In Search of Drama
Contemporary writing about Silicon Valley focuses mostly on the business end of things, but when you browse the bookshelves, the collection of titles is surprisingly scant. The famous chronicles of Wall Street insanities — Barbarians at the Gate, Den of Thieves, Liar’s Poker, and even, in fiction, Bonfire of the Vanities — are all still on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, but the great dramas of Silicon Valley are not much in evidence. My personal favorite of this genre remains 1998’s Burn Rate: How I Survived the Gold Rush Years on the Internet, by Michael Wolff, a hilarious account of life inside the first Internet bubble (or, really, the pre-bubble of 1995–96 that set the stage for the great bubble of 1998–2000). In Wolff’s telling, the startup culture consisted of the deluded leading the delusional, with predictably comic results, and he pulls no punches in his portrayals of greedy-but-clueless venture capitalists (VCs), greedy-but-clueless CEOs (himself included), and too-clueless-to-be-greedy employees. Although many have questioned Wolff’s technique of recounting “verbatim” conversations without the aid of notes, the book always rang true to me. And although the central joke — that the Internet was an industry without any income — may seem more than a little dated, the sketches still hold up.
A more substantive, if less amusing, tale of Internet startup adventures is Charles H. Ferguson’s High Stakes, No Prisoners: A Winner’s Tale of Greed and Glory in the Internet Wars, the author’s story of how he conceived and launched Vermeer Technologies at the very start of the commercial Internet revolution, and then quickly sold it to Microsoft for a tidy $130 million. Ferguson is very smart and insightful, and his analysis of software economics and industry dynamics is among the best I’ve seen anywhere. He also sticks to the first rule of this sort of memoir-cum-business-history: Don’t bother if you’re not ready to speak ill of the vanquished. His trashings of former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale and former Apple Chairman John Sculley, among others, are delicious in their refusal to be polite, and they link the character of the people in power to the business problems of their companies with refreshing directness. And his accounts of his dealings with VCs and other elements of the startup experience are both entertaining and informative.
On the flip side, you certainly put the book down thinking, boy, I hope I never have to work with that guy. I know Ferguson and he’s actually much nicer than he seems in his book, where he comes across as arrogant and hotheaded, if almost always right. And I can only suspect that it was his tendency toward know-it-all-ness that led him to tack onto the end of the book three chapters of surprisingly banal ruminations and recommendations about antitrust policy and privacy and other big-picture Internet-era issues. He was a policy analyst and consultant before taking the plunge as an entrepreneur, so these chapters should have been better, but including them turned out to be an unfortunate choice: In making the case for a breakup of Microsoft, for example, he not only repeats much of what he already recounted in the narrative, but also shows that even he can be dead wrong about big, important issues on which he is an expert. With Google ascendant, nobody cares so much about Microsoft anymore.
And finally, consider an obscure gem that takes you inside the mind of one of the most brilliant but least-known figures in the modern computer business, John Walker’s The Autodesk File: Bits of History, Words of Experience. A compilation of occasional “big-think” memos that Walker sent to collaborators at his Sausalito software firm, The Autodesk File contains amazingly well-written, real-time essays on the crucial issues facing a software startup. Walker, a recluse who moved to Switzerland many years ago, is not the most pleasant fellow: The one time I saw him in public, when he introduced Carol Bartz as the new Autodesk CEO, he engaged in a shouting match with a Wall Street Journal reporter and generally confirmed his reputation as a paranoid misanthrope. But as a perceptive thinker and writer on the emerging technology business, he is at the top of the heap.