BOOK REVIEW: "TROUBLEMAKERS" BY LESLIE BERLIN

Answer a question: Could you or your business function without smart phones; powerful, fast computers; efficient, flexible software; communications capabilities such as text messaging and email; social media; and dozens of other similar tools?? If your answer is no, just imagine working forty years ago when none of that existed. In that long ago time, the leading and most valuable companies in the United States were industrial firms. Apple, Google (Alphabet), Microsoft, and Facebook  were either embryonic or did not exist. Indeed, some of these firm's founders were still children at the time. Troublemakers charts the development of the technology and capability that makes our modern world possible.

As the front piece to the book notes: "At a time when the five most valuable companies on the planet are high-tech firms and nearly half of Americans say they cannot live without their cell phones, Troublemakers reveals the untold story of how we got here. This is the gripping tale of seven exceptional men and women, pioneers of Silicon Valley in the 1970's and early 1980's.   Together they worked across generations, industries and companies to bring technology from Pentagon offices and university laboratories to the rest of us. In doing so, they changed the world."

Few readers may realize the role played by PARC/Xerox (Palo Alto Research Center) in pioneering technologies we take for granted today. "Research staff at PARC begat Microsoft Word, as well as Alta Vista (an early search engine), Ethernet, the pioneering networking company 3 Com and Adobe." Generation after generation in the Valley have mentored and financed new ideas, technology, research, and concepts to rapidly move our world forward. The network of people working together, competing with, and assisting each other continues to grow. Stanford University, arguably to world's greatest intellectual center is the nexus of Silicon Valley and has produced an environment conducive to continuing progress.  

Progress requires money and Silicon Valley also pioneered a unique mode of funding new ideas and businesses. Unlike Eastern investment capital firms, in California, financing was much more relaxed. Venture capital firms such as Sequoia Capital and Kleiner & Perkins arose. These two alone went on to finance Amazon, Apple, Cisco, Dropbox, Electronic Arts, Facebook, Genentech, Google, Instagram, Intuit, and LinkedIn among many others. As Leslie Berlin notes: "and that is just the first half of the alphabet." There were also many failures...remember game maker Atari who produced Pong?    

Some pioneering firms failed to capitalize on the research and technology gained through great effort. Xerox is the chief example. The Palo Alto Research Park/Xerox was a special place.   The company decided to stay with copiers even after inventing important devices such as the laser printer. While Xerox still exists, it is a shadow of its former self and may soon be swallowed by Fuji Film (possible at the time of this writing).

Some of these early leaders bequeath to the rest of us life itself. Biotechnology pioneer Bob Swanson, one of the two founders of Genentech led the effort to develop new cancer drugs that have saved countless lives. Ironically, his was not one of them as he died from brain cancer at age fifty-two in 1999. Genentech was the first company to produce a human protein by splicing a gene into a bacteria, the first to produce a drug by genetic engineering and the first biotech to go public. 

Leslie Berlin presents the story of other people in the Valley who took advantage of the great opportunities this unique place offers. In a footnote, she cites the example of: "Martin Manley, who worked as a machinist and organizer in Silicon Valley at that time (mid 1970's)...Manley left his work as a machinist to study at the Harvard Business School. He later served as assistant secretary of labor for President Bill Clinton and became an Internet entrepreneur, founding Alibris, among the world's largest online rare- and used-book sellers."

Look around your office, your home, even your automobile and realize the changes that Troublemakers presents. 

Troublemakers is published by Simon & Schuster (ISBN 978-1-4516-5150-8)

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Howard Birnberg is the executive director of the Association for Project Managers.  He may be reached at hbirnberg@gmail.com, 312-664-2300 (office), 312-560-6651 (direct), apminfo.com (website).

Howard Birnberg