Paul English is not a household name, but he is well-known in the world of computers and software engineering
Pulitzer Prize winning author Tracy Kidder attempts in his new book, “A Truck Full of Money” to shed light on English’s somewhat bizarre life and many accomplishments.
English was a wild youth, often picking fights with school classmates in Boston. He crashed two cars in high school and as an adult he was stopped for traffic violations about 70 times.
He dreamed of becoming a musician, but decided to cast his lot with computers. In 2004 he co-founded the travel site Kayak, which turned out to be one of the most lucrative publicly traded companies. Within several years, the company sold for $1.8 billion.
The book’s odd title comes from a colleague’s prediction, “Someday this boy’s going to get hit by a truck full of money.”
In 2012 Kayak revenues totaled $1.5 million per employee, among the highest ratios for a publicly traded company, according to Kidder.
English felt guilty for having millions of dollars to spend when so many people had nothing. He put $40 million in Kayak stock into an irrevocable charitable trust and hooked up with Partners in Health, a well-known public health charity working with the poor in Haiti.
Here is where the story gets complicated. It turns out that English suffers from bipolar, a mental illness that causes extreme swings between depression and wild behavior. “I love the highs,” he has said. “I can feel the blood racing through my veins. And I get a lot done.”
He consulted therapists and began taking lithium. He could not sleep more than a few hours at a time and he would crawl across the bedroom floor to wait by a window for the sun to appear.
Now in his mid-50s, English had been a senior vice president at three different software companies by the age of 37. He was constantly looking for new software opportunities. After the massacre of students in Newtown, Connecticut, he proposed creation of an online group, American Gun League, to back sensible gun control legislation, but he eventually abandoned the vague plan.
English felt drawn to Buddhism and meditation. He would meditate in a room set aside for that purpose next to his bedroom.
English gave Kidder full access to his papers and colleagues. Still, the picture of this brilliant man who suffers from mental illness and feels guilty about this wealth seems incomplete. We learn little about English’s divorced wife and children and get only glimpses of his charity work.
Kidder demonstrates his skill as a writer when he weaves his subject’s story into a larger narrative of the computer revolution, although much of it is technical and may appeal more to computer geeks than average readers.
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