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It's Later Than You Think

Po Bronson
Jessica Wynne

Po Knows: In his second novel, Po Bronson explores a
mythical Silicon Valley possibility--the $300 network PC.

An interview with author Po Bronson

By Larry Smith

Po Bronson writes what he knows. When he started writing an as yet unpublished fantasy involving animals and social order, he studied vertebrate biology to make sure his protagonists could move the way he described them. His masterfully crafted, highly caffeinated peek into the world of investment banking, Bombardiers, derived from his years working in that world. When he got curious about computers, he took a course on how to build one. Here, while clearly labeled as fiction, his new novel is the result of his desire to learn about the psyche of the people behind those magic boxes, in large part derived from his experiences and interviews conducted as a journalist peering into Silicon Valley for Wired, New York Times Magazine and Forbes ASAP. The First 20 Million Is Always the Hardest is Bronson's way of telling the stories of the dreamers, the behind the scenes "iron men" that do the backbreaking work and receive little of the credit.

While the topics he chooses to write about are certainly rife with nasty underbellies, Bronson explores, rather than attacks, his subjects. In an early essay he writes, "I came of age in Silicon Valley, during its gold rush glory years, 1982 through 1986, while I studied Economics at Stanford. It was the new California, the land of dreams and the dreamy, the age of entrepreneurism." The First 20 Million Is Always the Hardest reveals a writer debunking whatever myths he -- we -- once held about the Tech Dream. And yet in this tale of ego and deceit (and more than a little naiveté), the author remains surprisingly hopeful.

At magazines like Wired (where he serves as a regular feature writer), industry publications and the mainstream media, the stories that get told are usually about the powerful, the precious few who carry the biggest stick and make the sexy decisions. In many ways, this true fiction foray into Silicon Valley, perhaps the most pomped and circumstanced area in America, is a journalist's response to the stories that are not being told.

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Mo' Po' -- links to interviews and articles about Po Bronson.

Or go back to The First 20 Million excerpt.

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Metro's online editor, Larry Smith, talked with Po Bronson about his second novel, the thrills and horrors of the high-tech world and why, oh why, Suck.com thinks he should be tarred and feathered.

Metro: Why did you decide to write about Silicon Valley?

Po Bronson: Well, it was a confluence of events. My backyard pool needed a new paint job, and the Bentley was in the shop, and have you seen the price of Cuban cigars lately? Not to mention my stock portfolio had only gone up 14 percent in the year. So, you can understand--I was feeling poor. You know--asset rich, but cash poor. I needed money. I thought, 'Hey, you write for Wired, maybe you can dupe some New York publisher into thinking you're qualified to write a novel about high tech!' I took their money and hired a ghostwriter for far less. Hey, it's a business. Take the money and run.

Metro: Okay, I suppose I was asking for it. How about enlightening our good readers about your computer curiosity, and what that brought to your head, and eventually, your novel?

Po Bronson: I was taking a class at San Francisco State on how to build computers, and the instructor began to talk about the Pentium chip. As most of you know, but I was just learning, the Pentium is really just two 486 chips side by side. With the proper software, computing should be done in parallel on the two chips. But most Windows applications were still 16-bit versions which didn't support parallel processing. So for most of those Pentium chips out there in the world, one of those two 486 chips was sitting idly, dormant as a bear in hibernation. Oh, there are all sorts of other advancements that make a Pentium faster than a single 486, the clock speed and motherboard circuitry and memory caches, but still--the Pentium performance was being wasted. And sitting there in class on a rainy Saturday, I couldn't help but wonder about the team of engineers who had designed the Pentium. How did they feel, that their elegant chip--which was being trumped-up in advertisements during the Super Bowl--was actually going to waste? This was the inspiration for Francis Benoit, a master chip designer burning with resentment over his last design being wasted running 16-bit software, looking for revenge.

Metro: Is the idea for the creation of $300 computer, and a group of engineers splitting off when confronted by the wall of management, inspired by an actual case?

Po Bronson: The Random House legal department has instructed me to state, for the record, that 'this is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons is entirely coincidental.' Coincidental! Like they expect readers to believe that?

I have friends and sources inside many of the big Silicon Valley companies, and a lot at startups, and in the money side, too: investment bankers, VCs. Before writing a word, I did 100 interviews. That said, Random House lawyers have told me this is a work of complete fiction. Make of that what you will.

The question is, how well does it approximate reality? Obviously, the story is streamlined, it's like a fable. In 300 pages we go from idea to IPO. But does it capture the mood, the nature, the essence of the Valley today? Is that real? I hope so.

Metro: Is the $300 computer possible? Will WebTV be the "killer ap" that brings the Web, at least and at last, to the masses?

Po Bronson: It could, but it won't. There will be too much product confusion, frustrating consumers. If there were one standard $300-$500 product, then it would be a hit.

Metro: Your characters are obsessed with games -- the infinite loops, the 10 woman game, etc. -- needing to break things down until they are accessible in an almost mathematical way. Is that systemic of a certain kind of "engineer's logic" or simply your take on geeks' playfulness?

Po Bronson: It's what people with big brains do to burn up extra brainpower. It's an expression of restlessness, sort of like a couple good ol' boys wasting the afternoon shooting beer bottles on a fence with a rifle.

