Tracy Kidder has focused his keen skills of observation and talent for storytelling on numerous topics during his career, from the early days of the computer industry to medical care for the poor in Haiti to elementary education in America.
“What a great privilege it’s been,” he said during a recent stop at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar for a luncheon/author event hosted by the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society. “It’s been fun to explore the world and get paid for it.”
Kidder’s newest book, “A Truck Full of Money,” published by Random House, tells the story of Paul English, a genius computer programmer who suffers from bi-polar disease, who is also a co-founder of the Kayak travel website, which has been used by millions of people around the world since its inception in 2004.
While all of Kidder’s books focus on a theme or subject, his talent lies in finding people who bring those stories to life. They include Dr. Paul Farmer, an infectious disease specialist who built a system of medical clinics in Haiti, as detailed in Kidder’s book, “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” and a Boston schoolteacher and her students, as chronicled in “Among Schoolchildren.”
“I don’t write about subjects. I write about people,” Kidder said.
Kidder’s efforts have garnered a slew of honors, from the Pulitzer Prize to the National Book Award.
And his latest book is just as personal as its predecessors – he follows Paul English from his school days, when he wrote a program that allowed him to surreptitiously obtain his teacher’s user name and password, to the period after he sold Kayak for $1.8 billion to the mega-travel site Priceline, and then worked to “recover” from the success of suddenly finding himself a multi-millionaire.
In order to get inside the skin of his subject, Kidder practically lived with Paul English for the better part of a year, and stayed close touch with him for a couple of years after that.
The portrait of English that emerges in Kidder’s book is a driven, gifted, generous man who battles the demons of his own mental illness while achieving great success in the turbulent and competitive world of software programming and digital technology.
While English has shown a knack for making money – he once sold a company for $33.5 million before it had created a product – he also is known for spreading it around, both through generosity to his co-workers and his philanthropy, supporting such causes as fighting homelessness and improving education in Haiti.
In fact, English has said his true passion is for assembling teams through his businesses.
In the book, Kidder wrote, “Travel was just something Paul liked to do. What he really cared about was building new engineering teams. In a jaunty moment once, he said, ‘For me businesses exist as an excuse to get a team together, and product is what a team does. You have to pay salaries, so, unfortunately, you have to make a profit.’ Creating teams and managing them were his version of the business romance. He loved his own large biological family, he would say, but at times he felt as though at Kayak he was building another family, better in the sense that he could choose its members and fire those who didn’t work out.”
As for Kayak itself, English installed large monitors in the company’s engineering office that displayed only a single number, which would climb into the millions each day, and represented the number of travel searches conducted by Kayak visitors.
“Paul had meant the number on display as a message to his team, his way of saying to them, ‘Good job. Let’s do more.’ And it was also one of his ways of trying to put them in vicarious touch with customers. If you knew that the number at the center of the screen signified searches, it was bound to dawn on you that watching the digits grow was the same as watching millions of people typing at computers and swiping fingers over the screens of smartphones and electronic notepads as they brought up the Kayak website on their browsers and began to look for information about flights, hotels, rental cars. And you were also watching a machine at work, responding to all those people – a complex machine made out of software and silicon that was spread across a large part of the world, connecting millions to the world,” Kidder wrote.
Kidder, who is always looking for new stories to tell, and people to tell them, has himself taken a somewhat circuitous route finding his true calling. As a political science major at Harvard, he dreamt of becoming a diplomat and changing the world.
But then he discovered a passion for writing, and after a tour in Vietnam as an intelligence officer, he wound up as a staff writer at the Atlantic Magazine. While working there, he wrote his first book, “The Soul of the New Machine,” about a team of researchers who designed a super mini-computer in the early days of the technology industry. He now has 10 books to his credit. He divides his time between Massachusetts and Maine.
For more information, visit www.tracykidder.com.