The Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner tells the story of a maverick software engineer and entrepreneur’s remarkable life.
The digital revolution was in its infancy when Paul English’s talent for computers revealed itself in the mid-1970s. With only rudimentary computer training, the teenage English created programs that let him alter his computer teacher’s attendance files. However, writes Kidder (Strength in What Remains, 2009, etc.) in this brief but well-told biography, he was an unmotivated student who got into fights and graduated high school near the bottom of his class. Exceptional SAT scores earned him a tuition-free education at the University of Massachusetts, which English only decided to attend because “the school had a student jazz band.” His attitude changed after he discovered the UMass computer science department. What he learned there, as well as in the programming jobs he had outside the university, gave him insight into the emergent “society of programmers,” which included individuals who were as introverted, eccentric, and awkward as English. After earning his master’s degree, English worked briefly as a coder before moving into management at Interleaf, a company that created software products for technical publishing. During this early period in his career, he discovered that he also had a flair for entrepreneurship. At the same time, he learned that the energy that drove him to extended bouts of manic coding came from bipolar disorder. After he left Interleaf in the mid-1990s, English co-founded a high-tech firm, Boston Light, in 1998, which he then sold for a profit the next year. His greatest financial coup came a decade later, when his travel site, Kayak, sold for $1.8 billion. Yet English ultimately found that his greatest fulfillment came not from his work as an engineer and entrepreneur but from using his fortune to help the homeless in Boston and underprivileged in Haiti. While eminently readable as a biography, Kidder’s book is also a trenchant study of the new American economy and the technological world that built it.
More engrossing work from a gifted practitioner of narrative nonfiction.