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“Leslie Berlin is a master historian of Silicon Valley, and the publication of this book is a landmark event. Kaleidoscopic, ambitious, and brilliant, the book draws on a dazzling cast of characters to chart the rise of the five industries that have come to define technology today and, collectively, to remake the world."—Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google and Executive Chairman of Alphabet, Inc.
"Leslie Berlin combines the keen observations of an historian with gorgeous writing and riveting storytelling to write the landmark book on the Valley. The interwoven lives of wonderfully iconoclastic characters bring the formative years of the Valley to life with sheer brilliance. Troublemakers is a must-read for anyone hoping to understand America’s tech capital.”—Julia Flynn Siler, New York Times bestselling author of The House of Mondavi
“Leslie Berlin has done it again. Following on her richly informative biography of Intel co-founder Robert Noyce, The Man Behind the Microchip, Berlin now brings us a definitive account of Silicon Valley’s “breakthrough years” in the 1970s. Troublemakers recounts the fascinating careers of six little-known but enormously impactful players who shaped the Valley’s unique high-tech ecosystem. As entertaining as it is authoritative, Troublemakers is required reading for anyone seeking to understand how the tech revolution took root in the San Francisco Bay Area and eventually transformed the entire planet’s way of life.”—David M. Kennedy, Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History Emeritus at Stanford University, winner of the Pulitzer Prize
“A sturdy, skillfully constructed work of…history.”—Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
Leslie Berlin is Project Historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University. She has been a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences and served on the advisory committee to the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. She received her PhD in History from Stanford and her BA in American Studies from Yale. She has two college-age children and lives in Silicon Valley with her husband, whom she has known since they were both twelve years old. She is the author of Troublemakers.
Any casual reader whose knowledge about Silicon Valley comes from the headlines or the news online might get the impression that Steve Jobs and the Google and Facebook guys invented the place. Obviously, this is far from true. But even more serious coverage tends to focus on a handful of high-profile individuals who have played outsize roles in the development of the high-tech industry. Stanford historian Leslie Berlin sets the record straight with her engrossing new book, Troublemakers: Silicon Valley's Coming of Age.
Troublemakers chronicles a critical period in the Valley's history (1969-76). Those seven years witnessed "the most significant and diverse burst of technological innovation of the past 150 years . . . Five major industries were born: personal computing, video games, advanced semiconductor logic, modern venture capital, and biotechnology."
"Innovation is a team sport," Berlin writes in the introduction to her book. She makes clear that her intention is to tell the stories of more than just the usual suspects. "Troublemakers . . . feature[s] some of the most famous names in Silicon Valley history, while also profiling seven other individuals in depth." More famous people such as Steve Jobs and Larry Page make brief appearances. Berlin's account highlights:
Bob Taylor, who led the creation of the rudimentary computer network at the Pentagon, in a sense "inventing" the Internet; Mike Markkula, the man who made it possible for Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to launch and build Apple; Sandra Kurtzig, a software pioneer who was "the first woman to take a technology company public;" Bob Swanson, a cofounder of Genentech; Al Alcorn, who designed the video game Pong that launched the game giant Atari; and Niels Riemer, the man who patented recombinant DNA for Stanford University, thus kickstarting the biotech industry. Every one of these seven people could be the subject of their own biography. Berlin brings their stories to life through one-on-one interviews—all but Bob Swanson are still alive—while placing their accomplishments into the context of their time and place. As a professional historian specializing in this region—Berlin is Project Historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University—she deftly meshes personal accounts by her subjects with extensive archival research.
To my mind, the most impressive of these seven individuals is Bob Taylor. As a key player at ARPA (the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency, now called DARPA) in the 1960s, he helped lay the foundation for the Internet. Later, in the 1970s, as the director of computer science research at Xerox's PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), he assembled what was widely considered the most talented group of computer scientists anywhere in the world—and possibly the most talented ever brought together anywhere. These extraordinary men (and a handful of women) created the Alto, the world's first personal computer with a graphic user interface (GUI), mouse, windows, and networking ability. It's astonishing to most observers that the Xerox Corporation failed to commercialize the Alto. Only years later did Apple's Macintosh begin to approach the capabilities of the Alto. (A former key player at PARC thought of the early Mac as a toy.)
Leslie Berlin is a wonderful historian – her first book, The Man Behind the Microchip – was a biography of Robert Noyce the co-founder of Fairchild and Intel. She managed to weave a narrative describing the technology, history, context and personal life of Noyce. To me that book was the gold standard of biography of a technologist.
In Troublemakers Berlin attempts to do something much more ambitious – tell the story of seven technologists while simultaneously attempting to describe the seven years when 5 new industries were born in Silicon Valley. Unfortunately, while the biographies are superb the interwoven narrative failed (for me at least.) Here’s the good and bad of the book.
The Mike Markkula story was worth the price of the book by itself. Markkula wrote the business plan and first funding check to Apple. He was the first board chairman, VP of Marketing and second president. He hired and staffed the key executive positions that got the Apple II built and out the door. Yet Markkula got erased from history as Andy Cunningham and the Apple PR machine turned Steve Jobs into a brand and the Walter Issacson hagiography permanently enshrined him as the founder/president/CEO of Apple.
The story of Bob Swanson, the founder of Genentech was equally revealing. For decades, the venture firm Kleiner Perkins took credit for being the first money into Genentech and Brook Byers was the life science partner who led the deal. What Berlin unearths is that Swanson had originally been an associate at Kleiner, but got fired by the two partners. Eventually Tom Perkins gave Swanson the funding to start his company. Brook Byers, (who Berlin notes had been one of Swanson’s roommates,) came much later to the deal.
Finally, the story of Neils Reimer who founded the Stanford Office of Technology Licensing while fascinating, lacks the punch of the other narratives. There are lots of allusions to bureaucratic battles but because the names never get mentioned I’ll venture to guess it may be because the author still works at Stanford.
Quibbles aside, the seven narratives add substantively to separating out the PR spin of the valleys history from the facts.
Now for the bad news. Interleaving the seven narratives into brief snippets really hurt the book. Just as I started to get into a story about one of the protagonists, it switched to another. This might have worked if there were just a few, but trying to keep track of seven parallel narratives made this feel like reading a Russian novel.
Content-wise A+, stylistically a B- still definitely worth having on your shelf.
I backed into the world of personal PCs and the internet in mid-career, so the great attraction of this book is in retrospectively providing a lucid understanding of events which had passed me by at the time. The structure - based on a chronological approach but with a focus on individuals - reminds us that success is not pre-ordained, and everything is linked. The insights into what worked and what did not are brilliant and one emerges after several marathon sessions (its hard to put it down) with some definite views about the folks involved, but a lot of respect for them. Its a well-written, fascinating book which I strongly recommend for anyone who is mystified about how we got to a place where Apple, which was on the ropes in the mid-1980s, is now the most valuable company in the world.
A very interesting read. It is written more like a page turner novel than what you might expect. Great insight into the transformative period of Silicon Valley. Well worth the time if you have an interest in the early days of the internet and computers and computer programs and the rewards and risks by the Troublemakers.
Leslie Berlin has followed several people thru the innovations that brought Silicon Valley into being. Readable and fascinating stories, showing how much change was brought about by people who were not educated, but rather creative and unafraid to take risks.