Historical fiction plays a dual role. It informs & entertains in equal parts, illuminating the past by pairing readers with characters who inspire empathy as they live through dramatic historical events. Albert Cory’s new novel Inventing the Future is historical fiction that analyzes the lead-up to the explosion of personal computing.
Albert Cory lived through the events himself. He was one of the chief engineers of the Xerox Star, and decades later he is fictionalizing his own experience to enlighten a new generation of engineers, users, and readers on history that continues to shape their world. We had a chance to sit down with Cory to ask about his career, his new novel, and what’s coming down the line from the author.
Tell us about your career leading up to writing Inventing the Future.
The job at Xerox was only my second job out of school. I got my Master’s in Computer Science at the University of Illinois and had eight job offers, five of them in aerospace. I chose to go to work at Burroughs instead of IBM, mainly because I would be in Southern California instead of Poughkeepsie, New York, and I preferred Burroughs’ smaller and more innovative reputation.
At Burroughs, I worked in Irvine in a department that made software that customers could choose to buy, but it didn’t come with the computer. My product was FORTE/2, a database product. I was excited by a 1975 article in BusinessWeek by a PARC executive on The Office of the Future and answered a Xerox ad in the Los Angeles Times. I stayed at Xerox, where I became the manager of the Xerox Star’s database feature, until 1983. I published an article “The Design of Star’s Records Processing” which you can still find online.
I moved to Silicon Valley to try my luck at a startup, Analytica, which made the PC database product Reflex. Reflex failed, until eventually the company was bought by Borland, which cut the price, advertised it, and made it a success. I had left by then.
I worked at 3Com for the next six years, 1985-1991, because I desperately wanted to learn networking. I worked in email, where I once again became the manager, and then in network management. In 1991, this led me to Oracle’s networking division, which made the SQL*Net product. I led an Internet Engineering Task Force working group which produced RFC 1697, an Internet standard for monitoring databases.
The startup fever was raging again in the late 1990’s, and in 1998 I joined a startup called Packeteer (which no longer exists), which made a network optimizer called the Packet Shaper. This time I was much wiser about business. Packeteer IPO’ed in July 1999! I stayed there until 2004. For a time I managed Packeteer’s patent program.
I had about a year off and got my license as a Patent Agent. I retained an interest in patents but ultimately went back to work as a software engineer at Google in 2005, having a variety of jobs in enterprise software, Ads, and Maps. I also spent three years in Patent Litigation. I published an article in SSRN “Software Obviousness: The Disconnect between Engineers and the Patent System” which was cited in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in the CLS Bank v. Alice case. I retired in 2017.
After some indecision, I realized I’d always wanted to write a novel but couldn’t get started, and an editor, Samantha Mason, helped me plan out Inventing the Future. This was greatly inspired by Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander series of historical novels about the Napoleonic Wars. I’ve always felt that the human side of Silicon Valley was compelling, and was very, very poorly served by Hollywood and the book world, and in a small way I’m addressing that. The website is www.albertcory.io.
Why do you think people outside of tech latch onto figureheads like Steve Jobs and how does that change their perception of what actually happened?
Personalities sell, I guess. Larry Ellison at Oracle is not nearly as famous as Steve Jobs, even though he’s probably more identified with his company than Jobs was with his.
Legitimately, Jobs’ maniacal drive for perfection did lead to the success of the Mac, the iPod, the iPad, and the iPhone. I give him full credit for resisting the tendency towards mediocrity that all big companies face. The pressure to let your designers do an average job is overwhelming and crushing. He defeated it.
He’s also a great subject for biographers, since his career was so checkered (fired from his own company, started two others, then hired back at Apple when they were floundering). Being a jerk in person (as almost everyone who knew him confirms) is not enough by itself, or else a lot of business leaders would be more famous than they are!
My book is not really about Apple or Jobs, although he does make a cameo in a couple chapters. The notion that he “stole the Xerox technology” in December 1979 is nonsense and I think I demolish that. I myself didn’t know that he came to the 1981 National Computer Conference where we unveiled Star, and I was there! I’m not sure I even knew what he looked like then.
Why do you think Xerox never considered the rise of hobby computers?
Funny! That’s covered in Inventing the Future quite a bit. Xerox was a business company through and through. All their salesmen were trained to call on the corporate decision makers. You didn’t buy a Xerox copier at an electronics store; you called the Xerox office and a salesman came over.
I think the answer was that they were not interested in it. There was no notion that anyone other than an electronics junkie would want a computer for the home. That sounds silly now, but remember this was pre-Internet. Computers were very expensive and there was no such thing as an “online world.”
You’ve worked at some massive tech companies over the years. What’s something you wish people outside of tech understood about the industry?
That it’s nothing like the movies and TV shows you’ve seen. Halt and Catch Fire was, actually, not bad, but that’s about the only good example I can point to.
