I’ve known Paul Carroll for a long time, since we were classmates and good friends in the Masters program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. We’ve maintained our close friendship ever since. I’ve watched Paul excel at The Wall Street Journal as an editor, IBM specialist, author, tech-industry consultant — and now, in his latest incarnation, as the technical consultant on AMC’s new show Halt and Catch Fire.
I interviewed him by email a few days ago and asked him to tells abut the show. And no, he hasn’t “gone Hollywood.” Yet.
Paul Carroll: The show’s creators, Chris Cantwell and Chris Rogers, found me because of a book I wrote about IBM and the early days of the personal-computer industry that came out in 1993. They’ve been remarkably thorough in their reading, and I’ve usually found that if I suggest someone for them to interview they’ve already talked to that person at length. But they asked me to help them make sure that every detail is accurate. They’ve also asked for stories about people and events that may help as they develop their characters.
2) Why do you think the critics have embraced this show?
PC: One critic said he liked that Halt and Catch Fire comes in through the side door. We all know something about the history of PCs, but this show delves into the territory without focusing on Jobs, Wozniak, Gates, Allen, etc.
I think people are also responding to the show because the characters are so vivid. These people aren’t just trying to make money. They’re after something bigger, something more fraught than you generally see in TV shows. I care about what happens to these people.
The acting is also superb.
3) What is the most important factor to making the show look and sound authentic?
PC: I’d have a hard time pointing to a single factor. I really think you have to get everything right, because if you get one detail wrong then anyone can point to that detail and kill your credibility. I know the writers spent a ton of time thinking about the music and are pleased with how that turned out.
4) Rather than do what would seem obvious — exploit the glitz and glamour of Silicon Valley today — your show takes us back 30 years to the early period of the PC revolution. Why did the producers find this period and plot line to be so dramatic?
PC: That period was the Wild West for the computer industry. When the PC came along, the computing industry realized the equivalent of what early Americans realized when they found that the Allegheny Mountains in western Pennsylvania didn’t need to mark the western boundary of the United States. With the PC, people saw that there was an awful lot of territory out there to be explored, creating previously unimaginable opportunities. And there weren’t an awful lot of rules. It wasn’t many years before the time in which Halt and Catch Fire takes place that Bill Gates wrote a letter to the PC community saying he expected to be paid for his software–and was hooted down!
The drama also comes from the fact that some people recognized the opportunities quickly, while others were slow, so you had huge shifts in fortunes. IBM went from being widely written up as the best company in the history of the world shortly before I started covering it for the Wall Street Journal in 1986, to being talked about as a candidate for bankruptcy by the time I left the beat in 1993.
Texas adds another dimension to the show. Them good ole boys are different than you and I are–or, at least, than I am–and they were more accustomed to dealing with oil and gas than with computers.
There is obviously still loads of interesting stuff going on, in plenty of interesting places, but the early days of the PC are as dramatic as it gets for the world of computers.
4) What makes Silicon Valley, as a symbol, and the tech industry, as a whole, so fascinating for the public, journalists, authors and Hollywood?
PC: You don’t think it’s all the great-looking people and their sleek sense of style?
The people are, by and large, incredibly smart. Many are crazy-rich–how many hundreds of millions of dollars did Larry Ellison spend just because he wanted to win a sailboat race (last year’s America’s Cup)? And the riches can appear out of the blue–Instagram had only something like 17 employees when Facebook agreed to buy it for $1 billion. Many have the biggest possible dreams. They really believe that, as Steve Jobs put it, they can put a dent in the universe.
Smart, crazy-rich dreamers can be fascinating.
The folks in the tech world also come up with products that touch us all, maybe even change our lives. A friend visited a house in Paris that belonged to the richest man in the world and had been turned into a museum showing what his life was life in the late 1880s. My friend thought, “Big whoop. Where is his flat-screen TV? Where is the WiFi? He wasn’t so impressive.”
5) You’ve covered the tech industry, in various incarnations, for three decades. What are some of the biggest misconceptions that we have about the men and women who work in Silicon Valley?
PC: I actually think the stereotypes are pretty accurate. . . .
6) Who is the most fascinating person you’ve met in your tech travels and why?
PC: Oh, I get the most mileage out of my Bill Gates stories–the first time we had dinner, at Windows on the World on top of the ill-fated World Trade Center, he got distracted and asked the waitress if the chilled mint pea soup was served cold–and he certainly is a fascinating guy. He also belies the stereotype of the nerd because he is interested in and knowledgeable on such a broad range of subjects that he is a spectacular conversationalist.
But I’ll go with Alan Kay, who, as much as anyone, invented the personal computer while running a group at Xerox PARC. Among other things, he came up with the concept of windows and of object-oriented programming, a geeky but exceptionally important approach. Somehow, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Alan envisioned a computer just like the laptop I’m using more than 40 years later–not just with thousands of times the computing power that was available then but with access to all other computers (even though the Internet barely existed) and with access to all the world’s knowledge (decades before Wikipedia). He did it again, too. As an Apple fellow, he pulled together a film in the mid-1980s showing what was called the Knowledge Navigator but was really the vision for an iPad and provided the starting point for it within Apple. He even nailed the timing: The iPad was introduced within a few months of the date Alan used in the demo he did two decades earlier.
Maybe 15 years ago, I had an idea for some electronics for tracking car keys so we could all stop misplacing them. A friend said, “Oh, Alan had that idea 20 years ago.” Then he added: “But if you’re only 20 years behind Alan Kay, you’re doing really well.”
7) Have you “gone Hollywood” yet?
PC: Ha! We saw each other not long ago, so you know I haven’t done hair plugs or liposuction. I must say I did win some cool-Dad points by being able to take my daughter to the premiere.
8) Would you like to get further involved in TV or in the movies?
PC: I’ve certainly enjoyed the writers at Halt and Catch Fire, and if the staffs on other shows are as bright and committed and talented and warm as these guys then count me in.
And I do have a novel I’d be happy to sell. . . .