Saturday, January 28, 2006

The Nudist on the Late Shift (Po Bronson)

When I first moved out to California, it was the summer of 2001. It wasn't the best time in the tech industry---the bubble had burst, as people were fond of saying, and you could go to work every day with a strong chance you (or a coworker) would be laid off. I managed to quickly (and luckily) find a job that wasn't in the tech industry, but I watched others I knew who were. I still love to have Jim retell stories from the two Internet companies he worked for: the one who had a man in management who had been seriously involved in the 1980's radio payola scam and the other that treated its employees to a party on a yacht and soon after began laying people off until they were down to a handful. There's relics from that time all over the area: The old Silicon Graphics building is now the Computer History Museum and there were public auctions of expensive office furniture and computers. But of all the companies that failed, many succeeded and are still around today. Both Yahoo! and Google are two of the main powerhouses that compete with each other in terms of employee benefits (including, in Google's case, free gourmet, onsite prepared meals).

But the experience of the late 1990s, that feeling that anyone can be a millionaire with a great idea, that excitement, is gone. In The Nudist on the Late Shift: and Other True Tales of Silicon Valley, Po Bronson captures the spirit of that time by presenting indepth studies of people who gave everything to be a part of it. Bronson, who used to be an investment banker (so understands the money side of these businesses) and also writes for Wired (so understands the tech side), also knows a thing or two about writing for real peole (those of us who do not know the intricacies of venture capitalists and Java programming).

An East coast reporter asks Bronson to capture the "Silicon Valley experience," and he realizes right away how different the experience is depending on who you are and where you work. "The experiences of working in, say, the New Age human potential culture at Apple is vastly different from working for Intel, where employees go through what is called 'confrontation training,' in which they learn to call one another names and brutally speak their minds, believing that only through conflict will good ideas emerge." He visits the Yahoo! campus and meets the co-founder of Yahoo! David Filo. Bronson asks Filo if he still sleeps under his desk (there's a famous picture of him under his cubicle, covered in a blanket, and surrounded by paper). Filo's answer? "Not much anymore. No room." "I did find amusing," Bronson says, "that he no longer slept under his desk not because he had doubled his money since then [for reference, at this point Filo is a billionaire], but because his trash heap had doubled in size and squeezed him out."

Reading the book you'll have the themepark thrill ride experience of watching a company try to become an IPO (I'm not kidding! Bronson makes it thrilling!). You meet amazing people through Bronson--the cofounder of Hotmail whose obstacle to his startup ventures became the startup idea, Java programmers who would rather be squirrel hunting in Tennesee, and salespeople, including Jim Yares. "What makes Jim Yares so Northern Californiaesque is that he grew up in the South, where congeniality is so nurtured it seems natured. Jim Yares is touchy-feely, but he's not sticky. He doesn't ooze any vibe. He is porch, a wicker chair, and a summer breeze." And you also meet a sixty-year-old woman who spearheads a tech dealer company. Bronson refers to her as "Mom," who has "because of a lifetime smoking Parliaments 100 has one lung left, fights emphysema, and a tube runs from her nostrils down to a portable respirator at her side." And this lady "is known as the number one closer in the software business."

I first heard of this book when I saw it at a used/new bookstore in Palo Alto last weekend. I had heard Po Bronson's name before, but I didn't really know what he wrote and had never read his stuff before. I feel like I'm on my way to becoming a real fan of his work, though. I thought The Nudist on the Late Shift (and yes, there is a real nudist) did an excellent job of capturing what that time here in the Valley was like, and I can't wait to read more of his work. (p.s. Bronson also has an excellent Web site that is worth a look.)

Next book up: Hidden Kitchens by Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson

No comments: