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Po Bronson's The Nudist on the Late Shift is the best attempt so far to cut through the money and celebrity and find the real Silicon Valley. Like his novels, this nonfiction work is incisive and often uproariously funny. (2,000 words)
|By Bill Rosenblatt|
as the millennium approaches. The Nudist is a real gem -- a book that is both incisive and entertaining. For sheer reading pleasure, it's the best book about the Internet since Michael Wolff's Burn Rate (reviewed in Bill's Bookshelf, September, 1998). At the same time, it suggests that Bronson has yet to reach his peak as a writer.
After graduating from college, Po Bronson took an entry-level job on the bond trading floor of a major investment bank in San Francisco, rapidly became horrified, and quit after only a year. He used his experiences there as fodder for his first novel, Bombardiers, a hilarious neutron bomb of a satire portraying life in the bond-trading world. Bronson then began covering Silicon Valley for various periodicals, including Wired, which led to his second book,
another satirical novel, entitled The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest (reviewed in Bill's Bookshelf, June 1997). The First $20M was the tale of a Silicon Valley startup company that took Java-like technology out of the research lab and attempted to commercialize it. In contrast to his obvious contempt for bond trading, the novel betrayed Bronson's admiration for the people and products of Silicon Valley. Although colorful and funny, it lacked the vitriolic bite of his first work.
The Nudist on the Late Shift finds Bronson haunting the cubicles, hallways, power breakfast joints, and parties of real-life Silicon Valley in search of people and stories that capture its essence. This is more than another collection of puff pieces on techno-celebrities, à la Karen Southwick's Silicon Gold Rush (reviewed in Bill's Bookshelf, April 1999). Although some of Bronson's interview subjects are big names like David Filo of Yahoo!, Eric Schmidt of Novell, and right-wing futurist George Gilder, the vast majority of characters in this book are anonymous Valley toilers and overachieving pilgrims who have come to try their skills and luck in the bazaar.
Bronson is obviously bored by people and things that are typical or characteristic; instead, he is drawn to extremes, which help him shed light on a situation. It's safe to say that Bronson has a knack for sniffing out the unusual. He comments, for example, on the fact that a lot of people one meets at Silicon Valley parties these days are biz dev types with management consulting backgrounds. (For the uninitiated: "biz dev" is Valley-speak for "business development," the increasingly common function of negotiating deals and setting up partnerships with other companies.) He does not feel the need to profile someone who went to an Ivy League business school, did two years at Boston Consulting Group or McKinsey, and then became a director of business development at Excite. That would be too mundane.
Instead, Bronson's chosen profile subjects are as diverse and remarkable as the angles from which he examines them. He profiles a couple of computer-games entrepreneurs whose company is so virtual that their office is a desk in a basement at UC Berkeley, from which they are in imminent danger of eviction. The programmers are contractors hired by the week, whose future viability is entirely dependent on one deal with a portal company that looks more tenuous every day. He spends an entire chapter chronicling in microscopic detail the IPO of a software company, called Actuate, that produces corporate enterprise report generation tools. Instead of talking about power, vision, and instant riches, he focuses on CEO Nico Nierenberg's control-freak nature and how the IPO process undermines it. This inherent need for control, argues Bronson, causes Nierenberg to "confront his utter puniness" as he becomes subject to the whims of the stock market, SEC regulators, and even the weather. Nierenberg became $28 million richer after the IPO hit the market, but Bronson treats this almost as an afterthought.
Bronson's opening chapter, "The Newcomers," is one of the most powerful in the book. It focuses on a few individuals out of the "great unwashed" mass of people who have come from all over the world to try their hands at Silicon Valley-style success. They work 18-hour days and crawl into their low-rent boltholes or under their cubicle desks for a few hours' sleep, then wake up to do it all over again the next morning, seven days a week. They finance their lives by maxing out credit cards and growing and selling illegal substances, or other unorthodox means. They have an almost religious belief in the holy grail of riches from acquisition or IPO.
One of those profiled is an ecommerce entrepreneur whose optimism is so exaggerated that it's obvious he's trying to convince himself more than anyone else. "If iCentral was just valued at $10 million, that's great for us; we're worth at least twice that," he says, and he sounds more pathetic than anything else. Most of Bronson's newcomers don't make it. When the evidence of their failure becomes too obvious to ignore, they look up from their cubicles and realize they have no friends, no money, and no lives. Some of them go back home, while others just disappear. Like a science nerd from the rural high school starting as a physics major at Cal Tech, or the narrator of the song "New York, New York" ("If I can make it here, I'll make it anywhere"), these people are forced by Silicon Valley to confront their limitations. Bronson treats his subjects with sensitivity; you're interested in them despite the fact that they are nobodies.
