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The First $20 Million Is Always The Hardest is social commentary encapsulated in a humorous novel about computer nerds and their quest for The Next Big Thing. In this respect, it follows in the footsteps of Douglas Coupland's Microserfs,although it is not (thanks be to Knuth!) cluttered up with Couplandesque visual gimmicks and junk typography. Knowing that Bronson writes for Wired, and having watched with disappointment as Wired went steadily downhill since its first issue, I must admit that I bought this book mostly with the idea that it would be shallow, pretentious, and deserving of a severe bashing. I was way wrong!
Bronson's novel is entertaining and highly readable, but the most impressive thing about it is the way the author fearlessly plays out the story smack-dab in the center of today's feverishly evolving software and hardware scene. Most novels about computers take place in the future or an alternate universe, or (like Coupland's and Crichton's) they gloss over the details to the point where the technology doesn't really matter. The First $20 Million, on the other hand, is set firmly in the real-time Silicon Valley and revolves around an Intel CPU clone much like Cyrix's and a software invention much like Java. Yet the machinery of the plot never makes the technically-savvy reader gnash his or her teeth with gross blunders or distortions. This is a remarkable accomplishment!
To say more would be to spoil the twists and turns of the tale. You'll enjoy this book.--Dr. Dobb's Electronic Review of Computer Books
Despite a place on the payroll at La Honda Research Center, Andy Caspar is discontented. The Stanford grad is doing scut work while fellow engineers are advancing the state of broadcast, computer, networking, semiconductor, and telecommunications media for the West Coast electronics enterprises that fund the prestigious nonprofit institution. Rejected by the legendary Francis Benoit for a high-profile chip program, Andy winds up heading a dead-end project whose stated objective is to develop a personal computer that can retail for $300 or less. No shirker, Andy recruits some assistants and gets cracking. When word leaks out that the outcasts' efforts could bear fruit, an influential sponsor (less than eager to encourage low-end competition) lays down the law. Effectively cut adrift, Andy & Co. (who have devised a universal program that can afford speedy access to the Internet's data streams) go in search of venture capital. The only willing source of financing they can find, however, is a sleazy accountant. Desperate, they accept his hard bargain (which costs them control of the company) and learn that their angel is fronting for the duplicitous Benoit. Andy fights back, consigning a recoded version of his brainchild to the public domain and thwarting the best-laid plans of the villains for a megabuck public stock offering. At the close, Mr. Integrity and two of his three original colleagues are gainfully employed at a for-profit concern morally committed to making and marketing low-priced hardware and all-purpose software.
Not without a few bright spots, but Louis B. Mayer was right: In most cases, messages are best left to Western Union.
Oh, God. No sooner had Francis Benoit started explaining to this reporter the difference between the ISA and PCI electrical standards when the reporter's head nods—customary cues that implied "Go on, I'm with you"—were replaced by this high-tempo bobbing and rocking motion that signaled that the reporter's brain had lost the train of thought and was spinning idly, frozen like a processor caught in an infinite loop.
He knew what she wanted. She wanted Francis to say something familiar, something tangible—something like "Imagine the mother board is like a fruit tree"—to rescue her brain back into this time and place. But he wasn't going to say it for her. Forget it. He hated having to translate his work into dumbed-down metaphors for the shiny-shoe set—the meddlesome lawyers, media scribblers, and potential corporate sponsors who came through wanting to under stand without doing the hard work of paying attention.
The reporter was from the San Jose Mercury News, and she'd been invited to chronicle the design of a next-generation chip for one of La Honda Research's sponsors, Omega Logic. Francis was the lead designer. The reporter's name was Nell Kirkham. She sat with her legs crossed and her head tilted back so her hair fell behind her shoulders. She didn't wear earrings or a necklace or rings, but only a tenth of the cost of the gold watch she was wearing was devoted to telling time. She didn't wear the kind of cheap makeup that needed reapplying after every meal. She was a woman who wanted it both ways: she wanted to be considered pretty but be takenseriously for her intellect. She wanted men to think she was beautiful, but not to come on to her. She would never flutter her eyes. She would never giggle or tell people they were smart or try to make them feel too special.
She said, "Now this project, this chip. Most projects have code names."
Francis wasn't going to let her go in that direction. "What's your question?"
"What's this project's code name?"
"The six eighty-six."
She looked disappointed. "Most code names . . . are . . . more metaphorical than that. More . . . inspiring." Francis had given it the name 686 specifically to avoid any metaphorical simplification. "And your question is . . . ?"
She sighed and put down her pen. "I don't just want my stories to be about how you're packing ten million transistors on a chip. I'm really interested in being able to write about the personal journey you go through. I want to know what this means to you."
"Well, it won't be ten million transistors. We're getting the specs from Omega's fabrication team. It might be six million."
Francis pinched his forehead with the fingers of his right hand. He blew out some air. "Ms. Kirkham, with all respect, if Omega's plant in Singapore could put ten million transistors on a chip, we would produce a radically different circuit design, not need graphics accelerators, math coprocessors, et cetera. Ten million transistors, Christ. That would put half of Omega's competitors out of business."
"But you understand my point, right? I need to know what you think about the project. I want to write about how it makes you feel. "
Francis agonized over this. He'd spent the past ten years of his life devoted to designing more powerful computers. But after all that time, computers didn't actually operate any faster for their users, since the software programs had grown so huge that it took all the new hardware power just to maintain the status quo. Bigger software required faster hardware, which in turn stimulated demand for even bigger software. Omega was La Honda's biggest sponsor, and Omega was taking heat from Wall Street, Chip or Die. The truth was, Francis had a hard time seeing the point of yet another faster beast. He'd agreed to take the assignment very reluctantly. But he wasn't going to tell this story to a reporter who wouldn't even bother to understand his technology.
He said, "What do you mean, 'how I feel'?"
"Well, for instance . . . La Honda is a nonprofit research lab. Sponsors pay you to design things, and then you don't ever see any profit from that. You don't really even get the credit. So how does that make you feel ?"
Ahhh. Reporters always got around to asking that. They couldn't understand that all Francis wanted to do was to work without intrusions, to create. They couldn't believe that he wasn't interested in being a billionaire.
"I feel fine," Francis said. "I get what I want from it."
"But you watch all these young guys with uncountable wealth on the cover of magazines . . ." "What about 'em?"
"Jealous ? "
"Naw . . ."
Despite all the roll-up-your-shirtsleeves myths and stereotypes, when you got right down to it, working in a corporate start-up meant you spent 80 percent of your time doing complete bullshit— chasing venture capital money, writing technical documentation, hiring people—and all of it involved dumbing down your work. And the meetings! It was inevitable that at some point the system of for-profit entrepreneurship rewarded engineers who were good at dumbing down their work. To participate in that game would be a waste of God-given talent, it would be a crime against Francis's very own nature.
When he didn't say anything more, she tried again. "Well, does it make you feel you have something to prove?"
"Mmmm. This feeling, this feeling of having something to prove—you know what it comes from? It comes from when somebody doesn't believe you, doesn't believe in you. And the only person in the past month who's questioned me, the only person who doubts me . . . is you, Ms. Kirkham. I told you. I'm happy with the way it works around here. You think all that matters is money, and magazine covers? Fine. But don't presume that's all that I think matters. Now, if you excuse me . . . I've got to go talk with Hank."
They were in Francis's office. He stood up, hands on hips. While she gathered her tape recorder and notepad into her shoulder bag, he walked to his doorway and stood holding the door open. There was nothing impatient in his body language but by merely being one step ahead of her, he kept her unsettled. She dropped a pen on the way out.
Posted November 23, 2009
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