Legends in their own minds

Two new books try to lionize warrior-entrepreneurs battling in Microsoft's shadow, but leave us wondering where high tech's heroes are.

Published December 16, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Lately a number of notable infotech industry veterans have been sitting down at the virtual campfire to spin out their tales of dot-com glory. Invariably, the narratives boil down to the same basic elements: Blast! Hit! Bite! Punch! Fight! Fight! Fight!

Two new books -- "High St@kes, No Prisoners: A Winner's Tale of Greed and Glory in the Internet Wars," and "Renegades of the Empire: How Three Software Warriors Started a Revolution Behind the Walls of Fortress Microsoft" -- demonstrate the tedious inevitability of the martial metaphor.

Don't get me wrong -- I like tales of the campaigns as much as the next guy. A well-wrought war story can easily hold my attention. As a child I loved the "Flashman" series. Biographies of Churchill and MacArthur have kept me awake far past midnight.

If only the captains of the infotech wars had one-tenth that style and ilan. Today's cyber-warriors, having traded their sabers for expense reports, lack a certain kind of gut-level appeal. For instance, there's an account in "High St@kes, No Prisoners" where author Charles Ferguson -- founder of Vermeer Technologies, now playing the risky game of mid-life autobiography -- recounts a chance meeting with legendary venture capitalist Andy Marcuvitz: "[O]n a flight from Boston to San Francisco, I used frequent-flier miles to upgrade to first class and found myself two rows away from Andy. Since the seat next to him was empty, I moved over and sat with him. Our conversation started out reasonably enough, but quickly turned into a full-blown, brutal argument."

This is not the kind of ripping yarn I had hoped for in a book of such provocative title. Instead of an archly rendered portrait of the noble warrior, I'm treated to a composite of the kind of obnoxious, name-dropping, dot-com weenie I've for years had to resist throttling in-flight, as he attempts to stalk, beg and finally argue his way into some VC's checkbook. (Just when did that ever become a viable funding strategy? Have I missed something?) And he doesn't even have the derring-do to spring for a first-class ticket.

This book seems to be built on the same general formula as most of the new geek-legionnaire potboilers: Take a relatively dry technical/business history and recast as a riveting, Information Age swashbuckler, peppered with lively techie slang and exaggerations of high-octane, expense-accounted biz junkets. I do wonder just how many readers outside Silicon Valley and the nation's MBA programs will be terribly scintillated: "See our intrepid hero as he scouts tomorrow's market niches! Thrill as he captures venture capital! Marvel as he tap-dances like Fred Astaire through the pre-IPO road show! Tremble as he mightily repels competitors!" Yawn. Where, readers may ask, have all the real heroes gone?

Ferguson's dot-com chest-pounding is made all the more ironic by the way he blithely discounts the contributions of some bona fide heroes of the age. I was particularly dismayed by his patronization of Tim Berners-Lee, the undisputed father of the World Wide Web: "Despite the fact that by late 1994 he was the most marketable guy on the whole planet, he joined a well intentioned but, I'm afraid, rather useless nonprofit Web standards group based at MIT. There can be few things more futile than trying to develop nonproprietary standards in the middle of a war between Microsoft, Netscape, and AOL." In other words, shame on Tim for not joining the battle. Ferguson's mercenary position seems to bring along its own blind spot for the proposition that not everybody does their best work while kicking sand in competitors' faces.

Ferguson also makes the mistake of many old soldiers: Midway through the book, you realize he's repeated himself a number of times. Subplots and anecdotes reappear throughout, and you get the idea that he (or his editor, at least) might have spent a bit more time reducing the stew. Indeed, this points the way to a more general problem with the tech-mogul autobiography: Newly crowned infotech winners -- also like old soldiers -- love to hear themselves talk.

To my surprise, a subsequent reading of "Renegades of Empire" left me pining for Ferguson's relatively well-crafted prose. This book -- essentially the same tale of digital domination, told for a younger age group -- recounts the rise and rise of a band of Microsoft techies who pirate company resources for their own ends. Their digital magnum opus -- code-named "Chrome" -- is portrayed as a cunning, in-house intrigue to accelerate the information revolution by fusing browsers with televisions.

The much younger subjects of this account, written by journalist Michael Drummond, show a good deal less seasoning and sense of responsibility, if that is possible, than Ferguson; their persistently adolescent, antisocial leitmotifs run throughout this book. The renegades' collective borrowed nickname -- the "Beastie Boys" -- pretty much betrays it right there, I think, both ethically and demographically. Once, rebellious young men threw rocks at passing cars. Now, it appears, they hijack Fortune 500s.

