Monday, 22 January 2007

The New New Thing bookcover; PenguinReview: The New New Thing, Michael Lewis (2000)

Jim Clark is more than a bit of a cowboy. Anarchic (creative, undisciplined) and highly profitable, his enterprises have changed the way the world views technology and, more importantly for such types of people, the way technology is valued.

The deal he cut with venture capitalists for Netscape was seminal. It gave the creator of the idea more return than in any previous IPO. He had learned his lesson well during the launch and operation of Silicon Graphics, his first venture, which pointed out the best way forward.

Microsoft lurks in the background, a highly-disciplined manager of technology although not as creative as many of the smaller outfits based in Silicon Valley, which is located just south of San Francisco. As well as being real, the threat that Microsoft poses to start-ups is palpable in this entertaining account of the fortunes of Jim Clark.

Raised in Plainview, a small town in Texas, Clark left school before matriculating and joined the Navy. There, his mathematical talents were recognised and he went on to earn a PhD. The Geometry Engine, a solid-state chip that he developed during his studies, would be used in the first Silicon Graphics computers.

Lewis charts Clark’s progress in thorough detail, employing a full set of literary techniques. Invited into Clark’s world, he observes Clark’s interactions with key individuals, and sits in on key meetings. He also describes Clark’s extra-professional activities, especially his infatuation with yachts. In fact, it was Clark’s desire to purchase a large yacht that he could subsequently automate, that propelled one of his most successful IPOs. Hungry for cash, in 1995 Clark took Netscape public (read a brief summary of the business).

To get the access he required to write the book, Lewis made himself useful. Having written previously about Wall Street, he was able to be a reliable sounding-board during discussions of Clark’s dealings with investment bankers during the lead-up to the Healtheon IPO. Lewis, who had studied art history at university, also discussed Clark’s intended purchase of $200-million-worth of paintings.

Once he had gained Clark’s confidence (“I make sure my presence isn’t obnoxious to [the subject]”), he took out his notebook.

It starts with a casual conversation—without my taking notes and asking interview-like questions. I don’t even take a notebook. But at some point the notebook comes out, and then it stays out.

He says he never tells the subject how much time he’ll require to research and write the book.

This is a fun book. A lot of fun. If you’re interested in how people become rich and enjoy themselves at the same time, how they motivate themselves to stay interested in their chosen field, you’ll get a lot out of this book. Everyone’s interested in technology, and everyone’s interested in money and success. Combining the two topics in one book makes it hard to resist.

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