In Hollywood screenwriters’ imagination, you’re either at a startup where everyone’s working 90 hours a week, or you’re at a boring, soul-crushing company like in Office Space. People are either autistic, antisocial geniuses, or else they’re Sherman in The Big Bang Theory.
Most people in the business are fairly normal and the work is not boring, or at least not all the time! If I can do anything at all to teach that truth, then Inventing the Future will have been a huge success.
Tell us how you got started writing. Is it something you’ve always been interested in?
Yes, it is. When I was in high school, I intended to go into Electrical Engineering, but I only took two science courses, and most of the books I read were literature or history. I didn’t like mathematics, as a matter of fact!
I still wanted to have a job when I got out of school, that having been drilled into me by my father, so I ended up in Mathematics and Computer Science. I enjoyed it well enough, but I was never the type who came home from work and read technical books.
Writing articles, emails, and technical specifications was always something I sought out at work. I did take a fiction-writing class once at UCLA Extension, but I never managed to complete anything.
At Google, I started and ran the Cinema Club for 10 years (you can read about that in the Author page of www.albertcory.io). I had many, many chances to think about what makes a good story, and I think I relied on that constantly in writing Inventing the Future, most notably in the Lightning Strikes chapter. Samantha and I joked all the time about which actor should play Janet or Dan or Len.
Finally in retirement I realized that this was something I would regret never having done in my life, and my editor Samantha Mason helped me work with my idea until it became Inventing the Future.
What made you decide to write about this particular story in tech history?
It’s of enormous importance in the history of computers, of course, but it was also the human story of young engineers in their 20’s entrusted with bringing a revolution to the world. The story has been told in a business book sense (Fumbling the Future, Dealers of Lightning), but never about the unknown people who actually did the work. I really wanted to write what it was like to do this and not know how it was going to turn out. And at the same time, start out in life, get married or divorced and buy a house.
Many of us who did this are still good friends 40 years later, so I think that tells you something. It was a special, exciting time and I thought readers would enjoy being a part of it, even if only vicariously.
Why was it important for you to focus on characters that were “down in the trenches”?
I suppose the facile answer is that I was one of them myself! Most human beings are not going to be generals or CEOs, and they’re definitely not going to be Steve Jobs. I’ve never been in the C-suite and I wouldn’t know how to write about it, and I think a lot of the writing that you do find about it is silly and false, Falcon Crest-like.
How did it feel to write about events that you had lived through?
It was awesome, like reliving them! I tried to get other people’s perspectives on it, but since Dan Markunas is me (as I say in the Preface), I felt free to use my own recollections. After all, this is fiction, not history, and I’m not obligated to tell the “truth,” whatever that is.
I wasn’t at the Ethernet lightning event (the Lightning Strikes chapter in the book), so I really had to collect all the information from people who did know about it.
For another event, when the Xerox 820 was unveiled (“the Apple killer” as it was called, as humorous as that sounds now), it was pretty fun to add another person to it, and make up dialog for us. There was almost no event where anyone remembers what they said, or any other details, so I had free rein to make things up. But they had to be plausible.
How much research did the book require, and can you tell us about your research process?
It required a ton of research, and you can see in the Acknowledgements all the people who helped me. As I said above, many of the Xeroids are still in touch, and it was usually not too hard to reach someone by email.
In addition, on bitsavers.org, there are hundreds of contemporaneous Xerox documents from that period, which I relied on almost every day. I had a subscription to newspapers.com, where I would fetch the old editions of the Los Angeles Times to find out what movies were playing, when concerts took place, what songs were on the radio, and every other period detail you see in the book. I knew that if I didn’t, Samantha (my editor) would!
One thing I’ve completely failed on is this: I wanted to get a photo of the Star introduction at the National Computer Conference in 1981. The Xerox booth, where I stood, was a madhouse. But no one took pictures back then! I would have thought at least some newspapers or computer publications would have photos, but if they do, I haven’t found them. Maybe your readers can help!
Did your research change your perception of the story you were telling?
I think it solidified it. Obviously all of us who took part in Star have had 40 years to think about what Xerox did right or wrong. In the “Last Star demo” in 1998, which I think you can find on YouTube, I actually asked David Liddle whether, with benefit of hindsight, he wished we’d sold the Alto. He said “With the benefit of hindsight, yes. It would have cost $30,000 but there were people who would have paid for it.”
Where did you decide to draw the line between history and fiction in your novel?
I try to be upfront about that in the Preface and in the Notes: if something did not happen as I said, then I tell you. For the Lightning Strikes chapter, Robert Garner, who designed one of the Ethernet transceivers, went over it with a fine-toothed comb for accuracy, but obviously Grant and Janet are fictional characters.
A good example is the debate about Star coding standards. There were many meetings and email discussions about this over months, and absolutely no one remembers them all. So I tell the reader that the meeting I depict is a composite of many events, but it’s still an accurate rendering of what the engineers said and thought.
