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[whitespace] The Nudist on the Late Shift An-tech-dotes: 'Nudist' lays out a wider view of the Valley's 'users' and winners.

Surveying Silicon Valley

Po Bronson gets inside the computer crowd

By Jessica Ylvisaker

The pages of The Nudist on the Late Shift are generously endowed with names of Silicon Valley VIPs; people Po Bronson has devoted a great deal of time and energy to meeting and whose stories he is eager to tell. The high rollers of the technology industry are the new breed of celebrity, whose cultural personality has been characterized and recharacterized in Wired, Newsweek, and in various books and documentaries over the past few years. Not all of the names are yet household, but the public's interest in these whizzy, wealthy movers and shakers is quickly eroding their privacy.

This public interest is sparked by a variety of factors, not the least of which is the legendary reclusiveness of the computer crowd. They're not exhibitionists, traditionally speaking. They're not generally clamoring to be in the public eye. They may be filthy rich, they may drive Lamborghinis and throw parties featuring live jaguars jetted down to Woodside from Canada, but they are socially awkward. They work punishingly long and solitary hours, and wear the same T-shirt for four days in a row. They're techno geeks, they don't have many friends, and they don't have much taste. These may well be little more than envy-fed generalizations, but Bronson argues that they don't matter, anyway. In his words, "tastelessness is not an indicator of poor taste, it's an indicator of how little the money really matters to the spender." Miss Manners would likely be much chagrined by this assessment, but it does seem to make sense in light of the peculiar extravagances of many late-90s Valley lifestyles.

In this collection of vignettes, Bronson describes a broad spectrum of individuals: rich, poor, socially graced and otherwise. He has recorded the stories of recent Bay Area arrivals, young couch surfers thrilled to have arrived at the hotbed of technological activity and anxious to receive their first stock options. He has met with the established names, the suddenly rich and powerful, the "Sabeer Bhatia, founder of Hotmail" types. He has also explored the quickly diversifying variety of jobs involved with the vast tech industry boom: the visionaries, the programmers, the entrepreneurs, the venture capitalists, the salespeople, the headhunters, the refinishers and restorers of office cubicle walls.

Because Bronson is a terrific storyteller--sensitive to detail, articulate and persuasive--the character sketches are riveting. Nothing of interest may happen in the day in the life he spends with Computer Salesman X, but Bronson still manages to convey some sense of who this person is, of why he does what he does, and why we should care. Bronson can make an average salesman's average day as interesting as the shrouded-in-mystery story of the animator who sits buck naked at his computer terminal.

In one particular story, Bronson tells the tale of Claudia. She is a "ruser," a headhunter extraordinaire who will stop at nothing short of unethical behavior to acquire the names and job descriptions of employees at top Silicon Valley companies. She telephones the employees and puts their loyalty to the test, luring them away from a current job with promises of stock options and fat salaries at a new startup. She bribes temps to copy pages out of company phone books in order to get the lowdown on job positions and qualified warm bodies.

One of her favorite ploys is to call a company operator and say, "Last night I was playing tennis and got in a doubles game with a programmer from Netscape. I gave him a ride home, but he left his tennis racquet in my car. Now I can't remember his name. Dave or Don or something." Even such marginally immoral practices as these don't illicit judgments from the neutral author. He states that it's all part of the Silicon Valley ecosystem, and this particular practice helps to equally redistribute the formidable talents of the best programmers and computer experts.

The Nudist on the Late Shift also presents Bronson's impressive understanding of nearly all aspects of high-tech business. This allows each real-life character to be displayed in his or her natural habitat, complete with industry slang and buzz words. The book jogs through the process of going public and talks about the RJ-45 connectors of the Ethernet port, but the stories are about the people, not about the finances, management or technology. The jargon isn't overbearing and serves mostly to explain or contextualize the words and ideas of the characters. Bronson carefully makes note of attire, body language, speech patterns--this person has the voice of a "wee hours BBC broadcaster," that person the voice of a "grandfather-in-the-rocker storyteller."

The people whose stories are chronicled here are not defined solely by their professional failures or successes, or by their attention to personal hygiene, and they are certainly not defined solely by their net worth. Bronson is refreshingly sympathetic to everyone he encounters. He likes Silicon Valley culture, and he likes the people who have had a hand in creating it. He is as attentive to the controversial theorist George Gilder as he is to the softspoken and quirky brainiac Danny Hillis as he is to the unscrupulous "Claudia."

One gets the impression that Bronson's conveyed enthusiasm is due in part to a genuine affinity he has for mankind, and in part to the rare ability he has to make any Menlo Park or Sunnyvale employee's story colorful, even (perhaps especially) if the storyline does not entail becoming a multimillionaire by age 27. But he is not such a cheerleader that he doesn't, for example, gently point out the humor and hubris when a puffed-up programmer's cat rolls in poison oak and then sleeps on the programmer's face, with a horrific dermatological result. Rather, he simply sees each person as an integral part of a place and a time that Bronson regards as vital and massively compelling. He is turned on by the breakneck pace of life and work in Silicon Valley, and his prose, crackling with the fervor of his interest, echoes this pace .

'The Nudist on the Late Shift' by Po Bronson, Random House, 248 pages; $25.

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From the August 30, 1999, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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