Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Businessweek writing - by Vance on Ramona Pierson & Stone on Jeff Bezos

Businessweek recently had two great pieces by writers who I consistently find excellent work from, Ashlee Vance and Brad Stone.

"Declara Co-Founder Ramona Pierson's Comeback Odyssey" was written by Vance and is one of those stories that makes me want to read another 10-80 thousand words about the subject. As Vance wrote, Pierson out of college was in the U.S. Marines (who paid for her final years at U.C. Berkeley) and "worked with algorithms to help calculate the position of Russia’s nuclear silos and guide F-18 fighter missions" until she in 1984 was hit by a drunk driver and spent 18 months in a coma. About this cataclysmic injury (and related to me wanting to know more), Vance wrote "Passersby saved her life. One massaged her heart to keep it beating; another used pens to open her windpipe and vent her collapsed lung so she could breathe. The crude handiwork kept Pierson alive long enough to get her to a hospital."

Next in the story Vance wrote of Pierson's rehabilitation, including the equally fascinating time she spent in a senior citizens center with the residents helping her get better (and the anecdote very much having a Curious Case of Benjamin Button vibe to me). Still seeming to be in line with the Benjamin Button theme, or perhaps that Tom Hanks movie in which he sees the world and does amazing things, Vance wrote of how Pierson became an accomplished blind blind rock climber, cross-country skier, and cyclist. Additionally, she after leaving the senior citizens center enrolled in a community college, studied psychology and received a master’s degree in education and then PhD in neuroscience.

In terms of her Pierson's work efforts, Vance covered in the piece how she served as CTO of Seattle public schools and developed database software around the students and their learning. Still utilized today, this software led Pierson to forming and then selling the educational company SynapticMash prior to starting last year in Palo Alto, CA her current company, Declara. Geared towards both education and businesses, Vance notes how Declara "a type of social network that links everyone in a company or an organization. With the help of algorithms developed by Pierson and others, Declara’s system learns how people interact, what types of questions they’re looking to answer, and who can best answer them."

It's a fascinating and well-written tale from Vance about someone who has been through more than almost all of us and doing tremendously interesting work.

Another great recent Businessweek piece to note here was by Brad Stone with "The Secrets of Bezos: How Amazon Became the Everything Store," excerpted from his just published book The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. There's a lot of interesting material throughout the excerpt (and without having read it yet, I imagine the book as well), but what really struck me from the perspective of Stone as a reporter was his mention of finding Ted Jorgensen, the biological father of Bezos, and who agreed with the request of Bezos's mother Jacklyn to allow three year-old Jeff's adoption by her new husband Miguel Bezos. Stone writes of how Jorgensen also agreed to not have contact with the family, but the section below from the book excerpt still remarkable...

"I found Ted Jorgensen, Jeff Bezos's biological father, behind the counter of his bike shop in late 2012. I’d considered a number of ways he might react to my unannounced appearance but gave a very low probability to the likelihood of what actually happened: He had no idea what I was talking about. Jorgensen said he didn’t know who Jeff Bezos was and was baffled by my suggestion that he was the father of this famous CEO. I mentioned Jacklyn Gise and Jeffrey, the son they had during their brief teenage marriage. The old man’s face flushed with recognition. “Is he still alive?” he asked, not yet fully comprehending. “Your son is one of the most successful men on the planet,” I told him. I showed him some Internet photographs on my smartphone, and for the first time in 45 years, Jorgensen saw his biological son. His eyes filled with sorrow and disbelief."

Again, there's quite a few other interesting stories about Bezos, how he built Amazon and his style, but this particular portion was just remarkable.