Fun tech business books

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.

That syncing feeling

Let’s just say that the music sync and play experience on Windows Phone 8 is awful.

I feel like adding lots more. But “awful” pretty much covers it, and there’s no reason to open the Chest of Angry Sayings, or fire up the Cauldron of Toxic Words, or even to raise a Blazing Wind of Righteous Ranting. It’s just . . . awful. I need a hug.

[Basically, the WP8 decides to re-arrange tracks, assign tracks to random artists I’ve never heard of, and doesn’t display tag information correctly. It’s useless.]

A little perspective

I just dove into a small project that I decided could best be done using a set of C++ classes, and I’m beginning to think that I’m an idiot for trusting the language again. After several years of vanilla C and C#, and not much else in between except the occasional Perl hack, I’d forgotten what it was like to tread water in Bjarne’s fits-all boots.

Writing in C++ again is like making biscuits. But the simple baking procedure is preceded by growing the wheat, which entails clearing the farmland, digging a well, defending it against the native hordes, establishing irrigation and a working agrarian economy, buying a bunch of fertilizer, plowing the field behind a great big smelly ox, planting the seeds, waiting all winter while the wolves howl outside your cabin, THEN (buried amongst all the templatified, exception-safe and const-driven madness) writing a kernel of meaningful code. Wait, what was I doing? Building a tectonically secure infrastructure for feeding billions of people, or just making biscuits for breakfast?  It’s hard to remember after all that epic bullshit.

God, it almost makes me want to write in Java again.

I looked at Erlang for a while. I think that Armstrong’s book on it is one of the best language tutorials since K-and-R, but unfortunately I had no real /need/ for Erlang.  As soon as I find a worthy project I’ll probably use it.

I’m having fun with Python. I wish I’d listened to my friend Munch, who years ago said it was all he could stand. It has a charm to it, the same charm I had while hacking on some Windows Phone apps, when it was 1979 again and I was banging away on some BASIC that drew games on the screen. There’s a lot to be said for instant turnaround. My rule of thumb is that a build time over about ten minutes means that you’re dying by inches. Three seconds is about right.

We shouldn’t forget that this stuff is supposed to be fun.

200, 400, 600, 800, 1000

“I’ll take Slime Pits of Hell for two hundred.”

“The first C++ programmer to lose his marbles.”

BIP BIP. “Who is Barney Shoestrap?”

“Correct.”

“I’ll take ‘You checked in WHAT?’ for two hundred.”

“A naked zebra lady.”

BIP BIP. “What was the easter egg in MacDraw II that got the programmer fired?”

“Correct.”

“Fantasy Scheduling for four hundred.”

“Oh, definitely.”

BIP BIP. “Can you assure me that we won’t be doing a death march for the next year?”

“Let’s see . . . Awesome Awesomeness for six hundred dollars.”

RE: What languages fix

First, read this

http://www.paulgraham.com/fix.html

Now, then . . .

PHP: Because there was nobody around to stop us.

PowerBuilder: Because you are a moron. (Also: We are, too).

Haskell: Because you are a moron. (Also: We are super geniuses and have proved it).

FORTH: Can We Because

Microcode: Because assembly language is too high level

Ada: Because we were just following orders

Brainfuck, Intercal, Whitespace, et al: Because!

 

Adventure

The Gibber just had his first encounter with some 2600 games. After years of playing games like Minecraft, Katamari Damaci and LEGO-this-and-that, all on the Xbox or his relatively modern PC with a decent GPU, his comment about 2600 Adventure was:

“Daddy, how do I defeat the duck?”

Somewhere, Warren Robinett suddenly felt cold, and he didn’t know why … 🙂

G liked Pong, though.

[Long time between updates. Busy, busy. Valve is neat, though chaotic.]