kwc.org Photos Spare Cycles MythBusters

Book: Microserfs

Amazon Image

I read this book because I figured it was one of those must reads. Software engineering simply isn't one of those professions used in popular media, with a few exceptions like Office Space that come close, so given the opportunity to read a book that is not only about software engineers but also about the culture, the zeitgeist of the early .com boom as well as Microsoft, I knew I had to.

I've worked at Xerox PARC and a startup, and I've lived in the Bay Area for many years; I've never been to Seattle nor worked for Microsoft. Does it make me biased then that I liked the early Microsoft/Seattle portions of the book but started losing interest as soon as the book moved to the .com environment of the Peninsula? I would say so, except I've talked to someone else who read the book that is more familiar with Microsoft/Seattle, and she too had the same opinion.

In Seattle the book feels like it's accurately capturing and spinning the culture, from group homes of Microsoft employees to the Cult of Bill, which probably isn't all that different from the Cult of Steve. Once the book moved to the Peninsula, I no longer felt in touch with the story: the characters seemed less and less believable, the Peninsula culture seemed slightly off, and the story just never really went anywhere. I had minor geographical quibbles such as how they seemed to go far out of their way to drive past Xerox PARC or find Starbucks that I can't, but more important was the startup-of-friends experience didn't resemble my startup-of-friends experience -- when we had a startup, and everything was on the line, we ate, slept, and drank the startup, had trouble speaking of anything else because your life entirely was sucked into the effort, and I even dreamed in code; in Microserfs, the startup seems almost incidental to the relationships in the book and it only really there to move the characters around. From what I've seen of other startups, the experience sways more in my direction. I could be wrong, and the book does take place it a time slightly earlier than mine, but I had a strong feeling throughout the book that the Microsoft portion of the book was a closer revelation of software engineering culture, and besides Fry's, Apple, and mystique of PARC, very little else of it felt captured to me. This is one engineer's opinion of course: Philip Greenspun, MIT professor and ousted founder of the ArsDigita startup, left a glowing review of the Microserfs cultural mirror.

I've reviewed mostly the cultural/zeitgeist elements of the book rather than the story, but that's largely because I felt that there really wasn't any story; the book was meant to be about capturing a cultural tableaux. Then again, if it's merely a book about zeitgeist, you could also argue then that reading a 400 page compilation of Wired's Wired/Tired/Expired would make a wonderful read. Thus, I'm conflicted. If it was about story, I'd be terribly disappointed and have to give this book one star. Instead, I give it maybe a three-out-of-five with the caveat that you should end it whenever you like.

Comments (2)

tim:

When we were working on protestwiki, I had a similar experience. It was all I could talk about or think about. It started to piss some people off actually b/c I talked about it so much...

M Author Profile Page:

I was still at Cal when the book was written and I had friends leaving school to join startups (only for them to come back 6 months later when their funding fell through). In 1995 the startups of Silicon Valley really weren't the way they were portrayed in the book, and I pretty much had the same reaction you did when the characters got to California.

Post a comment


related entries.

what is this?

This page contains a single entry from kwc blog posted on September 9, 2006 8:05 AM.

The previous post was Firefox 2 Beta 2.

The next post is Elsewhere on kwc.org (Part VII).

Current entries can be found on the main page.