Book: Innovators by Walter Isaacson

“How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution”

Walter Isaacson’s journey over the past few years adopted a particular theme: He wrote biographies of famous inventors and in the result – he learned a lot about how innovation happens. He started with Benjamin Franklin, later continued on with Einstein, Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci and now he published Innovators.

All of the amazing people described in Innovators were brilliant, capable and extraordinary. But what we quickly find out is that innovation does not happen in vacuum. It is a collaborative process, that requires a melting pot of creative energy to come up with something good.

„Creativity is a collaborative process. Innovation comes from teams more often than from the lightbulb moments of lone geniuses.”

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But the idea itself is not enough – it’s fragile after birth and requires a nourishing ecosystem. Technical prowess is not enough – product sense is key to to success and business-savvy is what makes the neat hack a real breakthrough.

We learn the same thing from Outliers by Malcom Gladwell and Loonshots by Safi Bahcall. The lone genius myth is an unproductive and a false one. Innovation is a result of serendipity that can be designed.

Also, damn, the years of early computer innovation were wild, fun and exciting!

“Ready or not, computers are coming to the people. That’s good news, maybe the best since psychedelics.”

A final note: My grandfather is an engineer and a former jet test pilot. This book brought him immense joy. I don’t know if it’s drugs, the early computer revolution (which he had no part in since he was in Poland) or some other part of his youth. But it was really heartwarming to hear him speak about sheer genius of the people in the book.

My Highlights

  • Lady Byron wanted to make sure that Ada did not turn out like her father, and part of her strategy was to have the girl rigorously study math, as if it were an antidote to poetic imagination

  • He prescribed Euclidean geometry, followed by a dose of trigonometry and algebra. That should cure anyone, they both thought, from having too many artistic or romantic passions.

  • The marriage was a match made in rational calculus.

  • Alan was conceived in Chhatrapur, India, and born on June 23, 1912, in London, while his parents

  • “Alan was slow to learn that indistinct line that separated initiative from disobedience.”

  • “A physicist is one who’s concerned with the truth,” he later said. “An engineer is one who’s concerned with getting the job done.”

  • The machine’s calculations were combined with the labor of more than 170 people, most of them women, known as “computers,”

  • problems. I could switch my vocabulary and speak highly technical for the programmers, and then tell the same things to the managers a few hours later but with a totally different vocabulary.” Innovation requires articulation.

  • “Grace was a good man,” he declared

  • and then accepted her point. Von Neumann could listen well, and he had also mastered the ingratiating art of feigning humility.

  • Edward Teller had devised a proposal for a hydrogen bomb, dubbed “the Super,” in which a fission atomic device would be used to create a fusion reaction. To determine how this would work, the scientists needed to calculate what the force of the reactions would be at

  • Edward Teller had devised a proposal for a hydrogen bomb, dubbed “the Super,” in which a fission atomic device would be used to create a fusion reaction. To determine how this would work, the scientists needed to calculate what the force of the reactions would be at every ten-millionth of a second.

  • the proprietary model produced companies that were so entrenched and defensive that they would miss out on the personal computer revolution in the early 1970s.

  • “One day ladies will take their computers for walks in the park and tell each other ‘My little computer said such a funny thing this morning!’ ” he japed in 1951.

  • example of teamwork, of brilliant individual contributions, and of the value of basic research in an industrial framework.”36 That precisely described the mix that had become the formula for innovation in the digital

  • Indeed, there was a symbiotic relationship between the advent of the transistor radio and the rise of rock and roll. Elvis

  • As happens in many biographies, there was also the theme of living up to a late father.

  • Understand which industries are symbiotic so that you can capitalize on how they will spur each other on.

  • “As [the company] has grown larger and larger, I have enjoyed my daily work less and less,”

  • Robert Noyce took this culture to the next level. To understand him as a manager, it’s useful to recall that he was born and bred a Congregationalist. His father and both grandfathers were ministers of the dissenting denomination that had as its core creed the rejection of hierarchy and all of its trappings.

  • The more open and unstructured a workplace, he believed, the faster new ideas would be sparked, disseminated, refined, and applied.

  • “His heroes had a strong tendency to get pursued by the villain across the galaxy and have to invent their way out of their problem while they were being pursued.

  • Proudly nerdy, they reconstituted themselves into the Hingham Institute Study Group on Space Warfare, and Slug Russell proceeded to code.

  • Russell later admitted, “I looked around and I didn’t find an excuse, so I had to settle down and do some figuring.”

  • Innovation can be sparked by engineering talent, but it must be combined with business skills to set the world afire.

  • “We hired her from the topless bar down the street,” Bushnell recounted forty years later to an audience of earnest high school students, who seemed somewhat baffled by the tale and unsure what a topless bar was.

