By Bill Ferster
The author of the Pulitzer prize-winning Soul of a New Machine has a new book out: A truck full of money: One man’s quest to recover from great success. It’s a chronicle of the life of Kayak founder Paul English, and his struggle to figure out what he wants to do when he grows up after selling the Kayak travel search engine for travel to Priceline.com.
Kidder follows working-class Paul English’s journey from a rockstar programmer to a serial entrepreneur. English considered himself something a “Pied Piper,” recruiting the best and the brightest geeks to join him in his startups; some successful, others, not so much. English’s diagnosis with bipolar disorder plays a big role in the narrative and his coping strategies are nothing short of heroic.
I never really paid attention to Kayak’s business model before this, but Kayak didn’t actually sell flights, like Expedia or Travelocity, and instead referred people to the airline websites. For their trouble, they got $.75 per referral from the airline.With under 300 employees, they made a substantial profit that enticed Priceline to purchase them in 2012 for a hefty two billion dollars.
Kidder digresses from the main story line, with a short sidebar on Don Knuth, the legendary computer scientist and author of the seminal treatise on programming, The Art of Computer Programming. Knuth believed that as many (or as few, depending on your point of view) as 1 out of 50 people in the world possessed a special talent to excel at computer programming. Paul English was clearly one of those people.
I’ve been a big fan of Tracy Kidder’s books ever since Soul of a New Machine, which profiled competing design teams at Data General in the creation of a new mini-computer. Kidder weaves intricate stories around the protagonists by acting like a “fly on the wall” throughout long periods of time and is the master of the nonfiction narrative.
Kidder’s other books are equally compelling: Mountains Beyond Mountains follows humanitarian doctor Paul Farmer and his work in Haiti, Among Schoolchildren shows the lives of public school teachers, Old Friends provides a look at the life of nursing home residents, and he follows the lives of a house contractor in House.
A truck full of money is not as thrilling as his other books, mainly because not much interesting happens to the protagonist during the time Kidder haunts his “walls.” Most of the book tells English’s backstory, which in interesting, but there isn’t the same plot and dramatic conflicts in Soul of a New Machine.
Even a mediocre Tracy Kidder book is better than most other nonfiction business histories, so I would still recommend it, but if you haven’t read Soul of a New Machine, I’d probably read that one first. It still reads well, in spite of the fact that the technology it covered has been thoroughly obviated. The human drama of people trying to push the bounds of technology endures.
About Bill Ferster
Bill Ferster is a research professor at the University of Virginia and a technology consultant for organizations using web-applications for ed-tech, data visualization, and digital media. For more information, see www.stagetools.com/consult.