June 2007

Chris Winters

nonfiction

Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: An Entrepreneuer's Odyssey to Educate the World's Children by John Wood

I’m suspicious of business books. Too many are the snake oil of the corporate world, and too many serve little more than the author’s ego. So it was with several grains of salt that I cracked the awkwardly titled Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: An Entrepreneur’s Odyssey to Educate the World’s Children. The title screamed out “self-serving smarm offensive,” and I dreaded what I’d find. But I live in Seattle, I’ve had a fair amount of exposure to the offspring of Microsoft, and the book promised something different, categorized by publisher HarperCollins as both “Business & Economics” as well as “Social Sciences.” The cover photo of author John Wood standing next to a bundle-laden yak in a Himalayan redoubt suggested high adventure.

The book is a mixed bag. In brief, John Wood was a Microsoft executive, mostly in Australia and Asia, who decided to chuck it all and start building libraries and schools for children in Nepal. The book is the story of how he made that decision and established his nonprofit organization, Room to Read, and its growth from hare-brained idea to two-person start-up to a rapidly metastasizing force for doing good in the world, spreading in new markets, tapping new networks of volunteers and donors. By the end of the book, the author is breathless from the pace of expansion, the money flowing in from heretofore unseen quarters, and the vast potential to expand all over the world. Given Wood’s recent appearance on Oprah Winfrey this spring, I can imagine his head is going to spin even faster.

The book Leaving Microsoft takes the form of a memoir from the point of view of a businessman. But it involves also Wood’s travels through Nepal, Vietnam and Cambodia, so there’s an element of travel writing in there, too. And he occasionally breaks the flow with an aside to outline some of the lessons he learned in setting up Room to Read, thus fulfilling the prime directive of business books, to Show the Way. It tries to be all three things, and as a book it comes up short in all three. Wood’s early descriptions of hiking through Nepal, meeting schoolchildren, grateful administrators, and the abysmal and mostly empty locked rooms that passed for school libraries, are good. We want more, but there’s no room. He’s got a business to set up. He walks us through the process of setting up his offices, networking for donations, dealing with officials... then cuts that short too, because he’s telling a story and it needs characters. But there’s no time to develop those, either.

But just because the book doesn’t bowl you over as memoir, travelogue or business book doesn’t mean it’s all bad. It’s not, in fact, all that bad, and parts of it are kind of fun to read. There’s a great moment, an anecdote, really, of how Wood, working for Microsoft in Beijing, had to lay out elaborate preparations for Bill Gates’s visit to China and interview with China’s largest television network. Wood prepped the interviewer with a liberal amount of advance spin to help it go smoothly and prepped Gates’s staff with relevant data so he could answer the softball questions to maximum effect. Gates himself is nonetheless unprepared, ignores his staff’s advice and blows the interview, and Wood’s frustration proves the final straw: “I had put long hours into this interview, and that time could not be gained back... The children of Nepal obviously needed me more than my employer did.”

This anecdote, amusing as it is on its own merits, comes at the end of chapter seven, with the leaving of Microsoft coming next. It’s a little late in the story for this; it’s overly long and indeed, is somewhat beside the point, because Wood had already had his epiphany (in a Buddhist temple, natch) and decided to leave the corporate world. It was only a matter of when. Leaving Microsoft was not written with an eye toward the standard elements of narrative and it drags in parts. There are a lot of extended quotations that, unless Wood has an eidetic memory, are clearly reconstructed, and they come across as stilted recitations of talking points on why someone would want to work for or donate to Room to Read.

In fact, sometimes the book is a bit too self-congratulatory. “My own ways of showing loyalty to employees are simple and straightforward and will never win me any awards for innovation. I believe that collectively, however, they show everyone working for Room to Read that I am looking out for them.” He doesn’t mention the “Best Boss” mug on his desk, but we suspect it’s there.

While bothersome, the overarching impression of Wood as a boss, or as a visionary, since he is indeed pursuing a personal vision with a single-minded drive, is less about an egoist on the make than a combination of a high-functioning intensity of focus with an earnestness and innocent belief in doing good. He’s an overachieving Boy Scout, a little bit obnoxious but endearing, and he clearly means well even if he at times rubs you the wrong way.

In the end, this is not a book one reads for pleasure. As a manuscript, it’s one-dimensional (many people are identified only by first name and are interchangeable), a bit self-serving, and his tale suffers in the telling. The gems of detail and advice (“Hoping for billionaires to solve the world’s problems is like waiting for Godot. It’s also the surest way to perpetuate the status quo”) are scattered through the book and too few in number. Likewise, while Room to Read partners with local organizations in the target countries to build the libraries so the local community has sweat equity in their projects, we don’t get enough on-the-ground reporting. Wood travels to these countries, but spends much of his time in meetings. It’s probably an accurate description of his work day, but we’d benefit from more objective detail. Seeing the children get their books, libraries and schools is the most interesting part of the story, and the book would have been better served with a stronger focus on that and less on Wood’s history with Microsoft or his failed personal relationships. This could have been a really good book if it had been written by someone on the outside.

Wood’s story, on the other hand, is interesting enough, and Room to Read is a worthy cause that he truly believes in. As of this writing, the group has delivered more than one million books to seven countries, established more than 3,300 libraries, and built more than 220 schools. It is, in short, the classic tale of the man with the plan that everyone says will never work, and by sheer determination and pluck he succeeds beyond even his own expectations. You root for John Wood, because he’s one of the good guys. His vision is educating children in poor countries. It involves reinventing the model of providing aid to developing countries (I can imagine there’s a whole other story there that incorporates more points of view from others in the aid community) and the reward for his work is not riches -- he had that once, and didn’t draw a salary during Room to Read’s first years -- but simply the realization that he’s having an impact. You can’t help but be inspired by his example. If only the book could rise to his level of achievement.

Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: An Entrepreneur’s Odyssey to Educate the World’s Children by John Wood
Collins
ISBN: 978-0-06-112107-4
253 Pages