Tales From Silicon Valley: Must-Read Tech-Biz Books

Cutting-edge tech that sometimes has the power to transform lives (in good ways and bad), billions of dollars earned or lost in what seems the blink of an eye and unique, and strong-willed characters who have unshakeable belief in what they’re doing and who’ll often do anything at all to get what they want. That’s the common thread running through most of the stories told in these books. Fast-paced, exciting and very well-written, these books are a must-read for anyone who’s interested in the business of tech.

How to Turn Down a Billion Dollars: The Snapchat Story, by Billy Gallagher

Remember Evan Spiegel, Snapchat CEO? A few years ago, when a Snapchat employee raised concerns about the app’s slow growth in India, Spiegel allegedly said, ‘This app is only for rich people. I don’t want to expand into poor countries like India.’ Be that as it may (or not!), Spiegel must himself have been feeling incredibly rich when he walked away from a three billion dollar offer from Facebook, which at the time was interested in buying Snapchat.

‘In How to Turn Down a Billion Dollars, Billy Gallagher takes us inside the rise of one of Silicon Valley’s hottest start-ups. Snapchat began as a late-night dorm room revelation before Spiegel went on to make a name for himself as a visionary CEO worth billions, linked to celebrities like Taylor Swift and his fiancée, Miranda Kerr. A fellow Stanford undergrad and fraternity brother of the company’s founding trio, Billy Gallagher has covered Snapchat from the start. His inside account offers an entertaining trip through the excess and drama of the hazy early days with a professional insight into the challenges Snapchat faces as it transitions from a playful app to one of the tech industry’s preeminent public companies. In the tradition of great business narratives, How to Turn Down a Billion Dollars offers the definitive account of a company whose goal is no less than to remake the future of entertainment.’

‘Certainly, few will argue with Gallagher’s declaration that the company ‘made a distinctive impact’ and ‘marked a rebellion against the social network status quo’ of the early 2010s. This is a do-not-miss book for avid followers of the tech world and its financial dealings,’ says Publishers Weekly. ‘From the get-go, Evan Spiegel looks like a spoiled brat. Having grown up with rich parents who had a set designer from the sitcom Friends design his childhood bedroom, Spiegel seemed like just the kind of guy who would spend his Stanford days partying with daddy’s money. And that he did. If you’re remotely interested in how Silicon Valley works or if you’re one of those older people who can’t figure out what the deal with Snapchat is, then this is the book for you,’ adds Elite Business.

The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company, by David A. Price

Anyone who likes watching animated movies is likely to have heard of Pixar, a pioneering company in that space. ‘Pixar began to take shape in the late 1970s, when George Lucas, after the success of Star Wars, hired many of these men [people who had worked on Star Wars] into Lucasfilm’s computer division. But he didn’t have a clue what to do with them. Even with the best computer animators on his payroll at Skywalker Ranch, he used no computer animation in The Empire Strikes Back, resorting to scale models for special effects. Frustrated with Lucas, the Computer Division renamed itself Pixar in 1986 and sought an outside investor. Through a friendship with Alan Kay, a crucial figure in the earlier creation of the personal computer at Xerox PARC, Pixar’s central figures were introduced to Steve Jobs,’ says The New York Times.

The story then chronicles complex developments, bouncing between Walt Disney Studios and Steve Jobs and the two creative visionaries behind some of Pixar’s greatest work – Ed Catmull and John Lasseter. Strong characters, Machiavellian dealings and high-tech filmmaking, against the backdrop of fast-developing 3D animation hardware and software. ‘Price delivers just enough of the technical details of computer animation – dropping terms such as bicubic patches, Z-buffer, and texture mapping – while staying rooted in the human and business realities of executive pissing matches, stock option shenanigans, and sweet success after a long battle. Disney passed up Pixar for $15 million in the mid-1980s, and then paid around $6.3 billion net for it in 2006. Everyone who has ever dreamed of showing doubters what they can achieve will be inspired by some element of the Pixar story,’ says Reason.

Father, Son & Co.: My Life at IBM and Beyond, by Thomas J. Watson and Peter Petre

A book for those who’re fascinated by the early years of computing, when computers were as big as a full-sized room, with price tags running in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, yet with considerably less computing power than today’s 25,000-Rupee laptops. Those were the glory days, bursting with hope and full of excitement, and the sense that nothing was impossible. And, of course, IBM was a key player in those days with its mainframe computers, which it only sold to businesses. Personal computer? Why, who’d ever want one and what would they do with it?!

‘In this eloquent first-person account, the man who transformed IBM into the world’s largest computer company reflects on his lifelong partnership with his father, and how their management style and shared dedication to excellence united to create a unique corporate culture that became the blueprint for the entire technology boom. In the course of sixty years, Thomas J. Watson Sr. and his son, Thomas J. Watson Jr., together built the international colossus that is IBM. This is their story: a riveting and revealing account of two men who loved each other, and fought each other, with a terrible fierceness. But along with the story of a father and son, this is IBM’s story too. It chronicles the management insights that shaped its course and its unique corporate culture, the style that made Thomas Watson Sr. one of America’s most charismatic bosses, and the daring decisions by Thomas Watson Jr. that transformed IBM into the world’s largest computing company.’

