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Tech Industry

Dell's date with destiny

Michael Dell's upcoming book is not just about the meteoric rise of Dell Computer. It is a look at an entirely different species of human being.

Michael Dell's upcoming book, Direct from Dell: Strategies that Revolutionized an Industry, about the meteoric rise of Dell in the PC landscape, is a must-read for anyone in the high-tech industry.

Because inside its 231 pages--in between the boldface subheads that remind one to "Align Complementary Strengths for Success," the three-pronged bullet points, and the quaint anecdotes about the how the company upstaged its rivals--the reader will come across the answer to the question that sits first and foremost on the mind of everyone working in the computer field.

Yes, it is too late for you to become an industry titan. In fact, it was too late 30 years ago.

Although ostensibly a homey tome of business advice, Direct From Dell serves as an eye-opener to the ugly reality that a CEO of a major corporation comes from an entirely different species than you or I. This is not to say that members of this species can hold their breath for an hour underwater or catch fish with their mouths. (Who knows, but bigger issues exist.) But they are stronger, possess more foresight, and unfailingly skirt the common mistakes that are hallmarks of humanity.

And at a very early age. Key events in Dell's life, for instance, include the following:

  • When he was 8, he applied to take the high school equivalency test. "It's not like I had anything against school. I liked third grade?[but] trading nine years of school for one simple test seemed like a pretty good idea to me."

  • Dell started his first business, Dell's Stamps, at 12. It netted the boy stamp collector/dealer $2,000. "I learned an early, powerful lesson about the reward of eliminating the middleman," he writes.

  • At 16, he sold newspaper subscriptions to the Houston Post by canvassing mortgage and marriage license lists, thus showing an eerie interest in phone solicitation that somehow escaped the eye of guidance counselors. He made $18,000 his first year, more than some of his high school teachers. By graduation, he was driving a BMW.

  • On a leave of absence from the University of Texas during the second semester of his freshman year, he moved into a condo and sold $80,000 worth of computers. He never looked back. "I'm sure if I had taken the time to ask, plenty of people would have told me my idea wouldn't work."

    His book (actually half book--he co-authored it with Catherine Fredman, the same woman who helped Andy Grove write Only the Paranoid Survive) reads like the humble triumph of common sense over the forces of chaos and disorder. By contrast, my own business self-help book/biography would include the following:

  • "When I was 10, I asked my brother and his friend, Joe Reinkemeyer, to help me fix my bike. In exchange, I promised to cut the lawn for two weeks. They captured me, stuffed me into a garbage can and rolled me down a hill. I learned a valuable lesson: Never enter the garage unarmed?"

  • "Cleaning the salad bar was a waste of time. Busing tables--that's were the money was."

  • "The day I graduated college, I possessed an amusing, if ultimately baseless, thesis on the meter scheme of The Iliad, some funny spring break stories, and a limitless capacity for beer. Luckily, America is blessed with a plethora of graduate programs."

    Where did I go wrong? Was I not "staying allergic to hierarchy" by chafing at my father's advice? Did I fail to "Be the Hunter, Not the Hunted" as the book implores? When did the clock of destiny start to run? Clearly, the curse came down a long time ago.

    Interestingly enough, the book also foretells the demise of the high tech industry as well. Again, the foreshadowing emanates from the folksy tone of the book.

    Prior to Dell, high tech leaders came in one of two bigger-than-life categories. On one hand, you had the Shakespearean figures, such as Grove or Larry Ellison, powerful geniuses afflicted with conflicting ambitions and emotions. On the other end of the spectrum, you had the visionaries: people like Steve Jobs and Lotus' Mitch Kapor, who tripped on organic images of the future while listening to the Tarkus album from Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

    What has been Dell's blinding, animating dream? To cut out the middleman. Even a Junior Achievement counselor might have a tough time getting excited about that.

    Michael Kanellos is a senior writer at CNET.