January Book Club - Close to the Machine by Ellen Ullman

Posted on Tuesday, Jan 23, 2024
If you’ve ever been in a conference talk or been chatting with somebody and they say, ‘You really should read this book. Here’s this thing that I learned from this book that really made a difference for me’, we’ve been there too, and we’re going to read some of these books for you. Our first book club book is Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents by Ellen Ullman. Mandi is joined by Tara King to chat about the book and their thoughts.


Mandi Walls: Welcome to Page it to the Limit, a podcast where we explore what it takes to run software in production successfully. We cover leading practices used in the software industry to improve the system reliability and the lives of the people supporting those systems. I’m your host, Mandi Walls. Find me at lnxchk on Twitter. Hi folks. Happy New Year. If you’re wondering why Page it to the Limit is in your podcast feed three times this month, we have a new feature for you. If you’ve ever been in a conference talk or been chatting with somebody and they say, “You really should read this book. Here’s this thing that I learned from this book that really made a difference for me.” We’ve all been in that position and we’ve decided we’re going to take some of those books that we’ve collected up over the years from other people’s recommendations and read them as a little book club and then share them with you on the podcast. So our first book this month is going to be Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents by Ellen Ullman. And with me to discuss this one is our boss, who we’ve never actually had on the show, which seems like an oversight on our part. Tara, tell us a little bit about yourself before we get into this.

Tara King: Yeah, yeah. So my name is Tara King. I’ve been leading the developer relations team here at PagerDuty for 18 months, a year and a half or so. And prior to this I was at Automattic working on developer relations for the WordPress project, and before that I was a Drupal developer. So did a lot of web development, a lot of backend stuff, worked many, many places, which I’m sure we’ll talk about as we talk about the book, because I feel like it brought up a lot of memories. Based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I like board gaming, some things about me.

Mandi Walls: Awesome. You have a cute cat that-

Tara King: I do. I have two cats who might join the podcast. One of them is very chatty.

Mandi Walls: That’s awesome. Love it. All right, so this book, like I said, it’s Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents. I have the electronic version, which seems to have been an update that was done in 2011, 2012. It has a preface on it from Jaron Lanier who was a futurist and one of those kind of crazy people. But the original book was published in 1997, and what was weird for me on this one is she’s talking about being a programmer over the course of about a 20-year period, I think. As a memoir there’s dates missing and-

Tara King: Yes, it’s sort of challenging.

Mandi Walls: Kind of weird right off the bat. I’m like, okay, I could kind of triangulate based on the stuff that she’s talking about and other things what year it might be that she’s talking about some of this stuff. But then at the same time I’m like, wait a minute, what? Kind of strange.

Tara King: It is a little strange. There’s definitely updates in the footnotes that are clearly post ‘97 very clearly post ‘97 talking about Facebook or whatever. And it’s also kind of surreal because I feel like a lot of these discussions basically are still happening. And so it’s like she wrote this sometime before 1997, potentially anywhere between, I think she talks about becoming an engineer in ‘78 or something, a 20 year period of her writing this. And then now that’s been, I don’t want to do the math, but 25 years, maybe three years, it’s been a while since-

Mandi Walls: Been a while.

Tara King: This book came out. And I’m like, but are we talking about the recession now? Or what time are we talking about all of downtown being empty and no buildings? There’s all this stuff that I feel like has recurred, and so it’s especially confusing when you’re trying to figure out when she wrote it in the first place and then now it’s all happening again. It’s disorienting to read that way.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, it is super disorienting and super strange. The premise, like I said, it’s this 20 year period of her life where she’s flopping back and forth between being a full-time employee of some tech companies, and I think she worked at Sybase was part of that, and then her consulting company that she was running, that they were building little projects and then the main project she gets into was about the response to the AIDS crisis in San Francisco. So that definitely puts a pin in some timeframes there, but the rest of it… Yeah, I don’t know.

Tara King: Could be anywhere.

Mandi Walls: Yeah.

Tara King: And it’s interesting also as a memoir, I feel like she does a lot of memory hopping anyway.