‘Watson delivers a no-nonsense account of a long and interesting life, with a justifiable emphasis on his difficult relationship with his father in My Life at IBM and Beyond. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Watson’s memoir is the best business autobiography since the publication of Iacocca in 1984, the book whose staggering success spawned this entire genre,’ says Joseph Nocera at EW. ‘Every once in a while, a delightful book comes along that displays insight into business and tells a personal story of change, transition and evolution. Father, Son & Co. is among them,’ said The Detroit Free Press.

Like, Comment, Subscribe: Inside YouTube’s Chaotic Rise to World Domination, by Mark Bergen

Until just 15 years ago, YouTube was this scrappy little video website with a lot of cutesy little home videos but very little serious content. It certainly wasn’t the video superpower it is now, with professionally produced, broadcast-quality videos, millions of video creators and video content available on every imaginable subject and then some. (Today, India actually has the biggest YouTube audience at more than 450 million people. The US and Indonesia and in second and third places respectively.)  

‘Since its foundation in 2005, YouTube has existed on a pendulum. Its emergence established a valuable space for unique voices to share themselves and their views, and made global stars out of everyday people such as PewDiePie, Shane Dawson and Ryan Higa. It invented the attention economy we all live in today, forever changing how people are entertained, informed and paid online. At the same time, countless extremists have found a home on YouTube, using it to spread misinformation and propaganda – sometimes with real-world life-and-death consequences. The site is massively profitable for its parent company, Google, which has aggressively grown it into a ruthless advertising conglomerate with little regard for its impact beyond the bottom line. In Like Comment Subscribe, Bloomberg tech journalist Mark Bergen delivers the definitive, page-turning account of YouTube. Exploring the stories of the people behind the platform, he tells the story of a technical marvel that upended traditional media, created stars of everyday people, and ultimately changed the world through untamed freedom of speech.’

‘Bergen interviewed over 300 people, including 160 current and former YouTube and Google employees [in order to write this book]. It’s why the book manages to capture some rare insights into YouTube and its recommendation system that he compares to a gigantic, multiarmed sorting machine that has one task: predict what video someone will watch next and deliver it. Bergen’s book is probably one of the most engaging accounts of the YouTube phenomenon. A story that continues to develop, even as we figure whether to describe it as a tech or a media company,’ said Moneycontrol. ‘When does content moderation become censorship? Where is the line between disinformation and a different opinion? What are the obligations of a social media platform? There are no easy answers. Bergen mostly keeps the story straight, but any account of the company is going to be a tale of barely controlled disarray. That is part of YouTube’s attraction – for better or worse,’ says Kirkus.

Idea Man: A Memoir by the Co-founder of Microsoft, by Paul Allen

Say the word ‘Microsoft’ and most people straightaway think of one name – Bill Gates. What many don’t know is that co-founder Paul Allen (who passed away in October 2018) was also a major force behind the rise of Microsoft in its early years. Allen left Microsoft in 1983 after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but was on the company’s board of directors until the year 2000.

‘What’s it like to start a revolution? How do you build the biggest tech company in the world? And why do you walk away from it all? Paul Allen co-founded Microsoft. Together he and Bill Gates turned an idea – writing software – into a company and then an entire industry. This is the story of how it came about: two young mavericks who turned technology on its head, the bitter battles as each tried to stamp his vision on the future, and their ruthless brilliance and fierce commitment. And finally, Allen’s extraordinary step in walking away from it all to discover what it is you do after you’ve already changed the world.’

‘His memoir, like his life, divides neatly into two parts, of which the first is by far the most engaging. There’s an important lesson here that has subsequently been airbrushed out of the Microsoft legend: Allen’s contributions to the partnership were as critical as Gates’s. Without the tools that he developed, and his insight into the infrastructure that software development requires, Microsoft’s subsequent growth would have been impossible. Allen’s account of his time at Microsoft and of his complex relationship with Gates makes riveting reading,’ says The Guardian.

We Are The Nerds: The Inside Story of Reddit, by Christine Lagorio-Chafkin

These days, Reddit (which was founded way back in 2005) doesn’t really get as much attention as, say, Twitter or TikTok or Instagram etc. And yet, as of 2022, Reddit was the ninth most visited website in the world, with more than 50 million active users worldwide. The social network was founded in the US by University of Virginia roommates Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian, with Aaron Swartz. The company is today valued at more than 15 billion dollars.