My model for this, as for many things, is the Master and Commander series. In the War of 1812, the USS Constitution (“Old Ironsides”) captured the British warship Java. This really happened, but in the books, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin are inserted into the battle as passengers. They observe the battle and describe it for the reader, but they don’t change the outcome.
What was the most challenging part of your writing process throughout working on this book?
This was my first major work of fiction, so I would say learning how to do that was the hardest. I finally figured out that my first draft of a scene can be mostly telling, and then I have to go back and show, once I know what I want to show.
Having a female character was of course a challenge for me, being male, but fortunately I had a female editor who acted as the guardian of the Janet character!
“Exposition” is something every author struggles with. You have to get information across to the reader, somehow, and often you just have one character explain it to another. Any astute reader can see “Oh, exposition going on here!” and they’re right, but I hope at least it isn’t too overwhelmingly obvious when I do it.
Were there other books and writers that informed the work you were doing?
As I’ve mentioned many times, the Patrick O’Brian novels. In addition, the Bernard Cornwell novels, set in the 9th and 10th century A.D. They showed me the potential of a historical novel, which I’d previously dismissed as just “romance during the Plantagenets,” or “romance during Roman times,” or “romance during the Civil War.” Are you beginning to see the stereotype?
For me, historical authenticity is essential. I want to be immersed in the period. I want to trust that the author knows what he or she is talking about.
O’Brian’s books are loaded with sailing details. I know virtually nothing about sailing, and I just have to skim over those sections and get the gist: “the Captain is raising more sails to make it go faster.”
Since that ignorance doesn’t bother me, I felt the freedom to include computing details in my book which not everyone will understand completely. There are certainly people whom that will bother, but I’ve had other non-computer-literate people tell me they were fine with it. And it’s a special treat for the readers who do understand it.
My other obligatory shout-out is to Ernest Hemingway. I don’t try to write like him, but I do ruthlessly take out words, write simply, and pare down the text like he did. The Elements of Style is my bible.
What’s something you know now that you wish you’d known when you started Inventing the Future?
How much there is to writing a novel other than the writing.
Inside or outside of tech, what’s been your greatest success during your career?
That would have to be the German patent case for Microsoft in 2014. You can find web stories about this.
Microsoft had bought a patent on online maps, with a priority date of 1996. If you’re thinking “but they didn’t have any map service then!” you’d be right. But they bought the patent, so they were entitled to assert it.
They filed for an injunction against Google Maps in Germany. German law has separate trials for “are you infringing this patent?” and “is this patent even valid?” They are held in that order. So it’s possible to get an injunction even though your patent is later thrown out.
Microsoft won the first round, and the judge had refused to stay the injunction. Google was actually preparing to shut down Maps in Germany. All of the tech advisors in Patent Litigation frantically searched for some prior art to defeat this patent. This went on for several days.
Finally, I went into Google Scholar and searched for “client-server maps.” The very first result was a paper by David DeWitt from 1995. It seemed to fill the bill! How did none of us ever try this query before? I still don’t know.
I flew down to LA and met with our German lawyers and our “expert” and we spent the day looking for another paper that was less techie. We failed, but the lawyers thought that the DeWitt paper might do it.
Judges in this court very rarely overrule themselves. Nonetheless, Google asked this judge to reconsider, based on the likelihood of the DeWitt paper invalidating the patent.
Amazingly, he did! The injunction was stayed. Later, Google won in the Nullification court in Munich, and the patent was completely invalidated.
For most engineering triumphs, they say “it was a great team effort,” and it’s true. However, for this one, it was “a great triumph for Bob (and Ralf, the lawyer).” Very satisfying.
Is it easier to invent the personal computer or to write an historical fiction novel?
I would say either one of them takes a lifetime of preparation.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
It would be pretty presumptuous for a first-time author like me to offer advice! “Get the help you need to write your book” would come to mind. Some authors wrote masterpieces off the top of their heads and all by themselves. You’re probably not one of those. I’m not.
How about for aspiring software engineers?
The world for them is very, very different than it was for me. I did a lot of work with Operation Code, which is a nonprofit that helps military veterans and their spouses enter the tech industry. I got a real sense of what it’s like for them, and I have to say I’m not a bit envious. It doesn’t seem nearly as much fun as it used to be.
As with the “aspiring authors” question, it would be presumptuous for me to offer advice, other than banalities.
Can we expect to see another novel from Albert Cory in the future?
Oh, yes! It’s already done and waiting for the editing process. You’ll find out what happens to Dan, Grant, and Janet after Xerox, plus there are some exciting new characters to introduce. The technical backdrop is the growth of networking in the 80s, including the Internet but not limited to it.
The new book (title unknown as of now) is more fictional than Inventing the Future. By that I mean, the characters begin doing things on their own, which I understand is what’s supposed to happen when you write fiction! Does that mean I’m getting the hang of it? I sure hope so.
Finally, what’s your favorite computer game of all time?
I think for me to cite any game would be misleading, since I’m not a gamer. At most, I play a game for a few weeks and then drop it forever. Angry Birds was one of those.