I was saddened to learn of the passing last week of Tom West, the engineer/hacker who was the main focus of Tracy Kidder’s 1981 book The Soul of a New Machine. Tom was 71. Boston.com published a nice obituary; there were also notices in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and other places.
From the Boston.com article:
Thirty years ago, Tom West was thrust into a category of one, a famous computer engineer, with the publication of “The Soul of a New Machine.’’
Tracy Kidder’s book, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and is taught in business classes and journalism schools, chronicled Mr. West’s role leading a team that built a refined version of a 32-bit minicomputer at a key juncture for the computer industry and his employer, Data General of Westborough.
The book’s success turned a quirky, brilliant, private, and largely self-taught man into a somewhat reluctant guru.
I call Tom by his first name because I knew him, and that’s what I called him. In fact for a short while early in my career I worked quite closely with him — at the tail end of my four year stint at Data General.
As Soul of a New Machine amply demonstrates, West was a compelling figure. Everybody agrees he was quirky and brilliant; some people have mentioned his being difficult or “prickly”. I have to say that I don’t remember a prickly side to the man. He could be abrupt, sure. Direct. Economical of speech. But if he had a temper or was harsh or unfair, I either never saw it or have since forgotten about it. I just remember that I really liked him.
Although I can’t claim to have been great friends with the man — I don’t know if he would even have remembered my name — he made a deep impression on me. When I wrote the novella Cheap Complex Devices in 2003 — about twenty years since I had worked with Tom West at Data General — a quirky, brilliant and (I think) extremely funny character named Tom Best showed up all through it. I can’t take much credit for Tom Best’s funny lines, however, since I stole most of them from Tom W. Continue reading