Mandi Walls: Yes.

Tara King: So yeah, when is this AIDS project? When are these other projects? There’s this character that she meets, and he is a character, named Brian. But yeah, the time thing was just a total trip where like you said, you can sort of triangulate, but it’s not that clear. And then these specific, she talks about going to a conference and this sci-fi writer talking at it, and I was like, I feel like somebody’s got to know exactly which conference this is, but it’s just far enough in the past that I don’t know.

Mandi Walls: Yeah.

Tara King: Is it in the nineties? Was it in ‘96 right before the book came out, or was it in ‘86?

Mandi Walls: Yeah, exactly. And I feel like too, if this has been written more recently, there would be a full Wikipedia breakdown of who these people probably are. I think one of the things that she does pretty well actually is they are completely anonymous and you could guess, but you have to be pretty deep in the Silicon Valley, San Francisco connections to kind of know exactly what she’s talking about anyway. For someone who’s coming into this and not knee-deep in tech, I’m not sure they’re going to know what to get out of this.

Tara King: I wondered that too.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, it’s not a general audience sort of memoir, which is kind of interesting at this point to have one that’s really kind of niche.

Tara King: It’s quite niche, and I was wondering that. I feel like I get so much because of having my own resonant memories. They’re not always the same, but oh yeah, I’ve been on that project that was a total disaster, but felt the thrill of launching it on time and all that stuff, and I was thinking about who could I recommend this to? All my family and friends are in tech also, and so I’m like, who do I know that I could convince to read this book and tell me what they think about it, because it does feel so specific.

Mandi Walls: Yes.

Tara King: I don’t know if it actually is, but every time I read it just feels like I get a lot because I’m in the industry, but I don’t know if others do.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And that’s kind of how I felt reading it too, because part of her later career, she’s a computer programmer, she’s an author, she’s written books, articles, she’s written fiction and nonfiction, and she was a commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered.

Tara King: Oh, interesting. Okay.

Mandi Walls: Parts of her stuff has also been compiled there, and so she’s been out and about in a while and I have not really ever listened to All Things Considered. I listen to other NPR shows, but not that one. So yeah, like you say, I’m not sure how much of her experience is universal, and that’s one of the weird things you usually get out of a memoir. You think about, oh, exactly. I had that same feeling, that same experience. And she’s got a very, I don’t want to say a narrow life, but the way she portrays herself in this book, she kind of does have a pretty narrow life.

Tara King: It does seem like there are long stretches of time where her whole life is work.

Mandi Walls: Yeah.

Tara King: I don’t know if that’s accurate, but it absolutely reads that way. And I had an anthropology degree in college, very useful. This almost feels like an anthropology text in a sense that it’s much more about the lived experience of this subculture. And it was interesting to me to think about how much I feel like I still know these people now, even though it’s been 25 years, 26 years. To me that sometimes swimming in the culture of tech, it’s like it is just how people are or whatever. And then reading this book, it was like, no, there is a culture. There is this underpinning of the way that people think and talk and relate to one another that attracts certain people, that I think changes people who enter the field too. And so it’s interesting to read it, because yeah, it doesn’t feel quite as much I walked away from it not feeling, oh, this is a great moral about humanity or something, like this applies to all people. I was like, this what this industry does, this is what people in this industry do, which was very, I don’t know, it’s unique. I don’t know any other books like it both inside of tech and outside of it. It’s a very sort of specific feel.

Mandi Walls: And I was thinking about that too as I was going through it because that late nineties kind of ethos, there was a lot of stuff that was coming out that was I feel like trying to justify technology as a component of the culture and economy. There was The Cathedral and the Bazaar and there was Dreaming in Code and there were all these books that were like, hey, there’s human beings behind these computers that you’re learning how to use and trying to almost justify spending your life in technology in kind of a way and making it enticing to people to the point where we’re now mid-career and I’m thinking, well, does tech, do we attract people of a certain type? Are the Brian’s just naturally attracted to tech-

Tara King: Just come here?

