Fortune Teller

An Interview With Silicon Valley Voyeur Po Bronson

"It's very hard to discern the extent to which people care about money," Po Bronson writes in The Nudist on the Late Shift, his candid new book on Silicon Valley. "These are high achievers; they want to succeed, they want to win. For the highest achievers, money is an incidental by-product, a side effect—they get it whether they're motivated by it or not. It's as if Rogaine hair-growing cream, once it got into your system, also made your dick bigger. Who could tell why guys were rubbing it in?"

Bronson, 35, a journalist and novelist whose two previous books—the novels Bombardiersand The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest—are both being made into films, has written the quintessential tale of the human element driving the tech revolution. Bronson takes his readers on a whirlwind tour of every corner of Silicon Valley, both geographically and professionally, from the headhunter whose job is to trick people into providing her with employee names to the guy who traffics in recycled cubicle partitions to the "holistic practitioner of communication" who trains CEOs for their pre-IPO road shows—and of course, the programmers, entrepreneurs, salespeople, and visionaries, a riveting cast of characters in the century's final act.

Bronson (who has been called "the bard of Silicon Valley") operates from the unique position of simultaneous insider and outsider. He has never worked for a Valley company and has shunned offers to participate in start-ups (he even claims to be uninterested in money), yet he routinely networks people, introducing new arrivals to potentially useful contacts. And he has gained unprecedented access: to IPO negotiations, venture-capital deals, and social gatherings. The Nudist is mesmerizing in part because it does not prognosticate or judge, but presents the players' stories and leaves the rest to the reader. Which led Machine Age to wonder, what does it feel like to be so close to this world and yet still have the perspective of a voyeur?

You spent three years with the people you chronicle in your first chapter, "The Newcomers." These weren't people you chose to profile retroactively because of where they ended up. What was it like following them through this highly charged world, not knowing what would become of them?

Emotionally I would grow attached, for sure. I would agonize that I was supposed to have that fire wall, as a journalist. Yet I would see that this guy was lonely and I would hook him up with an entrepreneurs' group. I would comment [to the entrepreneur referred to in the book as David/John], "When you sell, you sell too hard."

Were you up at night, worrying about them?

I've had nightmares about various start-ups' situations, tried to solve their problems. There was this funny psychological transaction: it would be extremely stressful for them, and I would just listen, use the therapy approach. They would come back the next day and they'd be like, I had the best night's sleep. I'd be like, "I kept waking up with your damn problems." I'm fundamentally attracted to the drama of the story.

Are these people happy?

Oh, no. Some people are happy, but it doesn't have to do with what's going on in their [careers]. I'm very convinced that this is in their nature. These people, by and large, are always a little bit jealous, competitive, going to fight to scramble to the top no matter what they're doing. Everybody's slightly unhappy. That's the sort of people that are drawn here.

No sooner do you go public than there's this constant fear that the stock is going to go down. You don't get more than a couple of days' happiness before the next crisis. The golden handcuffs are going to be coming off soon and we're going to see if it's all about the money or not.

San Francisco has existed in popular myth as the place to go to have a challenging, intellectually stimulating job that you can leave at five to go mountain biking. Does that culture still exist somewhere outside the high-tech world? Or did it die out with slackerdom?

What I've found is that they're better at going home at five in Seattle than here, and even better in Minneapolis than Seattle. But nevertheless it's sunny enough and physically beautiful. But San Francisco is not part of the Valley. [People in the city are] urban, cynical, much more aware of what they're giving up. In the Valley it's easier to just work all the time.

In the book you paint Silicon Valley as a highly specific place, whose lifestyle could never really be re-created anywhere else. But how much do you think the culture of Silicon Valley will seep into American culture as a whole?

Once you get critical mass, [with people everywhere] seeing what can be done with the entrepreneurial mind, I can't imagine people going back to work for some big old company. I don't see young people having any desire to do that unless they're convinced they need to do so to support their family. I think we will see that [entrepreneurial] labor model applied around the country.

The stories out of Silicon Valley several years ago were all about the products and the people. Now the stories are all about the money. How does that affect the mind-set of the people working in the Valley?

So many companies have gone public that you're getting the first degree of separation. We all know somebody who did it. Before it was "we've all read about it." Now it's closer to home. And that's troubling to people. It stirs up a lot of envy. It does pain me a great deal because it seems like that kind of media story is reaching a fever this summer. The money is a huge part of it, but it is a complicated little environment. I do feel like there is a fight for the soul going on right now.

I see tons of start-up ideas. They're all about putting another product category online. It's a good business model; I'm sure it will be huge, but it totally co-opted the sense that there is anything cool about this. It's a distraction from people's dreams. The dream wasn't to do turtles.com.

Well, that might be someone's dream.

Yeah, turtle lovers, absolutely. There's a fish food site, these guys out there to sell fish food. On their Web site, you have to fill out the form, print it out, and fax it to them, and then call with the credit card number. And they are doing more business than pets.com. Their revenue won't last. But they're out there and they love their fish food. [There are also] people out there who don't love what they're doing, don't know the product. I feel like it's harder to find ideas and people who inspire me this spring and summer.

You talk about the idea of the "old-fashioned halo test"—that if you're not improving society, there's no point. Do you think that people in the Valley believe that they're improving society? Are they actually improving it?

I think that they believe it less and less. But I still do meet people who fundamentally believe in it. What I have seen is social structures get broken down. It's increasingly a classless and raceless society where the normal ways we establish order have been challenged, have been torn down. [It's amazing] to watch a kid who didn't know anybody when he got here and came from Taiwan build something and do well despite all the odds. The social structures and social bonds of society are being changed. I'm not saying it's a promised land. People are lonely, work way too hard, lack meaning in their lives, lack the psychological furniture that gives you your reference points. You have all these social nomads.

I have a friend [in the Valley] from Odessa, Texas. He's Indian, and he was subjected to a lot of racism. He loves it here because it gets beyond that stuff. He's adopted as his culture the buzzwords of Business 2.0 magazine. On the one hand, it's very twisted to watch. [We've] gotten above race and class but it's a barren, cultureless class.

I do think people are going to give away a ton of money. [They'll] take their model and apply it: empower people to help themselves. They've seen that the whole society can do so well. But [impoverished] East Palo Alto is right there in the middle of it. And the Valley still doesn't go in there. [The thinking goes,] I can give you a million dollars today or I can hang onto it and invest it in my company and next year it'll be 6 million. But we definitely have decided as a country that the welfare state isn't working and we want to try some different things. We're looking for role models for the right way to do that. This is just one experiment.

You don't overtly discuss the gender gap in your book, but the male dominance of Valley culture comes through in subtle ways.

I really intended to have a women's chapter be a part of the book. Lots of women would say, "My story is the story." This was a similar thing I found with engineers—a hubris, a defensiveness to mistake the instance for the general case. I learned some great stories but there wasn't a consensus, there wasn't a definitive women's experience. Many women felt like they were very aware their sexuality could be used as a business tool, [and some] would quit the business because they were disgusted by this. Some would just deal with it to the point it didn't even bother them. There are many women who have to put up with locker-room talk [at work]. But there are places like Netscape where at one point there were more women than men. The percentage of Ph.D.s awarded in most sciences to women doubled over the last five years, but in computer science it went down.

The real fear I have is, they're creating a big medium for the masses. If they don't represent it within, it will show. I see it as a real problem. But the multimedia and content world is a different world from the hardcore chip engineers, the real geeks, the old Intel culture. The Valley has gone through these phases of hardware, software, media. That has allowed so many more women to come here in the last few years. It has gotten a lot better. Eight years ago, [male executives] were like, I'm gonna marry the secretary. Now it's like, I want someone who's as ambitious as me.

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