Death of the salespeople
The real gem in the book is the chapter on salespeople. Here, finally, Bronson's eye for evocative journalistic detail merges with his heat-seeking-missile satiric wit. The chapter is a collection of vignettes about a class of people who go largely unheralded in the stories of technology company growth. They are, as Bronson points out, not the supergeek programmers with the orange hair and nose rings, or the swashbuckling, evangelistic entrepreneurs, or even the Armani-clad venture capitalists. Rather, they are those people whose professional niceness, obsequiousness, and inoffensive suits hide the fact that they care about one thing, and one thing only -- cash.
Bronson begins with the popular assumption that salespeople are phony sleazebags and, by looking under the surface, at least partially debunks the notion. He explains the overall structure of selling technology, from the nuts-and-bolts tasks of telemarketing and lead qualification to the more artful tactics of the "solution" sales cycle. He examines the latter techniques -- "pants dropping," "reverse closing," etc. -- almost as if they were moves Michael Jordan would make on a basketball court. The chapter is not only accurate and incisive, it is hysterically funny. I was on a plane while reading it and I was laughing so hard that the people sitting near me must have thought I had lost my marbles.
I can't resist sharing a sample from this chapter:
It is raining bad leads in the software business. The hurricane of shitty leads is ten miles off the coast and bearing down. Every software firm's 800 number rings off the hook, but it's always another grandma in Arizona with the wacky idea of selling hand-knit baby socks over the Web, and she figures she can spend $49 before her second husband steals the checkbook again. Every firm's Web site is being dented with a barrage of email from rogue developers angling for a free trial copy of the software. Every convention yields a fishbowl crammed with business cards, mostly from people who want to sell to you, not buy from you.
This is the type of savage humor Bronson applied to his vignettes of bond salesmen trying to sell dubious investments to their poor schlemiel clients in Bombardiers. Unfortunately, he doesn't apply this style consistently throughout the book. I would have loved, for example, to see Bronson's satiric style unleashed on venture capitalists as they evaluate business plans: "It is raining bad business plans in the venture capital business. Every VC firm gets a forklift-full of three-ring binders when the FedEx truck arrives, but it's always another frustrated programmer at Oracle who has some weeny little idea for a development tool, and he figures he can get Microsoft to buy it for inclusion in the next version of Visual J++ for $200 million ..."
Two chapters later, Bronson profiles George Gilder and Danny Hillis. Gilder is a futurist who gained notoriety through various books and a column in Forbes, the same periodical that launched Esther Dyson's career.
Gilder's ultraconservative political views (e.g., "There is no racism in America anymore") made him a darling of Ronald Reagan in a way similar to, yet more simple-minded than, the way in which Alvin Toffler came to be a favorite of Newt Gingrich. Gilder also became a favorite of Sun's Scott McNealy, and, as we learned in last month's column (see Resources below), he was largely responsible for Sun's positioning of Java as an entirely new computing paradigm, rather than just a programming language.
Danny Hillis is a different type of figure, one who is only peripherally involved with Silicon Valley. His chief claim to fame was his PhD work at MIT, which resulted in the Connection Machine -- the first massively parallel computer that was commercially viable. Hillis went on to work for Disney as the first Disney Fellow, someone whom Disney pays to think great thoughts on how technology can be used to make the Magic Kingdom more magical. Bronson mentions the fact that Hillis was being recruited by Sun to be its chief technology officer, to replace Eric Schmidt after he left to become CEO of Novell. (We now know that Sun was unsuccessful; instead, the company promoted Greg Papadopolous, the CTO of the hardware division, to the corporate CTO position.) Hillis is a true scientific genius; the implications of him working for an entertainment company instead of a place like Sun ought to be worth examining, but Bronson doesn't really do so.
These two chapters are the least worthwhile in the book, because Bronson is too much in awe of his subjects. The chapter on Hillis is especially weak -- he couldn't really tell Bronson anything because of Disney's legendarily tight nondisclosure policy. Bronson is also in awe of Gilder because, once again, Gilder is the exception, the extreme case. He is the only futurist to spout statistics instead of unverifiable platitudes, thus daring people to revisit his predictions and prove him wrong.
But overall, Po Bronson is well on his way to becoming the premier chronicler of
life in Silicon Valley. Whereas Stewart Alsop, Esther Dyson, and their ilk have
transformed themselves from outside observers to inside royalty, I hope Bronson will always be the court jester -- a real motley fool. He needs to stop being in awe of his subjects, no matter how difficult that may be. Only then will he be able to aim his full satiric weaponry at a world that often takes itself far too seriously. In the meantime, though, The Nudist on the Late Shift is a gem of a book. Highly recommended.
About the author
Bill Rosenblatt is vice president of technology for Morningside Ventures in New York City.
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