Mandi Walls: Or does tech grow Brians? And this guy is super weird. And like you mentioned before, history definitely maybe doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes. And the Brian guy in particular, I have met Brian many, many times over the course of my life, so Brian, for all you listeners out there, is a crypto guy, and this is the nineties, so it’s cryptography, not cryptocurrency. However, Brian, super into decentralized unregulated banking. I’m like, made me look at the copyright on this thing again. I’m like, when is this written? Who are these people? And you’re like-

Tara King: I know.

Mandi Walls: Oh, you sweet summer child. So the whole thing again, he’s talking about his bent on libertarianism and she’s having these flashbacks to her early days, which I guess it’s in the late sixties. I think she’s probably the same age as my mom. And so late sixties, she’s a socialist, a communist, something along that line.

Tara King: She called herself a communist.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, which brings a whole other sort of conversation she’s having with herself about there’s a lot of imposter syndrome in this book, I think.

Tara King: So much.

Mandi Walls: Heavy, heavy imposter syndrome and part of that comes out whenever she keeps meeting these dudes who are super libertarian and she’s got this streak of lefty-ness in her and if she feels like that makes her unqualified to be a technologist almost. That part was super weird.

Tara King: Yeah. And also I feel like I have felt that way, and so it was like, yeah, it’s totally irrational to see someone else doing it. It was sort of like, what in the world? You’re talking about all these projects you’ve led, all this experience you’ve had, you so clearly grok the experience and then also, yeah, you’re sitting here, well, I was in a feminist collective and I was a communist, and it’s like, this doesn’t make any sense, Ellen, stop negging yourself. Yeah, it’s all over the book. Just this constant, and she’s in consulting and contracting and stuff too, and the ebb and flow of confidence around the contracting process is also something that I was like, I’ve been there too. But yeah, she writes it so kind of unflinchingly about herself that yeah, it doesn’t make a ton of sense. That’s not a reason that someone couldn’t be a technologist, and yet it also was, it’s very relatable.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. There’s definitely a push-pull in the culture. Libertarianism versus wanting to change the world with technology that I think still permeates the technology culture and sometimes to a point where it’s almost a caricature. But yeah, it definitely comes out in the way she’s kind of grappling with her past and her relationships with these people and how she perceives herself as part of this ecosystem that she’s kind of building for herself. Because thinking about the late 1980s, early to mid-1990s, there weren’t that many folks who were actually technical, that wouldn’t have computers. She’s in San Francisco, so she’s seeing this all in the miasma, it’s everywhere, but I was living in Pennsylvania in the mid-nineties. I didn’t know anybody with a modem, let alone access to the internet or anything else. It just was a completely different part, and I think looses a little bit of the perspective of she’s worried about not being technical in a world that isn’t yet technical.

Tara King: She couldn’t be outdated just by virtue of how many people are so far behind her, so far behind her, and I think that’s still kind of true in some way. Obviously we all have modems, we have phones, but the kinds of stuff that people I feel like are insecure about now, and it’s like, no one knows how to open the terminal. No one knows how to do that, so if you know how to do that, you’re still light years ahead of people. And yeah, it is interesting how much per bubble is just so small. Yeah, my dad was a programmer in the eighties and he was working here in Albuquerque and very technical, but it didn’t have any of these feelings.

Mandi Walls: No.

Tara King: You know what I mean? This felt very super intense, super condensed experience where they’re spending all of the time together in all of these weird makeshift spaces because the company’s either just got started or they just folded or there are all these weird office scenes where they count all the dead cables in the office after everyone gets laid off, all those weird stuff that I’m just like, this is not the normal experience. I’m kind of glad that she wrote it down because it is so extreme of its time.

Mandi Walls: Yes, some of it feels like a caricature. That’s sort of what you expect when a company winds down, you walk in one day and all the cubicles are gone. And I’m like, okay, I guess that seems like a thing, but you still have the lease on the office space, what’s the logistics there? I don’t know.

Tara King: We’re just going to stay here in this empty building.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, we’re just going to hang out in these empty offices with no one else and no one’s going to notice we’re here. And you’re like, okay.

Tara King: Yeah, it’s bizarre.

Mandi Walls: She lives in a lot of, like you say, liminal spaces where they just kind of plop a few engineers into a room and then they work very intensely together and then they disperse. I think too, that gives her, there’s a little loneliness, I think.

Tara King: Yeah.

Mandi Walls: Some of my best friends are people I met at work, but she’s sort of mid-career and there’s nothing about her friends. There’s nothing about the people that she leans on when she needs to have a chat or just hang out or whatever. There’s this Brian who’s a pseudo romantic strange San Francisco kind of thing going on, and then there’s the guys that she pulls together as her A team for a project and then they disperse. But where are your friends? Where’s everybody else?

Tara King: There’s this scene where she talks about her birthday, I don’t remember which year it was. She’s mentioned her partner a couple times that she was with this really wonderful woman for eight years and that this woman threw her a birthday party and she’s describing all of her friends and it’s the first sort of normal, non-work feeling scene where she’s not being a landlord or driving to and from a weird office. It’s this very friendly scene, and then they open the cake box and she’s like, the big reveal is that the cake says, “Happy birthday senior engineer Ullman.” And I was like, what is happening?

It’s not that I’ve never been excited about a title, I do get that too, but it was just this weird the first time that I’m like, oh, we’re going to learn about other parts of her life, it’s like it’s still about work. There’s another scene she talks about these people from these projects, because she goes out with a coworker for dinner after a project or whatever, and she says something like, “I never got so-and-so’s phone number after the project when he moved, and I wouldn’t have called him anyway.” And it was just like, they really are so… And she talks about the disposability of their relationships and it’s just interesting, because I feel like there’s so many sort of dark undertones, yeah, the loneliness and all this stuff that the book kind of ends on a hopeful note, but they don’t really resolve. There’s no-

Mandi Walls: No, not at all.

Tara King: It’s okay that we’re lonely. It’s just kind of like, this is yet another facet of being in this work world.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, it’s like this is how it is and it’s kind of grim and at the end I was actually, like you say, it’s a little bit hopeful at the end, but at the same time I’m kind of sad for her. I mean, I’m glad my career started at the end of this time period that she’s talking about. I was like, I have great friends that I’ve worked with and people that I know and have built up relationships with over the past 25 years that she seemed to have missed out on. And part of the blurbs for this book are about her being an unusual female programmer, yada, yada yada. Which unfortunately, that’s probably not entirely true. We know there were more computer science graduates who were women in the eighties than there were in the late nineties, so she probably had a bigger cohort, but she only talks about one or two others during the course of this. It’s like she revels maybe in being a singular entity.

Tara King: Yeah, it’s kind of like there’s one other woman who she herself immediately writes off as a marketing person and then that person is not a marketing person, and I was just like, Ellen.

Mandi Walls: I’m like, come on.

Tara King: We don’t do this. I’ve been written off… I am in marketing now, but when I was fully just writing software, people would say, “Oh, you must be in marketing.” It’s like, come on. I was wondering, her next memoir didn’t come out until 2017 and I obviously haven’t read it yet.

Mandi Walls: You haven’t gotten it yet.

Tara King: But I was just like, did we learn any lessons? Because I kept thinking there’s this thread of her feeling too old and too out of date and doesn’t have the energy to sort of… And what happens with that feeling? What happens with this loneliness feeling? What happens with feeling like maybe she was the only… I don’t know, maybe she was the only woman in her mind, maybe she wasn’t. I don’t know, but that feeling of being that way, where does it all go? I just want to know, because yeah, she gets a new project at the end and huzzah, but all these other questions don’t seem resolved, and so I’m curious what happened after this for her?