  • When he built a new engineering facility, he decreed that it should have its own hot tub. “It was a recruiting tool,” he insisted. “We found out that our lifestyle and the parties were hugely good for attracting workers

  • At its core were certain principles: authority should be questioned, hierarchies should be circumvented, nonconformity should be admired, and creativity should be nurtured. Unlike at East Coast corporations, there were no fixed working hours and no dress code, either for the office or the hot tub.

  • Innovation requires having at least three things: a great idea, the engineering talent to execute it, and the business savvy (plus deal-making moxie) to turn it into a successful product.

  • “I am proud of the way we were able to engineer Pong, but I’m even more proud of the way I figured out and financially engineered the business,”

  • The creation of a triangular relationship among government, industry, and academia was, in its own way, one of the significant innovations that helped produce the technological revolution of the late twentieth century.

  • On October 4, 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite. The connection that Bush had made between science and defense was now twinkling in the sky every night.

  • With his wry sense of humor, he began referring to his vision with the “intentionally grandiloquent” phrase “the Intergalactic Computer Network.”

  • “All the other parents had to take what they got, but I was chosen. That probably gave me an undeserved sense of confidence.”

  • Instead he had a trait that was just as useful in promoting collaborative creativity and managing a team: he was decisive. More important, his decisiveness was based not on emotion or personal favoritism but rather on a rational and precise analysis of options.

  • It also helped him accomplish one of the most important tasks in building a network: getting everyone to buy into the idea.

  • building a military communications system that would survive an enemy attack. He knew that such a system could help prevent a nuclear exchange, because if one side feared that its communications system could be knocked out it would be more likely to launch a preemptive first strike when tensions mounted.

  • Internet’s creators preferred—to use the metaphor of the Internet itself—a system of fully distributed credit. They instinctively isolated and routed around any node that tried to claim more significance than the others.

  • One of the commonly accepted narratives of the Internet is that it was built to survive a nuclear attack. This enrages many of its architects, including Bob Taylor and Larry Roberts, who insistently and repeatedly debunked this origin myth.

  • It would route around any damage from a nuclear attack but also around any attempt to impose control.

  • discovered a verity that would remain true even in the age of digital social networks: it was useful—and fun—to get together in person, interfacing in the literal sense of that word.

  • NASA was able to send a man to the moon. Engineers in Silicon Valley were able to devise a way to put a programmable computer on a chip called a microprocessor. And ARPA created a network that could connect distant computers. Only the first of these (perhaps the least historically significant of them?) made headlines.

  • Engineering Task Force, put it, “We reject kings, presidents, and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code.”

  • The combustible combination of creative writing, dropping acid for pay, and working as an orderly in an asylum led to his first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

  • Kesey used the proceeds from his book, combined with some acid he had been able to liberate from the CIA experiments, to form a commune of early hippies called the Merry Pranksters.

  • Lewis Mumford warned that the rise of computers could mean that “man will become a passive, purposeless, machine-conditioned animal.”

  • over the course of many decades. “The counterculture’s scorn for centralized authority provided the philosophical foundations of the entire personal-computer revolution,”

  • “The freaks who design computer science” would wrest power away from the “rich and powerful institutions,” he wrote.

  • “Ready or not, computers are coming to the people. That’s good news, maybe the best since psychedelics

  • Alan Kay, who would later advance each of these ideas at Xerox PARC, said of Engelbart, “I don’t know what Silicon Valley will do when it runs out of Doug’s ideas.”

  • That is why Engelbart, even though he was a prescient theorist, was not truly a successful innovator: he kept adding functions and instructions and buttons and complexities to his system. Kay made things easier, and in so doing showed why the ideal of simplicity—making products that humans find convivial and easy to use—was central to the innovations that made computers personal.

  • launched a publication called the People’s Computer Company, which was not really a company but called itself one in honor of Janis Joplin’s band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. The scraggly newsletter adopted as its motto “Computer power to the people.” The first issue, in October 1972, had on its cover a drawing of a boat sailing into the sunset and the hand-scrawled declaration “Computers are mostly used against people instead of for people; used to control people instead of to free them; Time to change all that—we need a PEOPLE’S COMPUTER COMPANY.”81 Most issues featured lots of line drawings of dragons—“I loved dragons ever since I was thirteen,” Albrecht recalled—and stories about computer education, BASIC programming, and various learning fairs and do-it-yourself technology festivals.

