Silicon Follies

Chapter 24: The Guru gives a pep talk


Thomas Scoville
June 5, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

It was the Guru's job to be smarter than all the other technical people on staff. Every Silicon Valley technology company had one. The official designation might vary from company to company -- Chief Technologist, VP of R&D, Head Wizard. When Ted Nelson, the cyber-Svengali and patron saint of hypertext, held court at Autodesk, his business card had read Distinguished Fellow. But the meta-name was always the same: Guru.

As a young technical lion moved up the career ladder, his path moved him inexorably away from the cool hacks and interesting problems, toward that most dreaded of stations: manager. Managers were finished, technically speaking. They experienced the technology second- and third-hand. They might make more money, but they were out of the game in all the ways that really mattered to a nerd.

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Not the Guru. Though his path up the company ladder was narrow and fraught with hazard, it did not pass through the Valley of Management, where technical prowess laid down and died. His path led to the high plains and rare air of the |ber-hacker. He gave the nerds a position to aspire to.

The Guru always maintained an unusually intense presence. He was brutally pragmatic, terrorizing his underlings with an understated but devastating intellectual brute force. He could slice you to ribbons with Occam's razor. His language was excruciatingly precise, when not indulging in poetic license and other cognitive/linguistic games. He loved analogies, metaphors and parables. He often took refuge in the high concept -- "meta-issues," "semantic architectures," "paradigms." He tended to use the word "orthogonal" whenever he got the chance.

Some record of intellectual heroism was necessary to separate him from the lower technical life-forms. Every Guru had done a few years at some big-time think tank, like PARC -- Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, one of the cradles of high tech -- or BBN or the Rand Corp. He almost always came blessed with a Ph.D. from a high-powered university, except in rare cases where a maverick, out-of-the-box genius had been awarded a Nobel or MacArthur prize.

The Guru's background tended to be eclectic; cognitive linguistics, theoretical mathematics and obscure branches of physics were popular. Every now and then you might encounter a kink like romance philology or nonlinear studies. The common denominator was a kind of pie-in-the-sky, head-in-the-clouds outlook unknown in fields like chemistry or economics. It was of great benefit to a Guru's image to have spent some portion of his career on something outrageously offbeat -- anthropological field research into Indonesian cargo cults, or the application of chaos mathematics to Marx Brothers film dialogue.

Of course, he had to maintain some sort of outrageous hobby in his spare time, just to underscore how different he was from the rest of the crew. It was important to induce a general perplexity in the technical staff, something to make them scratch their heads and say, "Man, he is out there ..."

There were a few universals: Gurus all possessed a preternatural youthfulness, in spite of their graying hair and crow's feet. And they all loved bad puns and Indian food.

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The Guru's superior experience, intellect and vision enabled him -- presumably -- to call the turns in the tech wars. An air of matter-of-fact dispassion supported this projection of omniscience so crucial to his credibility. He never, ever lost his cool. He was surrounded by an invisible force-field of theoretical distance.

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As WHIP neared its ship date, all available technical resources were brought to bear. Management had declared that anyone who knew their way around a compiler be put on the case, so Paul had been brought back into the engineering effort as the deadline approached.




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This had suited Paul. The vagaries of spinning corporate rhetoric had begun to make him question his own worth. The value of his non-technical efforts was not particularly demonstrable. Back in the lab, at least he had some running code to justify his existence.

The last five weeks had been heavy. The anticipation of the WHIP had infused TeraMemory's technical staff with a certain intensity of focus -- the engineers were on a mission. They were driven by stock options, for sure. But there was that other quintessential Silicon Valley motivator, that "I'm going to make a difference and change the world" vibe at work, too. They were true believers.

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The true believers gathered in TeraMemory's main conference room for an emergency all-tech staff meeting with TeraMemory's own Guru, Rick Roth-Parker, Ph.D. Rick fit nicely into the Guru meta-schema: MIT, Rand, author of several important papers on signal processing, holder of three important patents, personal friend of Marvin Minsky, avid collector of 19th century typesetting machinery and prehistoric Mesoamerican surgical tools.

Paul always took his place toward the back of the room. It was best for contractors to keep a low profile. Besides being resented for their higher rate of compensation, they were also objects of suspicion. They were not employees, they did not participate in equity, and thus were not "on the boat." And at times like this -- times when bold affirmations of company vision and mission statement were likely -- the contractor presented a specter of skepticism. A cold shower to the technical ardor.

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Of course, Paul's manager came around every few weeks and impressed upon him the benefits of becoming an employee, of coming onto the boat with both feet. And of course, Paul's resolve never to be betrayed again dictated he politely but firmly decline. It was a common dance in the valley.

When the conference room had filled with engineers, with everyone assuming their slumps and their thoughtful chin-rubbing in earnest, the Guru solicited reports from each section manager on the parallel lines of the WHIP project's progress. One group was stalled developing some proprietary algorithms associated with hardware-based encryption. Another was falling behind on the development of a low-level protocol handler. Still another had discovered some problems with an elaborate, super-efficient check-sum mechanism. Concerns were running high. The ship date was in jeopardy. There was an undercurrent of panic.

The Guru set to work orchestrating an array of remedies. He made recommendations about technical resources, theoretical approaches and redistributions of labor to address the most serious problems on the critical path. He drew many pictures on multiple whiteboards.

Clearly, there was a lot of stress in the room. The challenges were great, and time was running short. The Guru sensed this might be a good time for a sermon to the faithful.

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He wiped clean the center whiteboard and wrote two words: "Inflection Points." He turned to his audience.

"The history of human artifice is filled with inflection points -- points at which innovation creates a quantum leap forward in our ability to apply leverage over the challenges of human life. Stone tools. Iron. Steel. Internal combustion. The telegraph. The telephone. Microelectronics."

A hush went over the room. This is what they had come for: inspiration.

"Look down El Camino Real. What do you see? You might see a crowded, broken road that stretches all the way to Mexico City.

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"I see our future. El Camino Real was the connective tissue of the frontier. It linked all the Spanish missions, the first outposts of emerging organization in the West. It was the first network. Bandwidth of five mules a day. But it was the principle vector of the explosion of progress that is now California -- the sixth-largest economy in the world.

"This is the next wave. You're building the infrastructure of what will be no less an explosion. Ubiquitous, wireless digital communication. Every man and machine in constant, transparent, real-time communication. It's going to change everything. You people are changing the world. We get this thing working and out of the lab, and we'll write our names in the sky."

It was almost enough to make Paul believe. At times like this, he could feel his resolve weaken.


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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