Mandi Walls: I know. The interpersonal stuff really threw me for a loop. Yeah, okay, this subtitle is Technophilia and its Discontents, but I wasn’t prepared, I think for it to be quite so grim, I think on that side. It’s like the techno part is fine. She doesn’t get deep into a lot of it. There’s one place though where I was kind of chomping at the bit, and I read this at the gym, so it makes me go faster on the elliptical when she makes me mad. But she’s talking to some guy, she’s taking an interview with some dude to be the last programmer who knows this weird obscure thing, and that’s actually kind of interesting. And there’s a side, they’re smoking in the office, which sounds horrible, but it’s the eighties.

Tara King: I know.

Mandi Walls: And she gets into this diatribe about old stuff and legacy things and how useless they are and she gets real negative on this stuff. I’m like, okay, so you’re looking at the mid-1990s at the latest and she starts talking about COBOL, and I’m like, “Ellen, honey, thinking about this in 2023, COBOL’s still with us. This stuff doesn’t go anywhere.”

Tara King: I was thinking that. I was like, it’s not gone yet. It’s still around.

Mandi Walls: It’s still here.

Tara King: Yes.

Mandi Walls: I live in New Jersey. They put a huge thing out during COVID to help work on the state benefits, because it’s on COBOL. I’m like, of course it’s in COBOL, it was written in the eighties. It’s in COBOL and all those folks are retiring.

Tara King: Yeah, it’s interesting, it’s like, she sort of talks about it, I don’t know, a mended piece of clothing that’s getting patched, and I kind of loved that metaphor, but it is like she kind of believes it’s going to go away and I just don’t… Because it doesn’t. It’s just been around now for so long.

Mandi Walls: Yeah. There is a lot of that, and I feel like maybe for the time period it was just the way things were that things are changing very, very rapidly and everything is going to just keep moving forward, keep moving forward, keep moving forward. The hard truth about technology is that it doesn’t. There’s a lot of dead ends that they don’t continue to progress and they just sit there and continue to be legacy for decades.

Tara King: They’re doing work and that work is necessary and nobody can figure out how to replace them. So even the guy who’s like, “I’m going to be the last Autocoder 1401 programmer.” I’m like, “No, you’re not. No, you’re not.” Probably-

Mandi Walls: It’s still running.

Tara King: It’s still out there. And the amount of sort of bubble gum that’s just in the heart of everything we do and duct tape and bobby pins holding it altogether. Yeah, there is the focus on the new. If you have a skill, whatever it is, COBOL, there’s still jobs for you it turns out, and those people are actually pretty desperate because no one wants to learn it, so if you actually know it, stick around. I don’t know. I was thinking about, I was in another conversation with some other, in a Women in Tech group and they were talking about why aren’t there older people in tech? Where are they? And part of the response was they are there, they’re just not at the startups. There are certain companies that tend to both value and allow that kind of employee and all kinds of things, and so it’s interesting to have just had that conversation where folks are talking about sometimes they get tired of learning new stuff. Sometimes the company is just ageist. Sometimes they’re there and you just don’t know it. It was interesting to have all those threads pop up in this book as well, that we actually do need really established folks for this legacy stuff. Not everyone’s going to know COBOL like a second language.

Mandi Walls: That makes me think of something else too, especially with that stuff, the era she’s talking about, there weren’t that many companies doing this kind of digitization. And when you think about who needed compute power in the mid-eighties into the mid-nineties, it is insurance, it is banking, it is finance, it is those folks with these sort of slow moving legacy environments that are powering things and printing money in the basement, and those folks are still there. They’re all still doing this work that felt old in 1997 and it’s still being done because that was really the only… We didn’t have Facebook. You didn’t have the FAANGs sucking up every computer science graduate in the country. There were only a few places where people were actually able to go and get jobs because there weren’t that many jobs to have. And I graduated a few years after this all takes place. I’m like, yeah, even at that time, right after the web burst, it was hard to get work that wasn’t government. I’m on the East Coast, so we were all in Washington, DC, because that’s where you could get a job. It was super weird. Then the one time she’s talking about she’s really down on this legacy stuff, but then at the same time, she’s on the other side of the coin, it’s like she’s really worried about the new stuff and not being able to keep up with it. And I laughed out loud at this. They listened to this presentation from these folks pitching an intranet. They said, she read the word intranet. And I laughed. I was like, oh, I’m sorry. That was a hot minute for intranet right there when that was the thing everybody was doing with their IT services.

