Software success, philanthropy, and bipolar disorder

bipolar disorder

Most business biographies are about heroes. Though their stories may be leavened by references to the negative side of their character, the overall effect is overwhelmingly positive. Not so with Tracy Kidder’s even-handed new account of a successful software entrepreneur, A Truck Full of Money. Kidder doesn’t skimp on the man’s business successes. There were several. But he devotes nearly as much time to the many failures — and to his psychiatric problems. It’s a remarkable tale.

A software entrepreneur who isn’t a billionaire

Kidder’s subject is Paul English. Unlike the best-known people in his field, such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, English has never made billions. Not even one billion. But by everyday standards — mine, and presumably yours, too — he became fabulously rich. At one point his fortune totaled about $120 million. That’s not even enough to buy and maintain a mid-sized LearJet. Poor guy, right? And unlike creative geniuses such as Steve Jobs, English didn’t make his money from brilliant inventions of his own. (You do know that Gates and Zuckerberg didn’t either, don’t you?)

A Truck Full of Money: One Man’s Quest to Recover from Great Success by Tracy Kidder @@@@@ (5 out of 5)

A rare combination of talents

It turns out, in Kidder’s telling, that Paul English possessed that rare combination of extraordinary talent as a programmer and the ability to inspire and manage teams of equally brilliant people. His big success story was Kayak, a travel site unlike Expedia and Travelocity in that its purpose is not to sell users anything. A few years before 2004, when English cofounded Kayak, he had made a much smaller fortune when he sold an earlier company on the cusp of the dot-com crash.

A brutally honest account of bipolar disorder

If you’re involved in the high-tech business, you might find most rewarding the story of English’s progression from one job to another — until he finally got really lucky. For the general reader, though, Kidder’s no-holds-barred account of his subject’s experience with bipolar disorder stands out. There’s no sense summing up that story here. If the subject interests you, read this book. Kidder does a terrific job of conveying the pain English has suffered — and the problems his disorder caused for him in business. By the way, English insisted that Kidder tell the whole story with complete honesty.

One egregious error

Kidder committed one egregious error in A Truck Full of Money. In a passage about the history of the software industry, he writes: “In the 1960s, IBM created a complex operating system called DOS and all but gave it away — to Microsoft, then a small company.” There are several problems with this assertion. First, IBM did not create DOS. It was the product of a small software firm in Seattle that was one of Microsoft’s rivals. Second, DOS was written for personal computers, which weren’t developed until the 1970s. Third, Microsoft wasn’t around in the 1960s, either. The company was founded in 1975. Fourth, nobody gave DOS away. Bill Gates bought it for a pittance, and negotiated an extraordinarily one-sided royalty contract with IBM that became the cornerstone of his immense wealth. This is the sort of bonehead error I would never expect from Tracy Kidder. I’m genuinely surprised he didn’t hire a fact-checker.

About the author

The list of published American nonfiction authors is staggeringly long, but only a handful of outstanding writers among them are actively working today. Tracy Kidder is unquestionably one of them. In 1982 he won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for The Soul of a New Machine, an intimate look at the engineering of what was then one of the most ingenious and bestselling computers in the industry. A Truck Full of Money, his twelfth book, returns him to the high-tech industry after more than three decades of revolutionary changes.

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