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Happy Birthday, Tracy Kidder!

I subscribe to The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor,  where today’s issue says that it is the birthday of Tracy Kidder.    The Almanac always has great capsule summaries of interesting people, tying in their literary strings.    In this case, it is no stretch as the author won the Pulitzer prize for the book The Soul Of A New Machine.

When I forwarded the reference to Marilyn Pratt, she said she hadn’t read the book, so we exchanged email about the book and author.    I have a first edition copy and I’ve read it a few times in the 25 years (yes, some of you SDN developers weren’t born yet) since it was published.   Marilyn skimmed the first few pages on Amazon and agreed that the content relates to recent discussions about Geeks and Suits.

The preamble to the book talks about the Data General lobby, where an early computer (it claims their first production model) displayed charts for visitors.    Not just any chart, but company profits.  And to warm a suits heart, “20 percent (before taxes) of those burgeoning net sales.” – shades of EBIDTA!

You don’t get a Pulitzer for writing dry technical jargon, or complex business acronym stew, you get it by telling a human story with a serious plot, real characters, and by standing above the crowd.    Tracy Kidder did this.    Wired magazine visited the main character in the story recently,  and I had a major flashback to the first times I read the book.    At the time, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be the author, writing about how computers and technology work, or the main character, building a superior product.  

When Marilyn clued me in to the The Geek Gap bookby Bill Pfleging and Minda Zetlin , I think I disappointed her by not being terrifically enthused.    Now I remember why — Tracy Kidder had told a similar tale.   As Joseph Campbell said, and probably the Grateful Dead as well, it’s the same hero quest tale.

Wikipedia entry for The Soul of a New Machine

The Geek/Suit Saga, as told by Marilyn Pratt

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  • As you say, You get a Pulitzer for writing about real characters; and there were some about the industry in those days.

    When IBM took out full page ads in Computerworld saying they were legitimizing the minicomputer business, Data General took out similar size ads saying “The Bastards say welcome “.

  • Fantastic book – I must have read it in about 1984. It helped me to get one of my first student jobs – having studied basic boolean algebra and reading this book, a global computer manufacturer gave me a summer job designing one of the boards for their new multi-processor Unix server. Happy times…

    Of course, I work at several layers of abstraction above that hardware layer these days. We don’t realise how easy we have it with software though – once you release hardware into the market, there’s no going back to release patches & support packages!

    – Darren

  • While I didn’t learn everything I needed for life in kindergarten, I did see my future in the early eighties when I read Kidder’s Soul of a New Machine.  I accepted that future at that time. 

    The Geek Gap is a nice re-hash of my past and probably is so for many, many others. 

    I’m awe struck by how nothing has changed and by how many have survived:  How can this be?