Tara King: And she’s so worried that they’re displacing her thing. And I was like, no, those people aren’t going to go anywhere. I mean, they’re going to go somewhere. They’re going to do something else, but they’re not going to do that. That’s not actually the thing.

Mandi Walls: No, no. That went nowhere.

Tara King: It was kind of interesting looking at this AIDS project, even as much as she talks about it being a virtual company and all this stuff, she went into an office and she has to disconnect the phone lines when she leaves, so all that was kind of a trip. But then also just thinking about they put a homepage on this AIDS project for patients, and everyone’s looking at the homepage like, what’s this for? Nobody really knows what to do with it. And so it is interesting, because I feel like for better or worse, we figured out what to do with it with the web. Because she finally is like, “I guess we’re just advertising.” And I’m like, well, that is in fact a large portion of the internet. So it was interesting to think of that project and how nobody knew what they were doing then, and honestly, I’ve been on very similar projects, not AIDS related, but in the past 10 years that were just as much everyone throwing a bunch of darts at a board and maybe one of them is going to stick, and I feel like as I got more experience as a programmer, that feeling of one of these darts is going to stick and then we’re going to be stuck with it for the rest of time. That feelings are just sort of interesting to watch them solve that problem with the tools that they had in, I don’t know, the eighties, late eighties, I’m not sure exactly when that was and realize, well, we have JavaScript frameworks now. Ultimately, we’re still throwing darts at a board and hoping it sticks.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, they were probably writing most of this stuff in C because she talks negatively about C++, and I’m just like, oh my God. It’s fine.

Tara King: I know, right? It’s kind of a trip.

Mandi Walls: It’s like, oh.

Tara King: Time travel.

Mandi Walls: I’m glad I didn’t read this when it first came out.

Tara King: Oh my gosh. Yeah, it was nice to have distance from it, for sure.

Mandi Walls: Yes, absolutely. Yeah, totally. So at the end, on the last couple paragraphs, she’s going to a new project, she’s passed whatever imaginary test she felt like she had to pass for that one. That was another sort of trip down fantasy lane. She uses this phrase, “I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be, hurrying to a place I’ve never seen before.” And out of the entire book, that for me was like, okay, you should have led with that. That is really what you’re talking about the whole time here is forging new experiences, forging new pathways for technology, coming up with stuff that people have never thought about before. Especially with the AIDS project, they’re linking up different citywide, maybe countywide organizations to help people dealing with AIDS. And at that time, that was very forward thinking, but she kind of plays it off as just this weird simple problem that they would’ve been able to solve if people weren’t in the way. I’m like, okay.

Tara King: Yes,

Mandi Walls: You’re going boldly where no one has gone before, and like-

Tara King: And then when it’s over, she’s like, I’m so glad to be done with all those people. She’s like, I’m out of end user land or something is what she calls it. But yeah, it’s cool. Nobody had done that. Not nobody, but I don’t think a lot of people had figured out a way that computers could help patients. Now it seems like I can’t believe that I can’t get my chart automatically sent to my telephone, my cell phone. We have so many expectations of it, but back then it was like, we genuinely don’t know what would even help necessarily, and then of course, she does sort of see the future a little of, now we have all this data, now that you have all these systems connected to each other, what are you going to do with that and how are you going to make the right choices? It’s an interesting balance between her kind of wanting to put the people first and then also finding them exhausting.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, yeah.

Tara King: It’s an interesting thing. But yeah, I do think that new experiences thing is throughout the book even her relationships, I feel like she’s often seeking new input via interaction with other people and new systems, new languages.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, there’s definitely that. Yeah, so we focus on the technology stuff. There’s also other things in there about her dad that were little interesting sidebars, but at the same time I’m like, “Damn, you’re rich. Holy crap.” He’s got property on John Street in FiDi in Manhattan, which I used to live in that neighborhood, and like, damn. So lots of money there, but then she talks about it as it’s a burden, which is kind of interesting. So there’s little bits of that stuff there, but she doesn’t really, there too doesn’t really go into too much detail and doesn’t really mention her mom at all, which was kind of interesting.

