Book Review of Fire In The Valley
As software developers, we must be dedicated to continual learning. It can be hard to find time to keep up with things we need to learn. Something that I have found to be helpful is to listen to audio books. Guys like Cory House and John Somnez have done a good job extolling the virtues of listening to audio books on your commute. I’m a big fan of Audible.com and have learned much from books in their catalog, but not many of them are very technical . So I was very excited when I found out the fine people at The Pragmatic Bookshelf were starting to publish audio books. I recently finished listening to Fire In the Valley. While it is not technically a programming book, it did help me understand more of the history of our industry.
First of all, let me say the purchased product was great. The recording quality was on par with the quality of books on Audible. This is important because if you are going to spend hours listening to something, you don’t want to be annoyed by poor quality audio. Also, the content comes in DRM free MP3s! So you are not locked into a format or a device. The Pragmatic Bookshelf publishes their content DRM free, and that always makes me more willing to purchase it.
The book itself was great. It more or less covers the history of the personal computing era, which the book defines as the time from the launch of the Altair to the launch of the iPad. The story follows the prominent companies and the individuals of the time. The chapters group them into categories like hardware vendors, software vendors, publications, and retailers.
I really enjoyed reading about the creation of the Altair and the impact it had on the computer industry. I also really enjoyed reading about the Homebrew Computer Club and its importance. But being a software developer, my favorite sections were the ones about the prominent programmers from the early PC days.
It was interesting to read about how Bill Gates and Paul Allen got started in the industry. It was also interesting to see how Larry Ellison become the power broker that he become. As a C# developer, I really enjoyed reading about Anders Heilsberg and the early work he did with Pascal and Delhi.
The book does a good job of retelling the story of Apple. It is probably the most interesting story of the PC era. As a former Palm OS developer, I enjoyed reading the section on Palm and how it fit into the PC industry at the time.
Overall, I appreciated how the book explained how many of the prominent computer and software companies to today grew from startups into the powerful corporations they are. I definitely felt like the book gave me a better understanding of our industry.
There was very little I didn’t like about the book. But I did feel like the section on IMSAI dragged on for a long time, especially considering the relatively small long-term impact the company had on the industry.
The only other thing I didn’t like was that the book didn’t go into the technical details of the machines and software it described. It’s not so much a flaw in the book, but a choice the authors made. As a developer, I would have liked to know more about the details.
If you are interested in this book there are some other very good audio books that are available on Audible.
The Innovators by Walter Isaacson covers the development of the computer from a broader level. It starts much earlier, including an interesting in-depth look at Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. It covers much more of the early history of ARPANET and the internet.
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson covers much of the same material as Fire In the Valley, but it obviously covers it from Jobs’ perspective. It explores more of the motivations of this fascinating man that was so influential in our industry. Reading (or really listening) to this book made me want to learn more about Steve Wozniak, which is what led me to read iWoz by Steve Wozniak. Wozniak was more of a pure engineer than Jobs. As a coder, it was fascinating to me to hear the story from his perspective and I enjoyed it more than the biography of Jobs.
If you have a commute, or if you have some time in your week where you are doing something relatively mindless, such as mowing the lawn, you can use that time to be learning. The fact that this book is available in audio form means that you could get through the whole thing at times that might otherwise be wasted. It would be a valuable read of its own merit. But the fact that you can listen to it while you drive makes it even more valuable.
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My name is Eric Potter. I have an amazing wife and 5 wonderful children. I am a Microsoft MVP for Developer Tools and Technologies, the Director of Technical Education for Sweetwater in Ft. Wayne Indiana, and an adjunct professor for Indiana Tech. I am a humble toolsmith.