Finished reading: In the Company of Giants

Rama Dev Jager and Rafael Ortiz, In the Company of Giants: Candid Conversations with the Visionaries of the Digital World, 1997.

I found this book while searching the Boeing Library to see if they had a copy of The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future by Steve Case, co-founder of AOL. They didn’t. But searching on Steve Case brought up this book—OK, good enough. (St. Louis County Library has a copy, though: book, audiobook.)

It’s two MBA students from Stanford interviewing people who started computer software and hardware companies, mostly in Silicon Valley. I enjoyed it. Filter out the boilerplate and marketing talk, and you get a look into a creative culture that really doesn’t exist anymore. This book was released in 1997, and the interviewees are established people looking back. It has an old school feeling to it—the stories are of less polished beginnings, with less starter money, than seems to be the case today. (Not that I know about it personally—the feeling from 2000 miles away is that there is no shortage of money to go around for ventures.)

There are two funny points that kept coming up in the interviews. (1) Prognostications about what the internet might provide. It’s hard to remember the internet in 1997—four years old, still an infant. (2) people who developed things that are fundamental and nearly invisible today because of their ubiquity (Adobe, Intuit), or fundamental and invisible because they defined how things work in their industry and went away (AOL, DEC).

Another book to read in the same vein is Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days, with interviews by Jessica Livingston. I prefer it to Company of Giants, but reading both won’t harm anyone.

People interviewed in the book:

  • Steve Jobs (Apple)
  • T.J. Rodgers (Cypress Semiconductor)
  • Gordon Eubanks (Symantec)
  • Steve Case (AOL)
  • Scott Cook (Intuit)
  • Sandy Kurtzig (ASK)
  • John Warnock and Charles Geschke (Adobe)
  • Michael Dell (Dell)
  • Charles Wang (Computer Associates)
  • Bill Gates (Microsoft)
  • Andy Grove (Intel)
  • Trip Hawkins (Electronic Arts)
  • Ed McCracken (Silicon Graphics)
  • Ken Olsen (Digital Electronics Corporation)
  • Bill Hewlett (Hewlett Packard)

A few lines that caught my eye:

[John Warnock, p. 111] The money and all of that stuff is nice, but it’s not why we started Adobe. It just isn’t in the equation. The money is more a measure of how well you’ve run your business and the impact you’ve had on the market.

[Michael Dell, p. 120] If you think I came into this business with a master plan—we knew everything we were going to do in the next 12 years… Wrong. We made lots of mistakes. But we corrected those mistakes reall fast, and we often didn’t make the same mistake twice. Or if we did, it wasn’t fatal.

[Charles Wang, p. 142] If people keep telling me what I want to hear, then I tell them, “If you and I agree all the time, then one of us is redundant—and it ain’t me. Now you figure that one out.” And they understand.

[Ed McCracken, p. 198] Well, I certainly agree with, whatever you call it–karma or whatever else–there’s a lot of that in everything. I grew up on a farm in Iowa, and I really appreciate the farming mentality because you work really hard–and then you let the weather happen. And some years are good and some years are bad. You don’t have much responsibility for it. It’s what you do, rather than the result, which is important.

[Ken Olsen, p. 224] Success in business is so fragile–human beings are involved, and the market is involved. People who follow somebody else’s wisdom without thinking about it will miss these things. Being critical and analyzing issues ahead of time is satisfying. You must have humility if you’re trying to figure things out differently from everybody else. But most people don’t think at all. They fall in love with phrases. The best assumption to have is that any commonly held belief is wrong.

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