At least these bjtes noires had the good sense to enlist the services of a journalist. Or perhaps sense had nothing to do with it; when one of the book's subjects, Alex St. John, speaks about Bill Gates, one wonders how much success he would have had crafting a coherent account on his own: "'Bill kicks ass,' St. John said. 'I like kicking ass. I enjoy the feeling of killing competitors and dominating markets.'" Yikes. Business ethics for the Quake/"South Park" set.

Like many of the new crop of popular tech/biz titles, this one seems to have been produced "in Web time" -- that is to say, very quickly. The writing is often uneven, even fatuous at times ("All things have an origin -- this book is no exception." Shoot me.) But my principal gripe is with the disturbing lack of conscience in the way it lionizes its subjects' disregard for rules, authority, prior accomplishment and fair play. The rush of technology, apparently, leaves little time for life's lessons on the value of being nice to one another.

Much of the drama of these books plays against the backdrop of Microsoft -- Ferguson competes against, then eventually sells his company to, the Gatesian juggernaut, while the Beastie Boys use Microsoft as their primary object of rebellion and corporate defacement. One would think that either of these accounts might teach us something new about Bill Gates and company. Oddly, neither seems to shine any new light into Redmond's heart of darkness. Readers hoping for new insights will most likely be disappointed, particularly in light of recent developments in the Microsoft antitrust trial. Not much of a surprise, when the subject jitters in Web time. By the time you've served up the dish in hardcover, it's most likely stale.

Which isn't to say either book is completely without merit. Ferguson, in particular, exerts some well-spent effort deflating the myths of Silicon Valley corporate omnipotence, while at the same time giving the government and universities their proper share of glory in the cultivation of the Internet miracle. He also takes a shot or two at the failures of open markets in the context of his business -- not something one would expect from a gung-ho start-up ninja, particularly one who has so richly benefited from the arrangement.

Both books are particularly juicy specimens of the prevailing business rhetoric of the dot-com era. There is a kind of language -- an amalgam of hyperbole, geek-speak, and pop-media code phrases, delivered in a perverse, super-desiccated and emotionally bankrupt tone -- to be found in both of these books, and it is this contemporary mutation of language, rather than the stories themselves, that may ultimately communicate the Zeitgeist most effectively.

Both books are heavily padded with histories already rendered more capably and compactly in other sources. The spin is at times a little strong; as historical accounts, both are undoubtedly much tidier and more congratulatory to their subjects than many industry veterans and insiders will be able to accept. Here the manic mood of the times should be of considerable assistance; one of the perquisites of business fame is the likelihood with which you'll be able to pass off your opinions as historical fact.

Ferguson, at least, seems well aware of this danger; nearly the first thing he does in "High St@kes, No Prisoners" is roll his credits: wonder-boy start-up entrepreneur; government policy wonk; academic. Presumably, he seeks to preempt attacks on all three sides in case his ideas don't float entirely on their own merits. (I can hardly blame him -- the high-tech crowd is a particularly pedantic and fractious bunch, as just a casual look at Slashdot should demonstrate.) Alas, much of the enjoyment I might have scraped from these two books was obstructed by my own high-tech version of post-traumatic vigilance; as a former Silicon Valley foot soldier, my reading was regularly perturbed by alternate, less flattering interpretations of these heroes' journeys. They would not stop leaping to mind, no matter how high I suspended disbelief.

In the end, most the protagonists of these war stories seem to spend a good deal of time shouting the predictable epithets of, "I told you so," and "See? I won! I was right!" to their present and former adversaries: employers, managers, competitors, VCs and the Justice Department, to name a few. This, at the very least, has an unmistakable ring of authenticity; one of the signal traits of the techno-pugilist is the inexorable compulsion to have the last word.

Still, for all the ephemeral pettiness of these two works -- and the many others like them -- there may yet be something profound about them after all. The appearance of this bumper crop of digital glory stories, and at such an accelerating pace, may itself be a kind of meta-parable for the industry. After all, how many more glory days can be ahead of us if the glory is now itself for sale, on bookshelves everywhere? And just how much longer before we find it, marked down and forlorn, on the bargain racks?

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.

MORE FROM Thomas Scoville

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Business Microsoft