Here are some of my favorite books on businesses doing technology, and the personalities behind them. [These aren’t affiliate links, btw. Some of them look out of print]
Tracy Kidder, Soul of a New Machine. The classic story of underdogs doing the impossible, with a lot of great background on how people interact and how teams are built. Also: Crazy schedules.
Richard Preston, American Steel. The story of how NuCor steel built one of the first continuous casting mills in the US. I liked the description of the corporate culture (it’s a big company, but the headquarters are in a dive). Making steel is both low tech (think crowbars, jackhammers and big-ass transformers) and high-tech (computer controlled mills . . . I’d be terrified to write the controller software for something the size of a house). Also: Crazy schedules.
Charles Murray, The Supermen. Really this is a kind-of biography of Seymore Cray, and how he design supercomputers and the companies that made them. Worth it for the discussions of how he got around technological challenges (imagine making a supercomputer in the days when transistors were really crappy) and the organizational ones (how do you hire away really good people?) Also: Crazy schedules.
Pascal Zachary, Show Stopper. Nominally about the development of Windows NT, this starts off with a lengthy biography of Dave Cutler, then tells how NT started at Microsoft. It’s fun to compare the “Inside NT” books that are out now with the work that was done over twenty years ago. Great personalities, lots of conflict, and crazy schedules. Also: Seattle rain.
Gary Dorsey, Silicon Sky. There aren’t many books about the business of the space industry outside of samizdat written by and for the defense giants, but this book would be engaging anyway. A company wants to disrupt satellite communication with pizza-box-sized microsats. Also: Crazy schedules.
Steve Kemper, Code Name Ginger. The story of how the Segway was created; it’s easy to snicker, but this reads a lot like ‘Soul, though it’s harder to get a handle on the people involved (other than Dean Kamen). I kept wanting to dive into the book, shake people by the shoulders and give them the answers. Also: Crazy schedules.
David Price, The Pixar Touch. A history of Pixar, from humble and tenuous beginnings to the release of Cars. Provides neat insight into how the films were made, and the various business and personality struggles the founders had. Also: Crazy schedules.
I haven’t included books about Palm, or Apple, or any of a hundred other companies whose stories deserve to be told well.
I love these books. These have a common thread of
- Unproven technology
- Super hard work
- No guarantee of a win (some of these were failures, others were wildly successful, and if there is any lesson here, it’s that success is never a given and hard to predict).
These are about people in businesses trying new things, stumbling around and trying stuff out until things work. Impossible odds? The steelmaking process in American Steel looks like a total lemon (I learned the term “mill wreck” from this book) . Hard work? Developing Windows NT (Show Stopper) and a new minicromputer architecture (Soul of a New Machine) required incredible hours and perseverance; being smart and maybe experienced is the ticket you need to play. Creativity? Dean Kamen’s “kiss the frog” days (where team members have a day to work on stuff they are not experts in, and make mistakes) look very interesting.