Book Review – The Innovators

The Innovators: How A Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
by Walter Isaacson 

I don’t give many books a 5 out of 5 rating. My 5 star fiction books include classics like Les Miserables, The Count of Monte Cristo, Lord of the Rings and Pride and Prejudice. It’s slightly easier for non-fiction books to earn 5 stars, but the standard is pretty high.

The Innovators, by Walter Isaacson, is my first 5 star rating of 2015. It has all the qualities I look for in a good non-fiction book. It is well-written, well-organized, educational and interesting. Perhaps I was especially inclined to like it since it’s very applicable to the industry in which I work.

The book follows a linear timeline of the development of technology from Ada Lovelace to the creation of modern tech companies like Google. Isaacson outlines the details of the lives of those who contributed towards the development of hardware, semiconductors, software, the Internet, personal computers and everything in between. Along the way, he also touches on the development of the venture capital industry to fund technology startups, the formation of the Silicon Valley and what environments have been conducive for technology breakthroughs historically.

I knew some of the history, but much of it was new to me. It’s fascinating to think about the pace of innovation and the momentum that has happened not just in the last 100 years, but in the 32 years of my own life. As I read, I often wondered what the early technology pioneers would have thought about me reading the story of their lives and inventions on a handheld, personal computer (my iPhone).

A few other things stood out to me:

The Role of Women
The technology field often feels like an “old boys club” to me, especially since I work as a Product Manager with mostly male engineers. Given the lack of diversity in many tech environments today, it was interesting to read about the role women had in developing the early technology for computer capabilities and their work to develop programming. From Ada Lovelace to Grace Hopper to the Women of ENIAC (one of the very first computers housed at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania), women played an important role in developing these new technologies.

Jean Jennings Bartik, one of the Women of ENIAC said, “Despite our coming of age in an era when women’s career opportunities were generally quite confined, we helped initiate the era of the computer.”

“American science and engineering was even more sexist than it is today. If the ENIAC’s administrators had known how crucial programming would be to the functioning of the electronic computer and how complex it would prove to be, they might have been more hesitant to give such an important role to women.”

The Importance of Writing
As an avid reader and occasional writer, there’s nothing that bothers me more in the workplace than sloppy and lazy writing (don’t get me started on all my grammar pet peeves!).

In tech environments, many don’t put a strong emphasis on the importance of writing clearly and concisely. I appreciated the emphasis that Grace Hopper put on technical writing.

“Unlike most math professors, she [Hopper] insisted that her students be able to write well. In her probability course, she began with a lecture on one of her favorite mathematical formulas and asked her students to write an essay about it. These she would mark for clarity of writing and style. “I’d cover [an essay] up with ink, and I would get a rebellion that they were taking a math course not an English course,” she recalled. “Then I would explain, it was no use trying to learn math unless they could communicate it with other people.”

As Hopper worked on writing her scientific findings, her boss made her read him the pages she had written that day. “He pointed out that if you stumble when you try to read it aloud, you’d better fix that sentence.”

Open Source vs. Patents
A debate raised throughout the book was whether intellectual property should be patented or shared freely and placed into the public domain and open-source commons. Which method advances technology faster? What spurs more innovation?

Some say that innovation spreads faster when knowledge is shared quickly and can be improved upon by many people. Others say that protecting the rights of inventors rewards risks with capital investment.

Historically, innovative technology came from both methods, but it’s an interesting concept to think about in today’s tech world.

Common Traits of Successful Innovators
As each Innovator is introduced, Isaacson writes about their background (education, family, work history) and shows how they developed an interest in science, technology, and innovation.

Many of the Innovators are quirky; all of them are smart. It’s interesting to note that one of the main characteristics for all of them is their curiosity and determination. From a young age, these people wanted to understand how things work. They took apart radios, performed chemistry and science experiments and were naturally curious.

New Types of Companies
As new technologies were developed, new companies were born that looked quite different from the traditional, highly corporate and hierarchical companies in other industries. The tech industry was (and still is) different with flexible work styles and nonhierarchical organizations.

It’s interesting to see that this nonconformist company culture still exists today.

Advertising and Publishing
The development of the web, specifically advertising and publishing, was particularly interesting to me since I work for an Ad Tech company.

Some of the original web innovators wanted to create a system of two-way links instead of the system that exists today that allows anyone to link to another page (whether they approve of the link or not). The two-way link system was supposed to meter the use of links and allow small automatic payments to accrue to those who produced the content that was used. If this system had been used, the publishing and journalism industry wouldn’t have relied on advertising to be compensated for content.

The two-way link system didn’t prevail because payment processing wasn’t advanced enough to collect these small micro-payments. As a result, the Web became a place where aggregators could make more money than content producers.

A system was born where anyone had access to “free” information and could be a journalist or writer and spread their own ideas. According to Justin Hall, “By publishing ourselves on the web, we reject the role of passive media marketing recipient. If we all have a place to post our pages, there’s no way the web will end up as banal and mediocre as television. There will be as many places to find fresh and engaging content as there are people who yearn to be heard. Good telling of human stories is the best way to keep the internet and the WWW from becoming a waste vastland.”

Role of Teams vs. Individuals
Reading a chronological study of innovation highlights that innovation is iterative. It wouldn’t be possible to be where we are today without many people building off of the ideas of others and adding their own contributions over time.

It isn’t always clear who created what because the process involved so many people, some who were discovering the same concepts and ideas at the same time in different places. Innovation always moved faster when groups of people worked together. Various innovators discovered breakthroughs on their own, but without others to help them overcome their technical weaknesses, their ideas never took hold.

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