Tara King: No, almost ever. I feel like her sister’s there briefly, but it’s mostly her relationship with her dad. And yeah, those buildings, her description of them, they’re so decrepit and they’re so weird and depressing. Then a couple chapters later, there’s all these trips to department stores and going to an Ivy League college and all this money all over it, and I was like, hold on, hold on. A sports car shows up, some pearls.

Mandi Walls: That was another that was so weird. She’s like, I put on my real pearls to go meet this… I’m like, what? What in the world is this? What happened?

Tara King: I know. It’s bizarre. Because yeah, I think the first scene or very early, she’s up all night, there’s empty pizza boxes. It’s dark. They’re mind melding about some software they’re writing, and I think she talks about, I don’t know if she’s riding a motorcycle, has a motorcycle jacket, but just kind of this rebellious aesthetic that she’s cultivated, and so it kind of had this very nineties hacker vibe.

Mandi Walls: Totally, yeah, yeah. Like roller blades and all that.

Tara King: As the book progresses, suddenly there’s a sports car and you get these pearls and all this stuff, and I was like, I don’t know. I’m sure there’s some amount of shifting her persona based on where she’s going. Throughout the book I feel like it’s kind of constantly shifting for me what I’m taking away from her description of herself.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, definitely.

Tara King: Yeah, I remembered it being personal. I read it twice, this was my second time through, but there was a bunch of personal stuff that I did not remember at all. I didn’t remember her dad being part of this. I didn’t remember Brian, for God’s sake.

Mandi Walls: Oh, Brian’s burned into my memory now, man.

Tara King: I know. Now I think I can’t miss Brian. He’s a trip. The line classical music is not yet in my data banks or something along those lines.

Mandi Walls: What the hell, man.

Tara King: Yes, she asks if he wants to listen to Bach. So anyway, yeah, it was much more… I remember, I think I was younger and so I was like all the highs of the projects, of the starting a new thing, I think really resonated with me at that time and then reading it again, I was like, it’s in there, but man, there’s a lot of other stuff going on here. There’s family grief and breakups and questionable relationship choices and self-doubt, just top to bottom self-doubt feels like.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, definitely.

Tara King: And also what made her write this book?

Mandi Walls: Yeah, what’s driving this? And to the point, she has another one that sounds like it’s very similar in scope, but she just wrote it in 2017 and that one’s Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology and the blurb sounds like it’s really just part two of this, the next 20 years, and I’m like, okay, I’m not… Like you said earlier, I’d like to know what she figured out, if she’d learned any lessons. But at the same time, I don’t know if I could go through that again.

Tara King: 20 more years of self-doubt and yeah, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll pick it up. She’s a good writer. She’s a very compelling writer, but I just was like, there’s a lot of people who write books about technology. I don’t know any books like this, and so the idea of writing it down and then reaching out to a publisher and saying like, “Hey, I want to…” Especially because it’s critical of the industry.

Mandi Walls: It kind of is.

Tara King: In many ways, and then there’s many characters. There’s Brian, there’s this Republican VP she wears the pearls for, there’s a different VP who she schmoozes with at a party who she’s just like, “I used to wonder if these people had depth to them, and now I realize they don’t.”

Mandi Walls: Everybody’s just motivated by money.

Tara King: Yeah, and so I just wonder what was the reception also among those crowds? Did the people that… That’s always a question with memoirs is do the people in the book know? And this one’s just so work-related I’m just curious how it came to be.

Mandi Walls: Yeah. For folks out there, like you say, I don’t know if I’d recommend it. It’s an easy read. It’s not super long, but at the same time it is kind of grim and a little bit sad, and I hope her next 20 years were better really as technology kind of became more part of the zeitgeist and part of the major part of our culture. It definitely was not that in this time period that she’s talking about, but I kind of felt kind of sad for her in her multimillion dollar loft with her sports car and her pearls and whatever.

