The Line between Work and Play Vanishes in Silicon Valley
Excerpts from The Nudist on the Late Shift
There are two problems in portraying Silicon Valley:
1. There is very little there, there.
2. What is is shrouded in secrecy.
If you didn't know better, you might take a look at the tremendous amount of media coverage given to high technology and assume that this place runs like an open book. In fact, journalists are asked to sign an NDA [non-disclosure agreement] at every workplace they enter. It's okay to write about this little gizmo we have coming out next week, but if you happen to hear anything about this big gizmo we have coming out next year, we'll take action against you if it appears in print. You will have a PR representative with you at all times. You may not mention the names of our customers or clients without written permission. You may not interview employees unless we authorized them to speak with you. In other words, "Keep your hands inside the car at all times."
That said, there really is a din of news coverage coming out of the Valley, and firms here are desperate to "rise above the noise." This created a perverted dilemma in which companies were desperate to talk to me but the things that I'd like to hear are exactly the things they're forbidden to discuss. They work away in relative isolation for months, and there's nothing more gratifying than a journalist showing up and saying, "You're important." Actually, there is something more gratifying than that. It's when a journalist shows up and says, "Your life would make a great movie."
But sometimes that doesn't even get the good stuff out of them. It's funny what rituals some sources want to go through before they're comfortable telling their story. Gina recently resigned from working for Pixar after it had gone public, and she was decompressing. Getting a full story out of her was like catching a fish with your hands. I'd get really close, and then she'd sense my fascination and dart on to another topic.
A trust needed to develop between us. One day we walked the meditation labyrinth inside Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill. By demonstrating the necessary solemnity, I graduated to what I perceived to be the next test: stomach massage. I stretched out in the sun on a warm concrete bench. The stomach muscles, according to my would-be masseuse, are the hardest ones to relax because they protect the organs. To let someone manhandle your liver is the ultimate test of trust.
She began to poke my thorax, and in the course of conversation, she started to talk about the programmer nudist who worked the late shift at one of the animation companies that dealt with Pixar. Peep! My interest was piqued, my abdominal wall sprang tight, she sensed my fervor, and she was on to another topic.
For the next year, I often wondered about the nudist. Being a nudist on the late shift seemed like the ultimate symbol of how people here want to assert their personal values on the job. I sent feelers out, asking friends who worked in animation and graphics. Occasionally I would get back, "Oh, I've heard stories about that guy." But nobody I talked to had seen him or met him or could confirm that he wasn't just an urban legend.
I received an e-mail. "Looking for me?" it asked, attaching a phone number. An e-mail I sent out was forwarded through several rounds of recipients to reach him. My e-mail did not say I was looking for "the nudist on the late shift." Someone I'd encountered had thought she remembered the nudist's name, and I sent out e-mails with every spelling variation of this name.
So now I had the phone number of some guy. But I didn't know if he was the nudist. It took me two days to work up the nerve to call. How do you ask such a question? After considering how apologetic to be, I realized that the best strategy might be to act as if it were no big deal. I dialed the number. I had a lump in my throat, and I was growing dizzy with trepidation. His voice came on the line. He called me by my first name, and we started to chat. Then I asked the dreaded question, and he laughed. "My gosh, it's grown to the size of an urban legend."
"Is it true?" I asked.
"It's [click] true," he said. The click was the sound my phone emits for call waiting. I'd heard the word "it's" and the word "true," but had they been separated by a pause or by the word "not"?
He began to talk about the urban legend and how everyone misinterpreted what happened. How because of this, his reputation preceded him wherever he went. I felt deflated. He wanted to know what version of the urban legend I'd heard, and I told him what little I heard.
"Typical," he muttered.
"So there's no truth to it, huh?" I asked, my last hope.
"Oh,no," he said. "It is true."
In the programmer community, eccentricity is de rigueur, and when David Coons and his wife held skinny-dipping parties, he invited his friends from work. So nobody made much of it that he took his clothes off at the office after 10 p.m. At that hour, there was nobody left in the building but programmers and animators working on deadline, who couldn't care less.
David had been working slave hours for two weeks straight. One night, he looked at his clock, which said "20:06," and his tired brain misfigured. He took his clothes off. About a half-hour later, he went down the hall to discuss something with his friend Bijon. On the way back, there was a lady, a union employee, in the film printing room who wasn't supposed to be there that late. That was when David realized he misread his clock. He went back to his office and continued working. A couple of hours later, two security guards knocked on his door and told him to put his clothes on. Then his boss called and told him he'd better go home for the night. For a while, he refused" "I'm working on the project."
He was quarantined at home for a week. The film union pressured management to get him fired. But everyone stood up for him. Regardless, he got the project done on schedule. He laughed through the whole thing: "Work today has to be half work, half play. We spend our whole lives at the workplace. You understand that, don't you?"
Po Bronson is a feature writer for Wired and has written about high-tech culture for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Forbes ASAP. He's the author of two novels: the best-selling Bombardier and The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest. Bronson, a 1986 Stanford University graduate, lives in San Francisco. His Web site is www.pobronson.com.
From the book
Nudist on the Late Shift by Po Bronson
Copyright (c) 1999 by Po Bronson
Reprinted with permission of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.
Available at the McGraw-Hill Bookstore, local and online bookstores or see Random House's website at www.atrandom.com