work and waiting for the dentist to say "spit."

Even though "Soul ..." is meticulously crafted it seems almost created by instinct, as if Kidder had no idea what he was getting into but plunged in anyways, fell in way over his head, and faced a situation not too far from the one faced by the folks he wrote about.

It is easy to think of the millions of ways that "Soul ..." could have been a horribly boring or painfully trite piece of writing. It is exactly the opposite. While it often reads as fiction, it is not. Getting real, live people to open up to you to this depth is unbelievably hard. Writing something out of such an experience that is true but also does not hurt peoples' feelings is virtually impossible.

I am still amazed how Tracy Kidder did it.


ka1axy said...

I worked at DG while this book was being written. West got a lot out of his people, but DG was not a company to be grateful, and the end of the proprietary minicomputer was in sight. I think most of the engineers who worked on the MV8000 did so for the personal challenge of doing it. The money was good, but not great. They went on to other challenges and did well. DG was never destined to be a great company. They had occasional wins, but never rose to the level of Digital Equipment, because they thought small.

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