Nerd Guru

Because technical people need good soft skills to get ahead.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Book Report: Accidental Empires

Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can't Get a Date should be required reading for anybody even remotely involved in the computer industry. Robert X. Cringely covers the birth of what he calls the 4th largest industry in the world (after cars, energy production, and illegal drugs) from its infancy in the world of semi-conductors until just before the explosion of the Internet. This book is the basis for the mid 1990s PBS multi-hour documentary “Triumph of the Nerds” (not to be confused with the TNT original movie “Pirates of Silicon Valley” which dramatizes a subset of the same material) which is pretty epic in its own right (although, according to Amazon reviews the DVD version has been shortened considerably compared to what originally aired).

While even the 1996 revised version is somewhat dated (it contains the quote, “Many experts are excited about a new Internet programming language from Sun Microsystems called Java.”), the lessons to be learned from the repeating patterns (both good and bad) in the industry make this worth the purchase price. The best parts of this book include:

  • Much of the contemporary computing universe was created by the folks at Xerox PARC and completely ignored by it parent company. Cirngely goes into why this probably happened, but he offers insights into the culture and organizational structure of this fascinating place that invented everything from laser printers to the multi-windowed user interface we all use today to even the foundation of computer networks that connects the modern world.

  • IBM creating a PC offering that was so easily cloneable by unforeseen competitors in order to overcome its own limiting business processes and the foresight Bill Gates had in licensing an operating system he didn’t even own. Early decisions made in IBM’s foray into the PC business, after Apple showed it could be profitable, continue to shape the industry today and expose lots of things to learn from.

  • While Steve Jobs is still fond of contrasting Apple and Microsoft by quoting Picasso with, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal,” there’s a lot to be said about leading the cutting edge with technology (typically Apple’s strategy, although they hardly invented things like MP3 players and graphical user interfaces) as opposed to dragging them along slowly while preserving your customer base with backward compatibility (which is what made Microsoft the company that it is, for good and bad).

  • The culture and organization of Microsoft, borrowing heavily from ideas fostered at Xerox PARC, allowed Gates to control product directions and create a replenish-able army of young software engineers willing to do his bidding at the cost of free beverages.

There’s a very interesting segment in the revised edition involving Apple founder Steve Wozniak and his circa 1996 thoughts on Moore’s Law. Woz looks forward to its demise despite the fact that it has fueled much of the growth that the computer industry has enjoyed over the last 30+ years, “because that’s when software tools can finally start to mature.”

There’s a theory of creativity that states that the more constraints you have when solving a problem, the more creative your solution has to become. Woz has a point here. You don’t have to have hyper-efficient software when the processing power of the hardware doubles every 18 months, as Moore’s Law states and has generally held true. Once the limit of the hardware is reached, the next gains need to come from better software because that’s the only place where there’s room left for creative improvement.

Put it all together, and this is a great read that has many lessons you can take back to your own engineering career.


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posted by Pete Johnson @ 10:44 PM   2 comments


At 12:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

as a non techy that PBS documentary was one of the most interesting programs I have ever seen.

At 1:02 PM, Blogger Pete Johnson said...

My Dad had the original airing on VHS for years. I haven't seen the DVD version that Amazon has, but the first run version was pretty amazing.


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