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Job search status: Still nada. Thanks to those that msg'd with sympathy, empathy, and/or encouragement.

I recently finished the first on-line course in my slightly reluctant path towards a possible Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. Along the way, the course content recommended a few supporting reads, including The Soul of a New Machine. If you're not going to chase the link, it chronicles the development of a new 32-bit minicomputer at Data General, in the last years before the personal computer revolution. I reserved a copy from the library without thinking to deeply about it. Only when it came did I realize I had read it decades earlier. But it's a Pulitzer Prize winning book, and the course recommendation was to read it with an eye to the team-building and project management aspects, so I gave it another go.

Decades-ago me read the book and identified strongly with the engineers who were building the "new machine" of the title. I remember finding it exciting and energizing. Those intrepid team members pulled crazy, unpaid overtime hours working with limited management encouragement or support, and succeeded against long odds. The story was motivating and ended well. But having just finished it now, I have a different reaction. Now I identify with the team leads and project managers, who are the core personalities of the book. I feel their pain as they struggled with the many challenges of trying to get their machine "out the door" in the face of politics, indifference, internal competition, and a dynamic marketplace. I feel great sympathy for the lead manager who felt that he had to bury his own personality in order to carry the project to completion. And I read it all with the knowledge that these heroic efforts bought only a little respite for the company, and ultimately made little to no positive difference for anyone involved, except perhaps for the book's author. The book has not, obviously, changed at all. But I clearly have, and I was amazed to find how my memories of that first read jarred with my new experience. Ah, the bitter perspective of experience.

The world of the late seventies is now so long gone as to border on unrecognizable, with IBM as the dominant tech giant, lightly challenged by the "Seven Dwarfs" as the competitor organizations of that era were dismissively known. Not yet risen to prominence were the future Beast of Redmond, nor its hip challenger from Cupertino, let alone the dominant tech companies of today. I myself came into the workplace at the dawn of the PC era, so I still had overlap with the technologies of the book's era. I used the VAX at university and I worked on the Wang Computers VS in my first work term, replete with an 8-inch floppy drive (and the many opportunities for crude humour that entailed). These vanished technologies might seem entirely foreign, perhaps even mythical, to today's reader.

But on the team and project management level, the book can still speak to the world of today. The death march development project is certainly still with us, as are many of the challenges of project management that factor into the "new machine" project. I can't shake a lingering sadness as I see my own more recent setbacks and failures reflected in those of the book. Some of the heroic engineers and leaders of the book peaked with this project, and spent the rest of their careers either in secondary roles or fled to different fields altogether. Few if any went on to become captains of industry*. I can't help but wonder if I've peaked as well, and how and where I will continue my own career. I found no solace in this book.

It's a tale well-told, regardless. You can't help but get caught up in the tension as the deadlines get blown and the pressure to deliver mounts. The heroes do overcome the odds, and the "new machine" does go "out the door". But not without a struggle which is well captured on the pages of the book. If you are interested in the history of computers or the people who build them, and have never picked up The Soul of a New Machine, I encourage you to do so.


* Lo, I have pipelinked to a writeup by the legendary DMan. A nightmare will doubtless come of this. Or perhaps a well-deserved haunting.

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