Apr 18, 2007

Book Review: The First $20 million is Always the Hardest

book coverI read this book around 5 years ago, but it's passages keep coming back to me. It's quite superb and written for anyone to read, though techies will identify with it and enjoy it the most. I laughed and nodded my head through many of the pages. It was published in March 1997 and is authored by Po Bronson, who has been described as: "Po Bronson is a genuine voice of a new generation, the bard of Silicon Valley." by Lewis Lapham

It is written in the time and about the time when information technology was a boom story. Everybody was inflating the internet bubble without any conception of a possible bust at the end. Many techies were working feverishly to turn their expertise and ideas into fortune. Riches and Glory never seemed so near as in those early years. It may seem so long ago, but we are only talking the 1990's.

In the beginning of the book an employee, the main character Andy Caspar, goes through the process of leaving his company - yeah, you simply can't just walk out. He's on a bright-eyed quest to join the league of enterprising individuals out there engaging in research and making a difference. At the other end is a seasoned project manager, Francis Benoit who's already had a string of achievements under his belt and is now trying to form a new team. He's past the hype and trying to push the realistic boundaries. The starting setting is 'LaHonda research center', the place where Francis Benoit works and where Andy Caspar is looking to join.


Benoit chipped in. "I want him to keep my friend Ronny Banks, but Hank here has been trying to convince me that we should keep you instead. Maybe you would care to help us."

Andy was caught off guard. What could he possibly say about himself that would earn their respect? What did they want? "Look, I’m not a conventional engineer," he started out, "I didn’t even study engineering in college, but maybe that makes me … different." He was just saying something, but Francis Benoit leapt at it.

"Different? Now that’s an interesting theorem. How do you think it would make you different?"

"Well, I might approach a problem differently."

Francis baited him. "Are you saying you are different because you approach things differently, or you approach things differently because you are different?"

Now Andy wished he hadn’t said anything. "Sometimes I think I see simpler solutions …" he offered.

"Ahhh, now we have something. You said before that you approach things differently, therefore you are different. Now you say that you have simpler solutions, so I am to conclude that you are simple?"

Andy looked to Hank Menzinger for help. He was still there grinning away, as if we all should be enjoying our merry selves right now!

"Perhaps Andrews would be a little more comfortable if you asked him some questions," Menzinger offered.

Yes, do that, Andy thought. But wait—Andrews? Plural? Menzinger had said Andrews again. Menzinger thought his name was Caspar Andrews! Menzinger was his supposed advocate in this debate, the one small chance he had at being reinvited, and Menzinger didn’t even know his name!

"Uh, it’s Andy …"

Francis said, "You used to work at Omega, huh? Did you ever sell the Falcon chip?" Francis had designed the Falcon.

"I left before the Falcon. I was selling the Eagle, the 486."

"Did you like it there?"

Should he tell the truth? Probably not. "Yeah, I guess."

"Then why did you leave?"

"Dunno. They don’t really let marketing people become programmers. The usual career path is the other way around, programmers burn out after five years, move to marketing."

Francis said, "Why do you think they burn out so fast?"

This was a delicate question, but Andy couldn’t avoid the truth, even if Omega was a big sponsor for La Honda. "In that environment, programmers have to make so many compromises … it’s hard to keep the desire, the will, when half your work gets thrown out every year."

That brought a bit of a smile to Francis’ mouth. Andy wondered if maybe he’d said something right.

In the end Francis banishes Andy and a bunch of usual suspects to a shed to work on an impossible project, essentially to get them out of his main team. The project is to make the first $100 PC. Now what would happen if Andy's disgruntled bunch - somehow, maybe, actually succeed. That's where you'll have to read the book. It was one of those books that kept me in a happy mood for weeks.

If you don't like reading then there's the Movie. It is a disappointing Hollywood adaptation, mainly goofy without any of the intelligent sparks, and it ruins the advanced interesting makeup of many of characters.

At present, as the digital economy matures, the benchmarks for a successful idea are getting harder. In this year's Sun (Microsystems) Developers Day conference, the keynote speaker emphasized that investors look to see some sort of return on their investment within 6 months, they used to be patient for years.

Read Book Prologue
Read First Chapter
Amazon Link

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