Silicon Follies

Chapter 34: Candy's Comdex freakout

Published July 10, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Springtime in Silicon Valley, and a young man's thoughts turn to Comdex. The stampede was on. Hundreds of thousands of young geeks prepared to converge on the legendary computer industry trade show held -- appropriately enough -- in that gambler's paradise, Las Vegas.

There was always a competition among industry front-runners over what they euphemistically called the "booth." Real infotech hard-ballers demonstrated their dominance by having the flashiest, most spectacular, and -- most importantly -- largest booth at the show.

Once upon a time, the word "booth" had made some sense, when it had been just that: a ramshackle enclosure with a few card tables of product literature, some oversized poster graphics on the back wall, maybe a few working demos or mock-ups. But in the old days the booth was just home base, a place-holder, a tilt-up for the technocrats and pitchmen who hovered in the aisles hustling customers and trading business cards.

What was once a relatively modest commercial enclosure was now, for most high-tech companies, more like a traveling circus, only without the animals (unless you counted the salespeople, of course). High-tech companies had become very serious about their trade show facades. The booth was now an important totem of industry power and market share -- so much so that in Silicon Valley, an architectural subspecialty had sprung up around booth design. Trade show booths weren't boxes any more; many of them made the structures of Gaudi or I.M. Pei look like Grandpa's tool shed.

Some were so elaborate they required three semi trailers, a team of roadies, and two days of continuous setup effort. These portable, multistory mini-palaces contained fully stocked courtesy lounges, modest auditoriums and banks of tiny suites in which sales staff could more effectively isolate and hypnotize the hapless or unwary prospects.

Of course there were the usual vertical tournaments. The largest booths invariably featured prominently towering structures from which to fly the company colors, usually in full neon. The result was an aerial advertising dogfight; the airspace above the convention's floor became a high-altitude clash of futuristically stylish, swooshing corporate logos.

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The hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center -- tens upon tens of indoor acres -- is for most exhibitors a fury of activity right up until the moment the doors open to the first attendees. TeraMemory was no exception. It was 5 a.m., and Paul and the rest of the WHIP demo crew hadn't slept in two days.

There was a dark cloud over the booth: Three of the five prototypes had gone silent, the leased T3 line was misconfigured and the hub was on the fritz. Plus there seemed to be some strange radio-frequency anomalies the WHIP designers apparently hadn't taken into account, because the two remaining functional demo units were experiencing never-before-seen rates of transmission error. The techs blamed it on Nevada's fabled UFO activity. This was one time they were happy to attribute control to anybody else.

By 6 a.m. the booth had a network, and one of the recalcitrant demo devices decided to break silence. But no sooner had the engineers eked out this modest, 11th-hour success than Candy Sawyer -- VP of Marketing -- strode into the hall like a runway model, perfectly dressed, microscopically groomed and expecting the world.

"Everything up and running? No problems, right?" she asserted.

Paul reflected she must have gotten up at three to look that way. He, on the other hand, had bags under his eyes big enough to hide in. Which, at that moment, was what he felt like doing. But being the only consultant, Paul had the least to lose by delivering the bad news.

He stepped into the fire. "Um, we've encountered a couple of -- ah -- issues we're not going to resolve before the hall opens."

Vertical lines appeared in Candy's perfect forehead. "Issues? Issues? You guys were supposed to have this stuff under control, right?"

Paul opted for the avuncular approach. "Candy, you know these product launches never go perfectly the first time out of the lab. It's going to be a little touch and go. We'll have something to show the people, but we may have to tap-dance a little. Don't worry. It's going to be OK."

Wrong approach. Her cosmetically enhanced cheekbones lit up a stylish shade of red. "It's not OK," she snapped, voice rising. "I'm working off a script here, bub, and if all the demos don't work just like I scripted them, then my presentation isn't going to run 15 minutes. And Barry says it's got to run 15 minutes!"

Paul could see that diplomacy wasn't going to get him very far. He bit his tongue and developed a sudden interest in his shoes.

Candy's temper rocketed towards the stratosphere. "Look, whatever it takes, you guys just get the whole deal working as planned, and nobody gets fired, OK? I don't want excuses, I don't want details, OK?" Then she attained escape velocity, hollering, "Just -- make -- it -- HAPPEN!" Orbit.

Under any other circumstances, Paul might have taken Candy's performance personally. But this wasn't Paul's first product launch. He'd seen all of it before, on the very same floor, working for other clients. It was one of the few situations in which he'd developed a rock-solid faith, in fact: Nothing ever went according to plan, all the machines broke down at the last minute and the suits always freaked out. Just another coming-out party in computerville.

By 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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