  • string techs and engineers, and its other offbeat folks—including a prim and proper lady who sat up front who had been, I was later told, President Eisenhower’s personal pilot when she was a male,”

  • “The dystopian society envisioned by George Orwell in the aftermath of World War II, at about the same time the transistor was invented, has completely failed to materialize,” the historians Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson wrote, “in large part because transistorized electronic devices have empowered creative individuals and nimble entrepreneurs far more than Big Brother.”

  • “When you use a computer, you can’t make fuzzy statements. You make only precise statements.”

  • The mission: to drive the new PDP-10 as hard as they could and as long as they wanted, programming and playing on it nights and weekends, to see what things they could do to make it crash.

  • What particularly amazed Russell was Gates’s ability to associate different types of error with specific programmers back at DEC headquarters.

  • “I swore off computers for a while, and I tried to be normal,” said Gates. “I decided to prove I could get all A’s without ever taking a textbook home. Instead I read biographies of Napoleon and novels like Catcher in the Rye.”

  • He was also able to put himself into a history class with all the right girls and only one other boy (“a real wimp”) and make sure that he and his senior class friends had Tuesday afternoons free.

  • “Insert quarter, avoid Klingons.”

  • “There is something indefinable in an entrepreneur, and I saw that in Steve,” Bushnell recalled. “He was interested not just in engineering, but also the business aspects.

  • “The goal was to give the user a conceptual model that was unsurprising,” Frankston explained. “It was called the principle of least surprise. We were illusionists synthesizing an experience.”

  • Doing anything new at the company, he complained, seemed to require three hundred people working three years.

  • With a coder’s subtle humor, Stallman created a recursive acronym for his new operating system, GNU, which stood for GNU’s Not UNIX.

  • Linus Torvalds’s father was a Communist Party member and TV journalist, his mother a student radical and then print journalist, but as a child in Helsinki he became more interested in technology than in politics.

  • “The best and most effective way to lead is by letting people do things because they want to do them, not because you want them to.”

  • “I don’t like single-issue people, nor do I think that people who turn the world into black and white are very nice or ultimately very useful.

  • Fortunately, AT&T’s effort backfired. A federal appeals court dismissed the company’s claim, and the barriers to jacking into its network began to crumble. It was still illegal to connect a modem into the phone system electronically, but you could do so mechanically, such as by taking your phone’s handset and cradling it into the suction cups of an acoustical coupler.

  • “Tim’s not in it for the money. He accepts a much wider range of hotel-room facilities than a CEO would.”

  • “By the power vested in me by nobody in particular,” Andreessen began, “alpha/beta version 0.5 of NCSA’s Motif-based networked information systems and World Wide Web browser, X Mosaic, is hereby released.”

  • When he asked what it meant, he was told that wiki was the Hawaiian word for quick, and wiki wiki meant superquick.

  • When asked later whether having parents who were professors was a key to their success, they both cited going to Montessori schools as a more important factor. “I think it was part of that training of not following rules and orders, and being self-motivated, questioning what’s going on in the world and doing things a little bit differently,” Page contended.

  • ‘Having a healthy disregard for the impossible.’

  • As the journalist Steven Levy pointed out, this feedback loop helped Google learn that when users typed in dogs they also were looking for puppies, and when they typed in boiling they might also be referring to hot water, and eventually Google also learned that when they typed in hot dog they were not looking for boiling puppies.

  • When Page and Brin realized that it was time to put aside plans for dissertations and leave the Stanford nest, they found a garage—a two-car garage, which came with a hot tub and a couple of spare rooms inside the house—that they could rent for $1,700 a month at the Menlo Park house of a Stanford friend, Susan Wojcicki, who soon joined Google.

  • In other words, the future might belong to people who can best partner and collaborate with computers.

  • creativity is a collaborative process. Innovation comes from teams more often than from the lightbulb moments of lone geniuses.

  • Even though the Internet provided a tool for virtual and distant collaborations, another lesson of digital-age innovation is that, now as in the past, physical proximity is beneficial.

  • Another key to fielding a great team is pairing visionaries, who can generate ideas, with operating managers, who can execute them. Visions without execution are hallucinations.

  • Innovation is most vibrant in the realms where open-source systems compete with proprietary ones.

  • Most of the successful innovators and entrepreneurs in this book had one thing in common: they were product people. They cared about, and deeply understood, the engineering and design.

  • The converse to this paean to the humanities, however, is also true. People who love the arts and humanities should endeavor to appreciate the beauties of math and physics, just as Ada did. Otherwise, they will be left as bystanders at the intersection of arts and science, where most digital-age creativity will occur. They will surrender control of that territory to the engineers.

  • They consider people who don’t know Hamlet from Macbeth to be Philistines, yet they might merrily admit that they don’t know the difference between a gene and a chromosome, or a transistor and a capacitor, or an integral and a differential equation.

 

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