The book opens with a turf war between two computer design groups within Data General Corporation, a minicomputer vendor in the 1970s. Most of the senior designers are assigned the "sexy" job of designing the next-generation machine in North Carolina.
Their project, code-named "Fountainhead", is to give Data General a machine to compete with the VAX computer from Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), which is starting to take over the new 32-bit minicomputer market. Meanwhile at the corporate headquarters at Westborough, Massachusetts, the few remaining senior designers there are assigned the much more humble job of improving Data General's existing products.
Tom West, the leader of the Westborough designers, starts a skunkworks project. Code-named "Eagle", it becomes a backup plan in case Fountainhead fails, and then the company's only hope in catching up with DEC. In order to complete the project on time, West takes risks: he elects to use new technology, and he relies on new college graduates (who have never designed anything so complex) as the bulk of his design team. The book follows many of the designers as they give almost every waking moment of their lives to design and debug the new machine.