Sunday, September 20, 2009

Tom West + Paul Farmer

Pulitzer Price-winning author Tracy Kidder has written about two individuals that are important to engineers. The Soul of a New Machine was written in 1981. The book traces a team of engineers led by Tom West of Data General as they design and build a new computer over an eight month period. The book won the Pulitzer Price for general non-fiction in 1982.

The beauty of The Soul of a New Machine is the managerial force and personality of engineer and team leader Tom West. Described by sailing friends as " . . . a good man in a storm," West constantly struggles against obstacles: the technical challenges themselves, an impossible schedule, lack of resources, and neglect from the company's top management. The book is not primarily a technical book, but a management book and a human story, and has held up well in the 30-years since its publication. Engineering management and the way leading-edge projects are tackled has not changed much in the past thirty years, and because the book focuses on these aspects, it has aged well.

The book illustrates the interface between great leadership and the passion of a team. It's about the antithesis of the 9-5, where the pay is horrible, you couldn't care less - you will still work overtime. This pure struggle, the essence of the engineering profession, is what makes the book so great. It's the most archetypal element of a career or profession, the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that only something you put your soul and your sweat and blood into, can give you. As Kidder writes:

"But it seems more accurate to say that a group of engineers got excited about building a computer. Whether it arose by corporate bungling or by design, the opportunity had to be grasped. In this sense, the initiative belonged entirely to West and the members of his team. What's more, they did the work, both with uncommon spirit and for reasons that, in a most frankly commercial setting seemed remarkably pure."

With Mountains Beyond Mountains (2003), Kidder follows the work of Paul Farmer. Dr. Farmer is specialist in infectious diseases and attending physician at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Farmer created a charitable foundation called Partners in Health in the 1980s with the goal of redressing the "steep gradient of inequality" in medical service to the desperately poor. His work establishing a complex of public health facilities on the central plateau of Haiti forms the keystone to efforts that now encompass initiatives on three continents. Through the Institute for Health and Social Justice (the research and education division of Partners in Health) and his associate Jim Yong Kim, he started a movement to lower prices for second-line drugs necessary to treat resistant tuberculosis and successfully lobbied the World Health Organization for changes in treatment recommendations for tuberculosis. For his efforts, Farmer has received a MacArthur Award. All of this from an individual that had a childhood that included living in a bus and on a leaky boat.

Our collective future is ultimately a race between good innovation and bad innovation - driven by the creative thinking of just a few individuals. It is a technology race led by men and women like Tom West. It is a medical and health care race led by men and women like Dr. Paul Farmer. Separate races led by separate leaders, teams, attitudes and cultures. What happens when you combine the minds and passions of people like West and Farmer on common problems? What would a Kidder story read like with both men at the center of a common storm or movement? How can West help with improving our health care delivery system along with issues in the developing world? How can West become a partner with Farmer? What happens when the ideas of social justice and collective responsibility advocated by Farmer are applied to the engineering problems and the world of Tom West?

Diversity of input helps with the quality of the output. We have all underestimated the cracks, faults, and tensions of our own economic, health, political, energy, educational, etc. systems. The poor quality of our inputs have reduced the quality of our ideas and thinking. Many of our best minds, blinded by optimism and confusion, are using out-of-date and unrealistic models of the world. But West and Farmer represent the two forces that made American formidable - capitalist energy and democratic liberalism. Our unbounded faith in heroic individualism and the obligations of mutual community - Kidder needs to be given the opportunity to write the story of Tom West + Paul Farmer.

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