Tara King: If you’re already this sad about technology in 1997, I don’t know that it’s going to get better for you, but maybe it does. I don’t know. I don’t know.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, so maybe we’ll have to think about reading the other one. I don’t know.

Tara King: Yeah, I feel like I enjoyed reading it and it is super short, but it also just does feel like the people I know who’d be interested in the subject matter, I don’t know if they’d be interested in the tone and the people who don’t care about the subject matter, I don’t know if… Like I said, I’m going to see if I can try to trick someone into reading it, see what they think. Because I am very curious about that. I feel so sometimes in a bubble that hearing a voice from outside of it… There’s a lot of people talking about tech who aren’t in tech, but I don’t find they’re always that credible about. It’s like maybe four hours, three hours of reading time. It’s not long. And then I want to hear your thoughts.

Mandi Walls: Yes.

Tara King: Maybe I’m a snob, I don’t know, but I’m glad I had a chance to look at it again. It was interesting for sure to read it after a while and feel like, oh, I didn’t even notice all this stuff.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, it’s been in my TBR since 2012. At this point, I can’t remember what might have compelled me to pick it up in the first place.

Tara King: I don’t either.

Mandi Walls: Because people tell me to read books and I’ll be like, I’ll go ahead and buy it if it’s cheap or whatever on my Kindle or put it in a hold or want to wishlist or whatever. So it’s always kind of there, but by the time I get around to some of these, I totally have forgotten the context of why anyone recommended it. No idea, but it was there.

Tara King: Yeah, same. Yeah, like I said, somebody must have recommended it. I don’t know. I don’t think I would’ve just found it at the library.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, I don’t think it would’ve stood out for me either.

Tara King: Thanks for having me on to talk about books.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, thanks for coming on to our-

Tara King: Love books.

Mandi Walls: Initial book club episode. This has been great.

Tara King: Happy to be.

Mandi Walls: Super exciting. So for folks out there, if you’d like to be a guest on our regular show or if you want to be part of our book club, let us know. We’re community-team@pagerduty.com or there’s a form, I’ll put it in the show notes as well. It’s a bitly/pageitbookclub and I’ve got some potential titles for upcoming episodes where I’m looking for guests. So if you’re into tech books and want to take a look at what’s on the list or if you want to suggest anything that we should take a look at and why so I have some context of why did I put this in my TBR? I don’t even know anymore. But we are scheduling some things up and the titles and the potential recording dates are on there. So if you’ve got the time and want to read some books with us, you can sign up to do that.

Tara King: Join us.

Mandi Walls: Please, yes.

Tara King: Awesome.

Mandi Walls: Awesome. All right, thanks, Tara, for coming on and for everybody else out there, we’ll wish you an uneventful day. We’ll be back in a couple of weeks with another episode. That does it for another installment of Page it to the Limit. We’d like to thank our sponsor, PagerDuty for making this podcast possible. Remember to subscribe to this podcast if you like what you’ve heard. You can find our show notes at pageittothelimit.com and you can reach us on Twitter at Page it to the Limit using the number two. Thank you so much for joining us and remember, uneventful days are beautiful days.

Show Notes

Additional Resources


Tara King

Tara King (they/them or she/her)

Tara King is an experienced backend developer and long-time open source contributor. Tara has worked at Automattic, Universal Music Group, Pantheon, and many other companies, with a focus on making developer’s lives easier and more fun. Tara is currently the Director of Developer Relations at PagerDuty and is based in Albuquerque, NM.


Mandi Walls

Mandi Walls (she/her)

Mandi Walls is a DevOps Advocate at PagerDuty. For PagerDuty, she helps organizations along their IT Modernization journey. Prior to PagerDuty, she worked at Chef Software and AOL. She is an international speaker on DevOps topics and the author of the whitepaper “Building A DevOps Culture”, published by O’Reilly.