We Are the Nerds takes readers inside this captivating, maddening enterprise, whose army of obsessed users have been credited with everything from solving crimes and spurring millions in charitable donations to seeding alt-right fury and even landing Donald Trump in the White House. Reddit has become a mirror of the Internet itself: It has dark trenches, shiny memes, malicious trolls, and a heart-warming ability to connect people across cultures, oceans, and ideological divides. This is the gripping story of how Reddit’s founders, Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian, transformed themselves from student video-gamers into Silicon Valley millionaires as they turned their creation into an icon of the digital age. Reporting on Reddit for more than six years, conducting hundreds of interviews and gaining exclusive access to its founders, Christine Lagorio-Chafkin has written the definitive account of the birth and life of Reddit. Packed with revelatory details about its biggest triumphs and controversies, this inside look at Reddit includes fresh insights on the relationship between Huffman and Ohanian, staff turmoil, the tragic life of Aaron Swartz, and Reddit’s struggle to become profitable.’

‘Lagorio-Chafkin captures the ensuing vortex of tech-nerd office politics with a novelistic flair. Die-hard Reddit fans and readers dazzled by the machinations of the technology and web development business will enjoy the hijinks. A readable, melodramatic treatment of the ascent of a popular internet startup,’ says Kirkus. ‘Sharply written and brilliantly reported, We Are the Nerds is an eye-opening look at how Reddit helped shape contemporary Internet and political culture in the United States,’ says Shelf Awareness.

The Upstarts, by Brad Stone

Uber, and AirBnb – two companies that have, in the last 10 years, revolutionised the way we travel. Both operate via smartphone apps. One offers an easily accessible taxicab service, one that’s reliable and reasonably priced. The other offers homestays for a wide variety of budgets, equally suitable for solo travellers, groups of friends, and families. Neither is perfect but each offers a level of comfort and convenience that many simply can’t do without.

‘Brad Stone takes us deep inside the new Silicon Valley. Ten years ago, the idea of getting into a stranger’s car, or walking into a stranger’s home, would have seemed bizarre and dangerous, but today it’s as common as ordering a book online. Uber and Airbnb are household names: redefining neighbourhoods, challenging the way governments regulate business and changing the way we travel. In the spirit of iconic Silicon Valley renegades of the past, a new generation of entrepreneurs is sparking yet another cultural upheaval through technology. They are among the Upstarts, idiosyncratic founders with limitless drive and an abundance of self-confidence. Young, hungry and brilliant, they are rewriting the traditional rules of business, changing our day-to-day lives and often sidestepping serious ethical and legal obstacles in the process. In Stone’s highly anticipated and riveting account of the most radical companies of the new Silicon Valley, we find out how it all started, and how the world is wildly different than it was ten years ago.’

‘Brian Chesky at Airbnb and Travis Kalanick at Uber didn’t wait for collective approval. They pushed for growth even before the legalities of their services were established. The Upstarts is not the end of the story but an excellent history of the beginning,’ says WSJ. ‘Both Uber and Airbnb are currently valued in billions, but as Stone shows, the road to success over the past eight years has not been an easy one. Both companies persevered through financial woes caused by investor rejections, struggles with local governments, scuffles with rivals, and publicity disasters. The writing is solid and the sheer magnitude of the book’s subjects demands attention for this book,’ says Publishers Weekly.

I, Woz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon, by Steve Wozniak

This book is not about the Steve at Apple. It’s about the other Steve. The Woz, the man who co-founded Apple with Steve. ‘After 25 years of avoiding the public eye, Steve Wozniak breaks his silence and tells the full story of the Apple computer, from its conception to his views on the iconic cult status it enjoys today. But for Steve’s dream to build himself a computer, Apple would never have happened. In June [1977], it was just an idea. By that Christmas, he’d built something that his friend convinced him to sell, just for fun. The rest, as they say, is history. But this history is full of life lessons, critical decisions, huge triumphs and big mistakes, and all from a self-professed engineer’s engineer. For the first time, Steve talks about his childhood, phone hacking pranks, working at Hewlett Packard, meeting George Bush Snr., the life-changing plane crash and teaching. I, WOZ offers readers a unique glimpse into the offbeat and brilliant but ethical mind that conceived the Macintosh. With the help of award-winning journalist Gina Smith, Woz sets the record straight.’

‘At this point in my life – I’m 55 as I write this – I think it’s time to set the record straight. So much of the information out there about me is wrong. I’ve come to hate books about Apple and its history so much because of that,’ says Wozniak himself. ‘iWoz is a rambling stroll down memory lane by Steve Wozniak, the computer wizard best known for co-founding Apple Computer back in the mid-1970s with Steve Jobs. This book may not be the smoothest read in town, but it does seem to accurately reflect the restless, inventive mind of its author. Budding computer-science majors, Apple aficionados and electronics buffs will find plenty to ingest here, as Wozniak recounts the inspirations and thought processes for his designs,’ says The New York Times.

Also See: Part 2 of this story

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