Metro: How has the reception to your book been among the Silicon Valley digerati?

Po Bronson: Best anecdote: The editor of Suck.com doesn't believe that a book about Silicon Valley can be literature--something about how the Valley is all hype and little reality, and literature is about getting at what's real. She presumed I was paid a big advance for this novel--she resented that I might have capitalized on the industry's hype--when in fact I was paid only what my first novel earned.

Well, she held a little cocktail party in the Wired offices, with the intention of ridiculing my book. She'd printed out enlarged paper masks of my face. She wanted everyone to wear a Po Bronson mask. Not many did.

Po Bronson
Jessica Wynne

Metro: Okay, let's go on the assumption that mask or no mask, you are a pretty literate individual. What books influenced The First 20 Million?

Po Bronson: Lots of them. I wanted to update Soul of a New Machine to the 1990's, and the biggest difference between then and now is the degree to which business strategies and power games are such a huge factor in what gets made and purchased. Tracy Kidder's account is all about the engineers' can-do attitude, and all about how hard they work, and all about the technical problems they solve, but almost nothing about getting a product to market, financing the company, selling it, et cetera. Similarly, I loved Microserfs, but while reading it I craved more intrigue and information about this 3-D Lego startup.

Another influence was Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff. The phrase is invoked a lot in Silicon Valley. Engineers talk about whether they have "the right stuff" to succeed. I don't know how many of them have read the book, but I wanted the opening chapters of my novel to capture that we-are-the-holy-and-chosen tone of Tom Wolfe's narration. Gradually, as my book shifts from idealism to reality, that tone disappears.

Metro: There have been buzzings that more than one Mercury News reporter has been curious who you are depicting with your character Nell Kirkham? Did you have someone in particular in mind?

Po Bronson: The Time magazine article hinted at that. Several Merc reporters called me, objecting to the derogatory characterization. Two I'd never met before, and so certainly couldn't have been the basis for the character. The third is an old acquaintance of mine, and she admitted that, like the Nell Kirkham character, she's always asking her interview subjects "how they feel about their work." In truth, though, the character is me, and her situation is one I've been in, trying to get at the personality drama behind a technology while all the engineers want to talk about is the technology.

Metro: In an author's note at the end of the book that you were thinking about calling the book "Not Gates." Why not?

Po Bronson: Random House didn't think it sounded like a novel.

Metro: Can you expand on that?

Po Bronson: There is an important double-entendre to "Not Gates," though. The basis of the computer is the silicon transistor, three layers of silicon that can hold a small electrical charge. Transistors are connected into three types of simple logic gates: the AND gate, the OR gate, and the NOT gate. The function of a NOT gate is to turn a 1 into a 0. When electrical power comes into a NOT gate, the charge is cancelled.

While investigating the power dynamics of Silicon Valley on assignment for Wired magazine, I kept hearing stories that represented, in effect, NOT gates: entrepreneurs who had been impeded, cheated, or cancelled by the gatekeepers of power. Unfortunately, their experiences were also NOT stories, certainly not magazine stories, which are more about the powerful than the powerless, more about those companies who went public than all those who went belly up. So in order to expose the NOT gates, I turned to fiction.

Maybe this book is about Bill Gates implicitly. By having masterminded a near monopoly on desktop computer operating systems, he is the ultimate gatekeeper of power in Silicon Valley. More than any other person, he decides which gates are AND, which are OR, and which are NOT. What was going on in Silicon Valley in 1995 was that thousands of enterprising minds were busily negotiating his gates, attempting to pass through. By 1996, though, things were different. Quite suddenly, so many of those enterprising minds were attempting to bypass Gates' gates entirely, inventing a new paradigm of technology that ignored operating systems. If they couldn't go through, they would go around. It was an inspiring surge of can-do ingenuity.

Metro: What are the similarities between the worlds of investment banking you wrote about in your first novel, Bombardiers, and the hi-tech scene in The First 20 Million?

Po Bronson: A lot of money is being made, and few people really know what is going on.

Metro: Is this the place where it is all happening, the (if you'll pardon the expression) "new Hollywood?"

Po Bronson: Is this industry the new Hollywood? Well, if your description of Hollywood is 'a business where they throw huge amounts of money at projects that are over-budget, late, and likely to bust,' then yes, Silicon Valley is the new Hollywood.

Metro: But engineers are becoming something of celebs in the late '90s. Perhaps they are the new "rock stars"?

Po Bronson: Hardly. Music goes for the gut, engineering for the noggin. I don't get a tear in my eye when I load up Netscape, and I don't get up and dance when I connect to America Online. We'll never be hearing about Andreeson tearing up hotel rooms, or about how Larry Ellison has got some love child. Those guys have got too much work to do to get in trouble and entertain us.

Metro: What's next?

Po Bronson: Back to writing for Wired for a year. I'm very, very late on some articles.


Po Bronson will read from The First $20 Million Is @lways the Hardest on March 6 at Black Oak Books in Berkeley at 7:30pm; on March 7 at a Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco at 7:30pm; on March 27 at Kepler's in Menlo Park, 7:30pm; and on April 14 at the Capitola Book Cafe at 7:30pm.

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From the March 6-12, 1997 issue of Metro

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