Walter Isaacson on the Digital Revolution

the innovators

Fairchild Semiconductor

“In the eleven years since he had assembled the deal for the traitorous eight to form Fairchild Semiconductor, Arthur Rock helped to build something that was destined to be almost as important to the digital age as the microchip: venture capital” (p. 185).

“One of [Arthur Rock’s] key investment maxims was to bet primarily on the people rather than the idea.  In addition to going over business plans, he conducted incisive personal interviews with those who sought funding” (p. 186).


“Innovations come in a variety of guises.  Most of those featured in this book are physical devices, such as the computer and the transistor, and related processes, such as programming, software, and networking.  Also important are the innovations that produce new services such as venture capital, and those that create organizational structures of research and development, such as Bell Labs.  But this section is about a different type of creation.  There arose at Intel an innovation that had almost as much impact on the digital age as any of these.  It was the invention of a corporate culture and management style that was the antithesis of the hierarchical organization of East Coast Companies” (pp. 188, 189).

“Authur Rock, who put together the funding for the trio and initially served as their board chair, understood the virtue of creating an executive team whose members complemented each other.  He also noted a corollary: it was important that the trifecta become CEO in the order they did.  [Robert] Noyce he described as ‘a visionary who know how to inspire people and sell the company to others when it was getting off of the ground.”  Once that was done, Intel needed to be led by someone who could make it a pioneer in each new wave of technology, ‘and Gordon [Moore] was such a brilliant scientist he know how to drive the technology.’ Then, when there were dozens of other companies competing, ‘we needed a hard-charging, no-nonsense manager who could focus on driving us as a business.’  That was [Andy] Grove” (p. 192).

“The Intel culture, which would permeate the culture of Silicon Valley, was a product of all three men.  As might be expected in a congregation where Noyce was the minister, it was devoid of the trappings of hierarchy.  There were no reserved parking places.  Everyone…worked in similar cubicles….[Noyce] decided that he would work at a small gray aluminum desk, even as newly hired support staffers were given bigger wooden ones….’Noyce realized how much he detested the eastern corporate system of class and status with its endless gradations, topped off by the CEOs and vice-presidents who conducted their daily lives as if they wer a corporate court and aristocracy” (pp. 192, 193).

“By avoiding the chain of command…Noyce empowered employees and forced them to be entrepreneurial.  Even though Grove cringed when disputes went unresolved at meetings, Noyce was comfortable letting junior employees resolve problems rather than bucking them up to a higher layer of management that would tell them what to do….Instead of proposing plans to top management, Intel’s business units were entrusted to act as if they were their own little and agile company….’This wasn’t a corporation….It was a congregation” (pp. 193, 194).

“Grove began to study and absorb the art of management as if it were the science of circuitry….He did not try to impose a hierarchical command on what Noyce had wrought.  Instead, he helped to instill a culture that was driven, focused, and detail-aware, traits that would not naturally have risen from Noyce’s laid-back, non-confrontational style….Grove had a blunt, no-bullshit style.  It was the same approach Steve Jobs would later use: brutal honesty, clear focus, and a demanding drive for excellence” (p. 195).

Themes of the Digital Age

“First, it was created collaboratively….Second, it was free and open source software….Third, it was based on the belief that computers should be personal and interactive” (p. 207).

“Ingrained in them [hippies, New Left activists, Whole Earth communalists] was the very American belief, so misunderstood by Tocqueville, that rugged individualism and the desire to form associations were totally compatible, even complementary, especially when it involved creating things collaboratively.  The maker culture of America, even since the days of community barn raisers and quilting bees, often involved do-it-ourselves rather than do-it-yourself” (p. 265).

“PARC’s creed: ‘The best way to predict the future is to invent it” (p. 288).

Gates and Jobs

“…Gates was the prime example of the innovator’s personality: ‘An innovator is probably a fanatic, somebody who loves what they do, works day and night, may ignore normal things to some degree and therefore be viewed as a bit imbalanced’….Gates was also a rebel with little respect for authority, another trait of innovators” (p. 338).

“The Apple II established a doctrine that would become a religious creed for Steve Jobs: his company’s hardware was tightly integrated with its operating system software.  He was a perfectionist who like to control the user experience end to end….That integrated model did not become standard practice.  The launch of the Apple II woke up the big computer companies, most notably IBM, and prompted an alternative to emerge.  IBM — more specifically IBM as it was outmaneuvered by Bill Gates — would embrace an approach in which the personal computer’s hardware and its operating system were made by different companies.  As a result, software would become king and, except at Apple, most computer hardware would become a commodity” (p. 354).

“…the greatest innovation would come not from the people who created the breakthroughs but from the people who applied them usefully….’You’re sitting on a goldmine,’ he shouted….What caught [Jobs’] attention (at Xerox PARC) was the graphical user interface featuring a desktop metaphor that was as intuitive and friendly as a neighborhood playground….What really matters is execution.  Jobs and his team took Xerox’s ideas, improved them, implemented them, and marketed them” (p. 364).

“The primary reason for Microsoft’s success was that is was wiling and eager to license its operating system to any hardware maker.  Apple, by contrast, opted for an integrated approach.  Its hardware came only with its software and vice versa….Apple’s approach led to more beautiful products, a higher profit margin, and a more sublime user experience.  Microsoft’s approach led to a wider choice of hardware.  It also turned out to be a better path for gaining market share” (p. 369).

The Web

“Another concept [Tim] Berners-Lee had been chewing on since childhood was how the human brain makes random associations — the smell of coffee conjures up the dress a friend wore when you last had coffee with her — whereas a machine can make only the associations that is has programmed to make.  He was also interested in how people work together.  ‘You got half the solution in your brain, and I got half in my brain,’ he explained….Scribble stuff on the whiteboard, and we edit each other’s stuff….” (p. 408).

“New ideas occur when a lot of random notions churn together until they coalesce.  He described the process this way: “Half-formed ideas, they float around.  They come from different places, and the mind has got this wonderful way of somehow just shoveling them around until one day they fit” (p. 408).

“That is the way that good ideas often blossom: a bumblebee brings half an idea from one realm, and pollinates another fertile realm filled with half-formed innovations.  That is why Web tools are valuable, as are lunches at taco stands” (p. 441).

Larry Page

“At the time, most other elite universities emphasized scholarly research and avoided commercial endeavors.  Stanford let the way in regarding the university not just as an academy but as an incubator” (p. 450).

“Eventually he honed in on studying how to assess the relative importance of different sites on the Web.  His method came from growing up in an academic environment.  One criterion that determines the value of a scholarly paper is how many other researchers cite it in their notes and bibliography.  By the same theory, one way to determine that value of the Web page was to look at how many other Web pages linked to it” (p. 456).


“First and foremost is that creativity is a collaborative process” (p. 479).

“[The digital age] was based on expanding the ideas handed down from previous generations” (p. 480).

“The most productive teams were those that brought together people from a wide array of specialties” (p. 480).

“Throughout history the best leadership has come from teams that combined people with complementary styles” (p. 481).

“Another key to fielding a great team is pairing visionaries, who can generate ideas, with operating managers, who can execute them” (p. 481).


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