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The Curious Culture Of Silicon Valley


The Curious Culture of Silicon Valley


By Po Bronson

Random House 248pp $25

Stories about Silicon Valley are becoming pretty darn pat: Take one entrepreneur with a good idea, then track the hair-raising adventures that take him from nowhere, past the brink of professional/financial/mental disaster, and on to golden success. But in The Nudist on the Late Shift, Po Bronson rises above this formula. By describing the days and nights of the Valley's new generation (including a nudist who toiled late at one animation company), the author delivers a revealing profile of Valley culture, with its emphasis on time, luck, and work and its conviction that nearly everyone can be just as successful as the most recent Wired cover boy. While the book will appeal most to those not familiar with how Silicon Valley works, it's hard not to appreciate its nuanced look at the area's idiosyncrasies.

Bronson uses various people's tales to describe each of several different Valley types, including entrepreneurs, programmers, salespeople, and dropouts. His entrepreneur, Sabeer Bhatia, is an Indian engineer who founded the free E-mail service Hotmail and sold it to Microsoft Corp. for $400 million. Hotmail has become an archetype of so-called viral marketing--free distribution over the Internet of a service that quickly becomes the object of intense buzz, often leading to exponential growth in subscribers.

Bronson provides, among other details of Bhatia's career, an account of the clever and painstaking promotion of Hotmail. Bhatia employed two products to raise funds from venture capitalists: a decoy personal-database program and Hotmail. All potential investors saw the first of these, but Bhatia showed Hotmail only to those few who he thought asked the right questions about the first program. In a broader sense, the author offers Bhatia's story to demonstrate that there are many variables in play in making a Net company a success--not the least of which are image, buzzwords, and presentation.

Key to all such Silicon Valley triumphs, however, is the willingness, even the deep desire, to take risks. Bronson's characters react and draw lessons from the experiences of those who have succeeded. They are buoyed by the idea that the money is there to fuel their experiments--and that there's little penalty for failure. A French entrepreneur, for instance, displays undaunted optimism about his company, even as he calculates that if it doesn't work, the experience will nonetheless land him another job. Giving voice to this sentiment, the author observes that "every generation that came before us had to make a choice between pursuing a steady career and pursuing wild adventures.... In Silicon Valley...young people no longer have to choose."

In a chapter focused on programmers, the author demonstrates how random thoughts can become business proposals overnight and how such projects often teeter on the edge of failure. He tells how the Big Network, a Web service offering digital versions of board games such as chess and checkers, labored to arrange a deal with portal During a key demo, Big Network's founders frantically manipulated a phone conversation--and an electronic game of Spades--to keep Snap's people from discovering some major bugs. Why were there bugs? Because the Big Network lacked the money to pay for full-time engineers--and, having been burned in the past, engineers refused to work for stock options alone.

Readers familiar with Silicon Valley may occasionally feel that Bronson's observations are out of date. In one scene, for example, he describes a party where he notices that the area's geek culture has been transformed. Why, there are these smartly attired guys around--and women! "We just watched the whirlpool of lithe bodies, of grown-up frat men in Sisley shirts and long-haired women in Bebe minisuits--and the same thought occurred to all of the Big Network guys at just about the same time: `Man, when did all these gorgeous women start working in this business?"' The problem here is that these demographic changes took place almost two years ago, an aeon in Valley time.

Elsewhere, the author exaggerates local quirks. At the same party, Bronson is unable to find a person he came with--so he dials the guy's cell phone number and finds him standing only 20 feet away. Such over-the-top techno-reliance is normal, the author seems to say--but it really isn't.

Some of Bronson's material is a little too superficial to hold a reader's interest. One whole chapter entitled "The Futurist" is devoted to George Gilder, a trend-spotter and magazine writer. But Bronson doesn't adequatly explain why he is devoting so much attention to Gilder. Gilder doesn't seem to have much more to say about the future than many other self-proclaimed soothsayers.

In the end, what really makes The Nudist on the Late Shift is Bronson's breezy, insightful writing. In the final chapter, Bronson relates a conversation he had with Novell Chief Executive Eric Schmidt in which they discuss success and failure. Bronson tells some stories of disappointment and frustration, and asks Schmidt to react. "I would be unhappy if people weren't whining," Schmidt replies. "I want them to want more.... The kind of mild dissatisfaction with what you have is a key prerequisite for success in this business." Where else do bosses view carping employees as a good thing? In Silicon Valley, it seems, no matter what happens, the sun is always shining.By Heather GreenReturn to top

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