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Article on Silicon Valley Culture

Posted by: pip <>
Date: Thursday, 12 March 1998, at 1:52 p.m.

I thought this Wall Street Journal article neatly summed up some of the backstory of the SII Culture.

March 5, 1998

Oh, What a Tangled Web Silicon Valley Executives Weave


They float over Silicon Valley like the silky fog that rolls in on winter mornings. They're on the lips of the digerati digging into ahi tuna tartare at Palo Alto trattorias. They come thick and fast during interviews with Net moguls-of-the-moment.

They are the lies of Silicon Valley.

High-tech titans are the latest Masters of the Universe, churning out the chips and software that restored America's competitive might and created untold new wealth. No wonder, then, that self-congratulation and self-deception are now a part of the Valley's ethos, right up there with fearless risk-taking, maniacal effort and programming genius.

Here are some of the biggest whoppers:

* 1. "It's not about the money."

This one is told with wearing frequency by the very rich, the super rich and the really filthy rich alike.

In three separate interviews in different cities in different months, RealNetworks Inc.'s Rob Glaser, America Online Inc.'s Steve Case and Inc.'s Jeff Bezos all said almost exactly the same thing about the hundreds of millions of dollars each has amassed.

"The money hasn't changed a thing," said Rob. "The money hasn't changed my life," said Steve. "The money has not changed a thing in my life," said Jeff. Do these guys call each other? Is this the official script handed out to anyone making more than $100 million?

Over lunch at Il Fornaio in leafy Palo Alto, an Armani-clad venture capitalist declares that the small Internet database-management start-up his firm has funded is interested only in the dream of being able to organize information on the Web for everyone. "Of course," he notes quickly, "there will probably be a post-IPO M&A, so we will get a double shot." Translation: The company could go public, earning big bucks for the early investors, and then be sold to a bigger concern, earning its backers even more.

* 2. "It's not about the fame."

If it's not, why are so many Silicon Valley executives sitting still for an unprecedented gusher of worshipful press coverage? The most famous, of course, has been Microsoft Corp.'s Bill Gates, who has become so well-known that it feels as if it's a requirement to have at least one conversation about him a day.

Then there's Lawrence Ellison, Oracle Corp.'s chairman, chief executive and resident billionaire. Profiles of him proliferate in every major business publication and even Vanity Fair. From these pieces, we learn less about Mr. Ellison's database business than about him personally: That he had a troubled childhood, that he loves fast cars and jets, that he's looking for true love though perhaps is a bit of a rover, that he is building an Asian-influenced dream home, that he may or may not have had a face lift.

Did anyone ever know this kind of intimate detail about International Business Machines Corp. execs when they ruled the world? Did they even exist?

* 3. "There's no dress code/no special parking spaces/no fancy offices here, because we're not hung up on status symbols."

In the Valley, having enough power to host board meetings in surfers' baggies and bare feet is the ultimate status symbol. Ditto the cubicle-as-office that reinforces the image of humility and hard work.

All the Valley's top dogs come to work in T-shirts and jeans, just like the grunts down in programming, and sneakers are de rigeur. Intel Corp. Chairman Andy Grove toils in a simple cubicle even as he is anointed "Man of the Year" by Time magazine. Netscape Communications Corp.'s Marc Andreessen comes to work in shorts. The Internet-directory moguls at Yahoo! Inc. have simple desks and cardboard-cutout nameplates thumbtacked to their workspace walls.

Their competitors over at Excite Inc. use a twisty red slide to travel between floors. "We make all our partners slide down it," boasts Excite's co-founder Joe Kraus, before confiding that he has a pitiful apartment, doesn't buy nice clothes but does have a weakness for new cars.

* 4. "No one is really in charge here."

You may have heard about all the goofy titles that Silicon Valley leaders bestow upon themselves: chief evangelist, big thinker, head listener, cheerleader. Like the pretentiously unpretentious dress codes, most of them are meant to telegraph a hatred of hierarchy, a commitment to egalitarianism, a loathing of command.

Steve Jobs is not, not, not the chief executive of Apple Computer Inc., even though he seems to have been running the place for a good long time.

After being named president and chief operating officer of Intel, Craig Barrett said last year: "I don't run Intel. I delegate and Intel runs itself. I try to rally people around a goal and get them all aimed at achieving it." Then is it time to cut back on that hefty salary?

When Gil Amelio was forced out by Apple's board and "temporarily" replaced by nonchief executive Steve Jobs, he avoided characterizing himself as presiding over the company's continued decline. "I was an emergency-room physician who rescued the patient," said Dr. Amelio. "Now it is time for a general practitioner to come in and exercise long-term care." Dr. Amelio got $9.2 million in severance pay despite Apple's financial woes, which is probably a good argument for health-care reform.

* 5. "It's not about a product, it's about changing the world."

"We want to be a catalyst, if you will, for the industry to grow and realize its potential," Lee Nadler, marketing director for Double Click, an interactive advertising network, said to the New York Times last year. In other words, making money selling ads has little to do with it?

Or consider Yahoo founder Jerry Yang, who told InfoWorld last year: "It's more fun today than it was a year ago. The reason is that we are in the position today to actually help change something, whereas a year ago we were just a very puny part of something." While Yahoo's menus of Internet sites are terrific, it's not clear that showcasing all the Web's top Letterman sites will change much of anything.

Still, Silicon Valley persists in breathlessly trumpeting the arrival of every new search engine, asynchronous transfermode switch or sound card. Not even video games are exempt.

"I believe it is a more powerful genre in which the story has the power to provoke people into looking at the world in a slightly different way," the creators of "Riven," the much-anticipated sequel to the famed "Myst" computer game, said in their press release.

* 6. "We have no competition"/"We have a lot of competition."

What a technology company says about its rivals seems to depend on the moment, the mood and the status of the Justice Department's investigation of Microsoft.

In a recent interview in Business Week, Mr. Gates paints a picture of Microsoft under siege from all sides: "IBM is our biggest competitor.... Their influence is way beyond what we have. As if being larger isn't enough, they also have weekly announcements with Netscape, Sun, and Oracle about what they're doing to work in cahoots to attack us," he said. "The amount of competition in this industry is really quite incredible."

Others beg to differ. "It's Microsoft versus mankind, with Microsoft having only a slight lead," Oracle's Mr. Ellison said in a recent speech, echoing a popular sentiment in the Valley.

Over at Netscape, they waffle. Executives at the Internet-software company spent the past year implying that intense competition from Microsoft wasn't hurting the company's bottom line. The about-face came on Jan. 5, when they predicted huge losses because of intense competition from Microsoft. "We have been under very serious pressure," said Netscape Chief Executive Jim Barksdale in an interview, referring to the battle between Netscape's Navigator browser and Microsoft's Internet Explorer. "They have successfully made [Explorer] a free product."

But the top flip-flop goes to Apple's Mr. Jobs, who has spent much of his career denigrating Microsoft products as "third-rate." This past fall, as he was announcing Mr. Gates's massive investment in Apple, Mr. Jobs was espousing a new truth: "We have to let go of the notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft needs to lose." (Mr. Jobs negotiated with Microsoft executives in his bare feet; see #3.)

The litany of great Valley lies goes on and on:

"We listen to our customers" (but only if they can get through on our jammed help lines). "We sell solutions, not products" (and who sells the problems?). "Netscape will be the next Microsoft" (actually, Microsoft will probably be the next Microsoft).

So how to find out what's really going on? We ask in earnest, and are met with yet another whopper: "The answer to that is on our Web site."

Copyright (c) 1998 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


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