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A bunch of my tech friends have asked me to suggest a book to read over the holidays. My unambiguous recommendation is The Circle by Dave Eggers.
I think it’s one of the best books I read this year. I’m an unabashed Eggers fan. My favorites of his are A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius: A Memoir Based on a True Story and Zeitoun. I also have a giant literary crush on everything McSweeney’s.
The early literary reviews of The Circle were awesome while the reviews by people in the tech community were mixed to negative. The tech criticism was weak and felt like it lacked depth. Most of it was “hey – Eggers doesn’t really understand how this stuff works” or “Eggers doesn’t use this stuff therefore his book sucks” kind of stuff.
The Circle was brilliant. I went back and read a little of the tech criticism and all I could think was things like “wow – hubris” or “that person could benefit from a little reflection on the word irony.”
We’ve taken Peter Drucker’s famous quote “‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” to an absurd extreme in the tech business. We believe we’ve mastered operant conditioning through the use of visible metrics associated with actions individual users take. We’ve somehow elevated social media metrics to the same level as money in the context of self-worth.
Eggers completely disassembles this through a deeply engaging story with vibrant characters. Some of the characters are recognizable composites of well known people from Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, LinkedIn, and a few other large bay area tech companies. Some are unknowns, but broad representations of archetypes of the people that work throughout these companies. And some are random players.
They combine in a magical way as the story unfolds. Large parts of the book are uncomfortably close to home, shining an absurd light just a little to0 brightly on stuff we talk about – in private, and in public – all the time.
And then – boom – Eggers does what he does best. As the pressure builds, he makes his point, over and over again. With a relentless drumbeat of character destruction. In a way that is cringeworthy to an extreme. Where you vacillate between “she deserved that” and “shit, that’s just not right.” And, as you take a deep breath and process what just happens, he does it again.
All the little circles with numbers on them on my phone are bothering me right now. All the dots, numbers, flashing, and bouncing things on my laptop reminds me how absurd this has all become. While Eggers shoves it in our faces with The Circle, the end-state implications of this is prescient, especially in a Snowden-like (or should we say Orwellian) world.
Powerful stuff. And really fun to read.
Startup Boards: Getting the Most Out of Your Board of Directors is shipping. It was so satisfying to see this today.
This was by far the most difficult book to write so far. The title we came up with should have tipped me off – it ended up be extremely challenging to make a book about “boards” not be “boring.”
If you are up for it, give me some opening day love and order a copy of Startup Boards: Getting the Most Out of Your Board of Directors.
I’ve been reading a lot lately. On an almost daily basis, someone out in the world sends me a physical book, which I love. While I have something like 500 unread books on my Kindle, I still love laying on the couch reading a physical book. So the stacks of books that show up keep me company and I chomp through them whenever I need a break from everything else.
Yesterday I read No Better Time: The Brief, Remarkable Life of Danny Lewin, the Genius Who Transformed the Internet. It was awesome and I recommend it for any entrepreneur out there either working on a company or thinking about starting a company.
If you don’t recognize the name Danny Lewin there are two big things to know before you dive into this book. First, he was the co-founder of Akamai Technologies (NASDAQ: AKAM – currently valued at $8 billion.) Second, he was likely the very first person to die in the 9/11 attack.
There are lots of other interesting and unexpected things to know about Danny before you start the book. He was born in Denver. His parents made aliyah to Israel when he was a young teenager. He was built like a tank and was a member of Israel’s Sayeret Matkal. He longed to be at MIT.
Akamai’s original name was Cachet Technologies. They entered, but didn’t win, the MIT $50K competition in 1998. As a judge for the MIT $50k until 1996, there were always a lot of VCs hanging around. In this case, however, the only VC who truly had conviction to get behind Akamai was Todd Dagres – then of Battery Ventures, now of Spark Capital.
Akamai was an amazing pre-Internet bubble story. From nothing to IPO in less than 18 months, a market cap of > $20 billion, followed by a 99% decline in the stock price post-bubble. Over the last decade, however, they’ve demonstrated that they have a real business, now valued at $8 billion with Q313 revenue of $396m, Q313 GAAP Net Income of $80m, and cash flow from operations in Q313 of +$158m. Not bad for a company that was written off completely a decade ago.
This is the story of the creation of that company. And the people behind the creation, mostly notably Lewin. The author, Molly Knight Raskin, writes beautifully, deeply, and thoughtfully. She combines an origin story (for Akamai), a coming of age story (for Lewin), and a tragedy (for Lewin, his family, his extended family, and Akamai.) While the tragic ending, which comes much to early, is the end of the book, it’s short (less than 10% of the book), appropriate in its level of drama, and helps us process the amazing life that Lewin lived.
I’m tired of the classic boom bust popular media story arc of “hero emerges from nothing, the hero does amazing things, bad things happen and the hero crashes, watch how the hero is no longer a hero, the hero fights and claws his way out of the cellar and rises again to be a hero.” This is not one of those books. Instead, it’s a great biography of an entrepreneur, his company, and his all too short life.
I loved this video review of Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur. I watched it this morning and smiled a huge smile.
Thanks Cynthia Morris for taking the time to do this. And, as the sun shines in my world again, I’m happy that others are spreading the love around.
William Hertling is currently my favorite “near term” science fiction writer. I just read a pre-release near-final draft of his newest book, The Last Firewall. It was spectacular. Simply awesome.
You can’t read it yet, but I’ll let you know when it’s available. In the mean time, go read the first two books in the trilogy.
They are also excellent and important for context for The Last Firewall. They are inexpensive. And they are about as close to reality while still being science fiction as you can get.
I define “near term science fiction” as stuff that will happen within the next 20 years. I used to read everything by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Neal Stephenson. Gibson’s Neuromancer and and Stephenson’s Snow Crash were – until recently – my two favorite books in this category. Suarez’s Daemon and Freedom (TM) replaced these at the top of my list, until Hertling showed up. Now I’d put Daemon and The Last Firewall tied for first.
Amy and I were talking about this in the car today. Gibson, Sterling, and Stephenson are amazing writers, but their books have become too high concept. There’s not enough love and excitement for the characters. And the science fiction is too abstract – still important, but not as accessible.
In contrast, Hertling and Suarez are just completely nailing it, as is Ramez Naam with his recent book Nexus. My tastes are now deeply rooted with these guys, along with Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross.
If I was writing science fiction, this would be what I was going for. And, if you want to understand the future, this is what you should be reading.