Welcome to Shelf Care where I review three books related by a theme. These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.

“Hello. IT. Have you tried turning it off and on again?”
-Roy, The IT Crowd

This column’s theme: Bit players. The final season of HBO’s Silicon Valley had me thinking about books that explored what life in the tech industry is really like (and to be honest, it’s not too far off from what is in the show, since, to some extent, things have to be true to be funny). If you’re a fan of the show, or in high tech, or are considering it as a career, you’ll want to check out any of the books listed below.

So if you like:

Dilbert

Mike Judge productions, like Office Space, or Silicon Valley

Fish out of water stories

The economics and culture of tech startups

The twisted logic of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22

Economic bubbles

Failing up

You might like

Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, by Dan Lyons

Overview

After spending most of his career covering technology for Newsweek magazine, layoffs force fifty-something Dan into a job at a tech startup in 2013 and it’s definitely not what he was expecting.

Sample passage

“So if you run the content team,” I say, in a halting voice, “does that mean that you’re my boss?” I’m trying not to sound alarmed. “Do I work for you?”

Zack says he doesn’t know if he would actually call himself my boss. Strictly speaking, as he understands it, my official manager will be Wingman. But on a day-to-day basis, well, it’s true that I will be working on the team that Zack manages.

F*******k, is what I say to myself.

“Okay, cool,” is what I say out loud.

Zack wants to take me to see where I will be working. I get up, feeling dizzy, and follow him out of the conference room, down a hallway past people who suddenly all seem way too young, like high school kids. They’re everywhere, all over the place. They’re rushing around carrying laptops, sitting in groups in little glass-walled meeting rooms, drawing on whiteboards, looking at PowerPoint presentations on giant monitors, drinking coffee, taking notes. I think I may be having a panic attack. Or an acid flashback. Part of me wants to dash for the door.

Nine months ago I was the technology editor of Newsweek. In that job I did not even notice people like Zack. They are the kind of people whose calls I would not return, whose emails I deleted without opening. Even [founders] Halligan and Shah were such small fry that I probably would not have taken time to meet them for coffee, and I certainly would not have written about them. And Zack? Good grief. He’s five years out of college, and his work experience consists of two journalism internships and three years in an entry-level job in a regional Google ad sales office.

Takeaway

In Disrupted, Lyons is the classic fish out of water. He’s acerbic. He’s twice the age of most of the employees. He’s had years of experience reporting on the tech industry, and is consistently shocked when he gets weird looks for pointing out the emperor has no clothes. While reading Disrupted, I was marveling at how it was either 100% accurate, or 100% an episode of Silicon Valley. It’s just too spot-on for there to be any middle ground. Then, partway through the book, Lyons gets a job writing for Silicon Valley, making Disrupted both a parody and documentary about his workplace, and it does not disappoint as either since the company is presented as the stereotypical modern startup. Open offices, candy walls, beanbag chairs, ridiculous inexperience, and a fanatical devotion to the company. Things like the product and profitability are mostly irrelevant to investors as long as the company can have a good initial offering of stock, and it’s an interesting window into the whole process of how money losing startups to go public for millions of dollars. If you want the stereotypical startup experience without having to work at one, or to just be thankful you’re not working at one, Disrupted is the book for you.

Or if you like:

Old school video games

Pre Internet computing

Early Apple and Microsoft History

The history of Silicon Valley

You might like

Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, by Steven Levy

Overview

Steven Levy traces the early days of computing from the late fifties at MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club to the early eighties in Silicon Valley by interviewing the engineers, programmers, and entrepreneurs that laid the foundations of modern computing.

Sample passage

Also working frantically before the Faire were the eight employees of Apple Computer. Apple had taken space for two of the $350 ten-foot-square booths and somehow managed to wangle the prime space near the entrance to the exhibit hall. The idea was to take advantage of that break to officially introduce the Apple II at the Faire. Though many around the Homebrew Club did not take Apple as a serious entry in the market (Gordon French came by one day and went away scoffing that the company was still basically two guys in a garage), there was now serious money behind Apple.

One day the new president, Mike Scott, had told Chris Espinosa to copy the demo software that ran a Breakout game. It was a game Jobs had done for Atari and Woz had rewritten for Apple BASIC, and at the end of the game, the program rated your score with a comment. Scott said, by the way, could Chris also change the comments, making the screen say “Not Good” instead of “Pure S***”? The reason was, some Bank of America people were coming to talk about a line of credit.

Takeaway

Hackers is the definitive oral history of the dawn of personal computing. The material has been covered other places, but nowhere else have I seen a more approachable, interesting, well written account of the people in front of and behind the scenes at the companies that contributed to the technology you’re reading this on. It’s a must read for anyone either involved in computing, or considering a trip to Silicon Valley.

Or if you like:

Office politics

What digital engineers can look forward to in the workplace

Appreciating the fact that anything works at all

Building stuff

You might like

The Soul of a New Machine, by Tracy Kidder

Overview

Kidder spent a year as an embedded journalist in the late seventies at Data General corporation as they were under the gun to build and ship a state of the art 32 bit mainframe.

Sample passage

One time while West was manning the tiller, the psychologist asked him how he had learned to sail. West didn’t answer. A little later on, thinking he hadn’t heard the question, the psychologist inquired again.

“You already asked me that,” West snapped. After a moment’s silence, he wet his lips and explained that he had taught himself mostly, as a boy.

On another occasion, just to make conversation, one of the crew asked West what sort of computer he was building now. West made a face and looked away, and muttered something about how that was work and this was his vacation and he would rather not think about that.

The people who shared the journey remembered West. The following winter, describing the nasty northeaster over dinner, the captain remarked, “That fellow West is a good man in a storm.” The psychologist did not see West again, but remained curious about him. “He didn’t sleep for four nights! Four whole nights.” And if that trip had been his idea of a vacation, where, the psychologist wanted to know, did he work?

Takeaway

This is, in a sense, the flip side of Disrupted. The company has had success, but now has to continue that, and most of the problems encountered are from bad luck or bad decisions, rather than apparent outright incompetence. Kidder does a good job here translating the minutia of digital design, programming and product launch into everyday language. By following various engineers and managers on the project the reader gets a fuller picture of what’s going on and the pressures each department is under to deliver. Even though its coming up on 40 years old, the underlying problems of features, time to market, and bug hunting are still relevant for engineers today. I’d highly recommend it for anyone considering a career in engineering, computer or otherwise.

So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned for my next column.

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