Silicon Follies

Chapter 10: The WHIP comes down on Paul


Thomas Scoville
April 17, 1999 11:00PM (UTC)

As the end of Paul's contract approached, he decided not to renew. Life on the Sea of Cubicles -- as he called his client's cavernous, institutional office space -- had depressed him relentlessly. It was comfortable work, but unchallenging and insidiously bland. He had hoped for a bit more excitement to pull him out of his career ennui.

Paul's new client was a bona fide Silicon Valley rocket. TeraMemory -- or "Tera," as insiders called it -- had roared to the top of the Nasdaq a scant four years after IPO, led by the company's flamboyant, hard-driven founder, Barry Dominic.

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Tera provided high-end databases and data mining tools to the Fortune 500s. Successful exploitation of this market had earned the company a ton of money and a secure franchise in the world of "corporate productivity solutions."

But the rumor circulating through the business was that Barry Dominic had bigger fish to fry: The company was moving out of familiar territory and into the "main action" -- networking and the Internet -- with some sort of cutting-edge, whiz-bang technology. It was all very hush-hush, until Paul signed the standard non-disclosure agreement -- "NDA," as it was known in the geek brotherhood.

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The project was code-named WHIP, for Wireless, High-density Internet Protocol. This somewhat startling acronym came as no surprise to Paul. Dominic was well known in the industry for his hard charging, as well as for his ability to motivate his employees; consequently, TeraMemory had something of a reputation as a burn-out shop.

WHIP was a classic Silicon Valley scheme to preemptively dominate a market that did not yet exist. Lots of pundits and futurists had declared that it should exist, that in the future it would exist, and that all thinking people assumed its eventuality inevitable. Articles appeared in places like Wired Magazine and the Red Herring about how it would change everything from entertainment to the simplest consumer rituals. But the sober fact was that -- in the here and now, at least -- the market demand was very nearly, if not actually exactly, zilch. Not to worry; WHIP -- as a realized technology -- was also entirely hypothetical. This created an exciting symmetry: WHIP was vaporware for a market of hot air.

If it ever made it out of the lab, WHIP would enable computers of all kinds to talk to each other without benefit of cabling. But WHIP was more than a product. It was a protocol -- the holy grail of infotech leverage.

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The beauty of WHIP was that it would encompass a potentially huge number of lucrative opportunities. WHIP-driven devices would presumably be a big deal to people who presently spent their days threading miles of cable throughout the nether regions and interstices of the corporate landscape. TeraMemory would describe WHIP as a "revolutionary infrastructure efficiency enhancement," but the wire-heads of the world would be thinking more mundane thoughts like "No more crawling around on the floor or perching precariously on stepladders. Cool." It would also reach into the fast-growing world of nomadic computing. Laptops, pagers, routers and cellular phones would fuse together into a universal market of WHIP-compliant, roving information appliances.

And every time somebody sold a slice of WHIPped silicon, TeraMemory would get a piece of the action.

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The gods of high tech are a perverse and unreliable bunch, and any number of competing innovations might thwart WHIP's ambitions. But the valley's biggest fortunes were founded on uncertainties -- every mover and shaker needed at least one pet "maybe," and WHIP was Barry Dominic's.

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As with every Silicon Valley company, once a potentially lucrative new market has been identified, everything needs to be done yesterday. Management at Tera had decided that this window of market opportunity was only a few months wide, and had staffed up furiously for the effort. They hit up every "body shop" -- valley-ese for contract recruitment agency -- in a 50-mile radius. The recruiter had made Paul a lucrative offer only five hours after the first phone interview.

Tera had hired Paul to wrangle some tricky network code. Contractors were expected to hit the ground running, and his project manager had encouraged him to come up to speed by subscribing to an internal mailing list for the WHIP Internal Team, "whip-it." He'd jumped into the action quickly:

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From: parmstrong@teramemory.com

To: whip-it@teramemory.com

Subject: Re: Driver specs

The designers should remember that the world of
broad-spectrum radiation is much less predictable
than the tidy, well-controlled domain of cables and
voltage swings to which they're accustomed.
Depending on the operating environment, the WHIP
drivers might potentially be dealing with much higher
rates of incipient transmission errors. If it were my
decision, I'd proactively be spending much more
effort on routines for bandwidth diagnostics and
dynamic optimization.

This had pleased his PM:

From: jsacerdoti@teramemory.com

To: parmstrong@teramemory.com

Subject: Re: Driver specs

Damn. Good strategic analysis. Nicely worded, too.

But his posting had also instigated a competition for his cycles. A marketing VP had been eavesdropping on whip-it, and decided that Paul should be redeployed on a new task:

From: csawyer@teramemory.com

To: parmstrong@teramemory.com

Subject: Re: Driver specs

Great posting. You seem to have an excellent
understanding of key WHIP challenges. The project
directors have an urgent need for someone with the
technical background to write a series of strategic
white papers for a venture capital audience. Mr.
Dominic would very much like to see you redeployed
as that resource.

Any problems with that?

Paul had been taken aback by this. He'd come to Tera to write code, not strategic technology documents. On the other hand, it was a lot more exciting than his last contract. Maybe this was the adventure he'd been dreaming about.
Paul tapped his PM for direction, but he wasn't much help:

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From: jsacerdoti@teramemory.com

To: parmstrong@teramemory.com

Subject: Re: reassignment

> I'm feeling ambivalent about being

> re-deployed so suddenly.

Don't ask me, son -- I wanted to keep you around,
too. I've been trumped by the big dogs on 21. Looks
like you're working directly for the boss now.

You've been poached, boy.


Thomas Scoville

Thomas Scoville is either an Information Age savant or an ex-Silicon Valley programmer with a bad attitude. He is the author of the Silicon Valley Tarot.

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