Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Writing a book backwards

Normally it’s a good idea to write a book front to back. But it seems like right now, I’m writing the book backwards.Escher Hands

The working title for our book remains Digitizing Communications: From MIT to Qualcomm. Since Caroline & I first discussed doing the book 2½ years ago, the outline for the main chapters has been chronological: it starts with Claude Shannon, eventually gets to Linkabit, talks about the early Linkabit spinoffs, a chapter dedicated to Qualcomm and then the 1990s telecom boom. We will then have some wrapup chapters generalizing about the cluster, and a final chapter looking forward.

In the Fall of 2000, I started writing my various Qualcomm cases. The first one, “Qualcomm in China,” was written to teach political risk in my Fall 2000 UCI international business class. It was eventually published in two parts by the Asian Case Research Journaland the University of Western Ontario. That’s where Dave Mock got the China story for his book The Qualcomm Equation.

Then I wrote a second series of cases (“Qualcomm 2000,” “Qualcomm 2001” and “Qualcomm 2002”) for teaching standards competition to another UCI MBA class; those ended up with the European Case Clearinghouse in 2002.

Meanwhile, Caroline was working on her dissertation, cataloguing the hundreds of wireless startup companies in San Diego from 1980-2003. We presented a paper from her dissertation at a 2003 conference in Denmark, a paper that now and again gets us calls from interested parties (and was also cited by Mock). Other material from her dissertation bears on the spinoff chapters, since (AFAIK) Caroline has the only complete database of some 240 startups (plus 100 branches of other companies) founded in the region.

When writing her dissertation, Caroline found — as has anyone who’s studied the San Diego telecom industry knows — that all roads lead to Linkabit. We wrote a paper on Linkabit in 2005 that we presented in June 2006 at the Babson entrepreneurship conference.

Sabbatical in hand, last summer I sat down to write up the Linkabit chapter for the book. As I wrote it, I tried to figure out what Andy Viterbi (S.B.,S.M. ’57) and Irwin Jacobs (ScD ’59) and starting Linkabit in October 1968. Like a thread on a knit sweater, I gave a tug and it kept unravelling. Six months later, I had a chapter on MIT and another chapter on information theory in NASA communications (which led to talks at MIT and NASA, respectively), but no Linkabit chapter.

Now I’m working on Chapter 1, about Claude Shannon and the birth of information theory. Hopefully I will finish the chapter in the next week, and then can start writing the book the way it was meant to be read: front to back.

Graphic: M.L. Escher, “Drawing Hands” (1948)

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