The tortured soul of the Silicon Valley CEO

By Janelle Brown
January 14, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)
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Here's how a high-tech executive is described in one recent thriller: "He considered himself a private person. What others perceived on the outside as arrogance, he felt on the inside as shyness. He generally felt uncomfortable around people. Some days it was an effort for him to put on the blustery mask he'd created over the years."

And here's another exec from another novel: "He reflected on how after the breakup with Via he'd felt like an infant, weak, helpless, so vulnerable to the vast forces of the big world around him ... If he'd learned anything these past few months, it was that he'd been an extremely selfish person, who'd always gotten what he wanted. Sure, most of it came from hard work, a keen vision, perseverance. But he'd be kidding himself if he didn't acknowledge the orphan in him that he'd never really grown out of, and maybe never would."


Recognize these two shy, sensitive guys? You should. They are, in turn, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Or, rather, they are the fictionalized doppelgdngers of the technology world's most famous titans -- hence, the indulgent aw-shucks psychoanalysis.

The explosive growth of the technology industry has built not only a world of powerful and ridiculously wealthy CEOs and founders, but a vast population of writer-manqui tech workers who are eager to compose the Silicon Valley Novel based on their own time there. There have been some notable successes -- Douglas Coupland, Po Bronson and an array of other tech-fiction poster children -- but they're only just scratching the surface of the novels we'll likely be seeing in the upcoming years.

For example, meet two of the more recent Silicon Valley fiction contenders: "The Deal," due for release next week, and written by Joe Hutsko, a former "Apple insider" and technical advisor to former Apple CEO John Scully; and "Ulterior Motive" by Daniel Oran, a former Microsoft project manager and the man responsible for that "Start" button on Windows98 (as the book flap proudly blares). Both books imagine thrilling scenarios surrounding the authors' former employers. But although the worlds Oran and Hutsko have created are based on the real-life struggles of Gates and Jobs, the resemblance to the real world of Silicon Valley pretty much stops there. In this case, at least, fiction is far stranger than truth.


"The Deal" tells the story of the rivalry between Peter Jones, the mercurial founder of Via Computer, and Matthew Locke, the former soft-drink beverage executive who takes over as CEO during a boardroom putsch. Sound familiar? It should -- "The Deal" is loosely based on the infamous 1985 boardroom battle that replaced Jobs as Apple Computer's CEO with former Pepsi executive John Scully.

Of course, "The Deal" is a fanciful version of that conflict. So while there are lots of thinly veiled but recognizable Valley companies -- International Computing Products (IBM), Future Processing (Intel), World Online (AOL) and, of course, the reviled mega-software company PCSoft (take a wild guess) -- there's a cornucopia of shenanigans that you won't find in any Valley history tome.

Sure, both the true life story of Apple and the tale of Via end with Jobs back in charge (sorry to ruin the ending, but it isn't rocket science), but the real life story of Jobs' demise and triumphal return are probably more suited for a business profile than a boardroom thriller. So Hutsko has invented a whole array of complicated plot devices -- conspiracies (a devious plan to sell Via to ICP), more conspiracies (a mysterious online affair conducted by Locke's dimwitted wife) and lots of sex (a coke-addicted Stanford babe who takes advantage of a drunken Jones). Not to mention an even more triumphal return for Jones -- though the real Jobs eventually emerged with the nattily packaged iMac, Hutsko's Jones instead comes up with a paradigm-shifting hand-held computer (like a PalmPilot crossed with voice recognition), and makes his comeback in less than a year.


But the fantasy that Hutsko wraps around Jobs is nothing compared to the one that Daniel Oran has concocted around Gates.

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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Apple Fiction Microsoft Silicon Valley Steve Jobs