Debut Book Explores History of Software Scott Rosenberg's first book, Dreaming In Code, follows the creation of a software application beset by delays, and fueled by the obsession of its creator.
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Debut Book Explores History of Software

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Debut Book Explores History of Software

Debut Book Explores History of Software

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From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

It's said that almost everyone has a novel inside, which is usually the best place for it - of course, there's the exception.

From member station KUSP, Rick Kleffel has been talking with writers for an occasional series called First Books. He has the story of one first-time author, Scott Rosenberg, whose nonfiction book is about obsession and the history of software.

RICK KLEFFEL: Although Scott Rosenberg's "Dreaming In Code" is nonfiction, its birth as a book came out of the stuff of novels.

Mr. SCOTT ROSENBERG (Manager,; Author, "Dreaming In Code"): It was driven by own pain at the difficulty of creating software.

KLEFFEL: As manager of, Rosenberg made the ill-advised decision to build his own application from managing the Web site's content.

Mr. ROSENBERG: And so we built this system, and it took way longer than anyone had thought it would take. It was a complete train wreck. Sure, there were things we could have done better, but the problem was much bigger than that. And as I dug deeper into this, I began feeling that there was great material here.

KLEFFEL: Rosenberg's response was that of a born writer.

Mr. ROSENBERG: I started reading. That's what I do when I want to learn something. I figure other people have figured stuff out that I don't know. I will go study at their feet. At the time, I was thinking I would do a half-dozen case studies, but that was insane. That was far more than I could absorb or than I could expect a reader to absorb.

KLEFFEL: Instead, Rosenberg focused on Mitch Kapor, the creator of Lotus 1-2-3, who had left that company, become obsessed with the idea of building the computer application that integrated calendar and e-mail. Kapor created a company he called the Open Source Applications Foundation and codenamed his pet project Chandler.

Scott Rosenberg would spend the next three years immersed in both his book and Kapor's Chandler project.

Mr. ROSENBERG: And started going down just once a month. And so it wasn't really hard. I was still full-time at Salon at that point. And as the project guru, it started taking up more and more time. And that was the point at which I realized, oh, if I'm going to do this book, I need to get serious. I need to write a proposal, get an advance, take time off from Salon and do it right.

KLEFFEL: Rosenberg's book, "Dreaming In Code," is a combination of fly-on-the-wall observations in software development history. Between tension-filled scenes of engineers squaring off against marketers and managers, he offers digressions on why these battles are not likely to end.

In this reading from the book, Rosenberg explains that computers count up from zero, people count from one.

Mr. ROSENBERG: (Reading) In the binary digital world of computers, all information is reduced to sequences of zeros and ones. But there is a space between zero and one, between the way the machine counts and thinks, and the way we count and think. When you search for explanations for software's bugs and delays, and stubborn resistance to human desires, that space is where you'll find them.

KLEFFEL: Rosenberg's book is a classic story of obsession and how it leads brilliant minds to think that they can break the rules only to find the rules break them.

Mr. ROSENBERG: I was really thinking about some of the kind of the epics that I grew up loving or encyclopedic novels. You know, one reader came back to me and said, you know, in a weird way, your book is like "Moby Dick." And I thought, you know, that's like a weird comparison to think of, but I understood what he meant. In "Moby-Dick," there are these chapters where he just - the novel just stops telling the story and starts telling you about whales.

KLEFFEL: Not everybody's first book of nonfiction turns out like a Melville classic, but the lesson we can take from Rosenberg's journey from frustration to publication is that obsession is a good place to start.

For NPR News, I'm Rick Kleffel.

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