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Book Review: Play Nice But Win by Michael Dell

image credit: Penguin Randomhouse 2021
Jason Price's picture
Business Development Executive - East Coast Energy and Utilities Group West Monroe Partners

Current function is the East Coast Business Development Executive for West Monroe Partners. Recent NYSERDA scholar and NYU Clean Energy and Technology Diploma recipient, completed a thesis...

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  • Dec 1, 2021

Great Industrialist…Terrible College Roommate. I am sure Michael Dell would agree with this statement as well as have a good laugh. I did not seek out this book to read or review but was handed to me as a gift from Michael Dell’s investment arm, MSD Partners, after a recent and considerable investment in my company. Having the cover jacket of Mr. Dell’s face staring at me to read his book by my nightstand, it was hard to resist.  

Much like the zigzag of a circuit board, Michael Dell takes us on a circuitous journey from computer tinkerer to industry titan. It is a fun ride peppered with nostalgia and humility. Despite naysayers and formidable adversaries throughout the journey seldom does he gloat or spike the ball to all those who doubted or stood in his way. He expresses much humility and is never short on recognizing others who helped contribute to the company’s phenomenal success, a common trait I found in similar biographies including Richard Branson, Michael Bloomberg, Bill Marriott, and Indra Nooyi.

The journey begins and ends with a precocious young man with an incessant curiosity of the world, then and now. Perhaps a bit cliché is the child in all of us who dismantled toys to see what’s inside (who didn’t do this?). Where Dell diverges from the pack is his desire to make it different upon reassembly. Like a well-armed car mechanic, Dell took to soldering and other techniques to take apart computers and make them better, faster, and smarter - an outsized skill developed early in life. In all likelihood, the founding of Dell Computers started when Michael was in grade school.

The book is divided into two storylines beginning with the rise of Dell Computers, from college dorm room, and reaching publicly traded status to then forming Dell Technologies, as a private and then public listing after the five-year hiatus. Michael talks about his upbringing and the important values of healing the world, Tikkun Olam, the Jewish proverb and traditions that his parents’ roots instilled in the family. The path of becoming a doctor was a parental wish not to be had by Michael and while he was a good student at the University of Texas, he convinced his concerning parents to accept an alternative career path, even if temporary and withdrew from college. Running a business out of a dorm room was hard to scale.  His scrappiness paid off and the timing in the early 1980s was favorable to allow him to flourish.

Dell devotes a section of the book on his fight with Carl Icahn, the self-proclaimed activist investor. Paraphrasing the words of Michelle Obama, Michael Dell goes high when Icahn goes low. Fortunately, Dell shareholders were not fooled by the actions of Icahn and his enablers.  The fight got intense and personal, but the difference between Michael Dell and Carl Icahn, is that one is seeking long term betterment while the other obfuscates proclamations of Robinhood for gratuitous self-reward.

Finance and technology are much a part of this book and go together like peanut butter with jelly. Not necessarily sufficient to fill you up but enough to satiate till the next meal. Dell takes the reader through a series of events with private equity, investment banks, Wall St firms, armies of lawyers and advisors, and most importantly, his trusted better half, wife Susan, and is not shy in expressing the respect and admiration he has for her. He also digs into the products. He describes the role of technology and the value chain in the manufacturing and production of his products to power small, medium, and large corporations. Spoiler alert: Dell Technologies is better positioned and a far greater valuation today than ever.

In an industry where technology evolves rapidly, the depreciation of computers is as much as 40% within six months. Materials change, equipment becomes obsolete, and the tip of spear today is tomorrow’s standard, which makes everything along the value chain hard to manage and stay head. Companies like HP, Compaq, Gateway, IBM (then Lenovo) in the late 1990s and early 2000s faced significantly depreciating inventories measured in months. PCs were fast becoming a commodity and a volume business. The value was in software and processor, namely Microsoft Windows and Intel. However, Dell’s secret sauce was in its just-in-time inventory and custom manufacturing process which I saw first-hand while vising the Dell plant in Bray, Ireland during business school at Fordham University.

Behind the clever Dell Direct slogan is an efficient assembling process that allowed the company to shift risk to component suppliers. As orders arrive and payment confirmed, the spec sheet is processed with each supplier placing the requested equipment on a conveyer belt within the Dell facility. The computer is made to order like a fresh sandwich and then shipped to the customer. Done right the entire process from order to ship took as little as fifteen minutes. While the PC became a margin play, much of the competition folded or moved up stream to higher-end servers and heavier customized equipment with Dell in fast pursuit. Today, PCs remain an important yet decreasing share of the company’s revenue mix as they’ve moved further into servers and services including cloud hosting. Indeed, with the acquisition of EMC, Dell Technologies is far different than its past self when it was called Dell Computers.

The book closes its final chapter and appendix with a 21-point value statement with a focus to the future. The book is timely and spotlights inequalities exposed from COVID. The MSD Family Fund is helping communities in the United States and around the world raise awareness and provide access to important causes in education, health, women rights, STEM, and stewardship of the planet. The investment thesis of MSD Partners and my company was a no brainer, especially after reading this book.

I found it refreshing to read about a billionaire who remains grounded in trying to bring equity here on planet earth rather than fulfill a costly itch to fly into space. When reading Play Nice But Win, readers will likely find the voice relatable and fun. For young adults early in their career, the wit and wisdom of Michael Dell should not be overlooked. He has an important story to tell that is beyond just the financial success. For the next generation of leaders at my company and the rest of corporate America, read Michael Dell’s Play Nice By Win, you won’t be disappointed.

About the reviewer: Jason Price is a business development executive in West Monroe’s Energy & Utility practice, based in New York City. He is a graduate of the NYU Clean Energy program and wrote his thesis on a utility-scale microgrid business case. He is host of the Power Perspectives podcast on Energy Central. Prior, Jason spent 20 years as a hospitality technology executive. He is also the author of The Insider’s Guide to the Executive MBA. The views are those of the author and not of West Monroe.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 1, 2021

Thanks for the review, Jason-- I'll put this on my reading list!

I found it refreshing to read about a billionaire who remains grounded in trying to bring equity here on planet earth rather than fulfill a costly itch to fly into space.

Also the above made me laugh. What a strange world we're living in, indeed!

Jason Price's picture
Jason Price on Dec 1, 2021

Matt, It sure is. In all fairness, most billionaires have similar agendas and charities so it's a little tongue in cheek about flying to space. 

Audra Drazga's picture
Audra Drazga on Dec 3, 2021



What a great post to share with the Energy Central community!  I like the book review idea and will certainly get the book - hopefully, it is available on Audible :).   


A few comments to your post: 


First, I have to say that I NEVER dismantled any of my toys.  I guess I was not curious enough.  


Second, I like the quote you mention about the billion are being grounded but to be fair to those who are fulfilling that itch to fly to space, let's not forget all the new technologies and discoveries that will come out of these ventures. 


Thanks again for sharing! 

Jason Price's picture
Jason Price on Dec 6, 2021

Thanks Audra. I totally agree with your assessment of the potential innovations and outcomes of science and research from space travel. We know this to be the primary driver for NASA. I am hoping this will be the case too, beyond just publicity, from Virgin and Blue Origin.  Only time will tell.  

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