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SILICON FLOPS

Not Everyone Can Be Bill Gates

12:00 AM, Aug 16, 1999 • By DAVID SKINNER
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Everyone's a sucker for a free baseball cap. Or a coffee mug. Which is why Silicon Valley salesmen aren't famous schmoozers: They don't need to paint the town red with their clients; almost anything with a corporate logo will do.


This curious fact and dozens more like it fill Po Bronson's new, non-fiction The Nudist on the Late Shift and Other True Tales of Silicon Valley. The busy world of high tech has a likable absence of cynicism, and Bronson describes it, in general, without suspicion. Con men and dirty dealers hover on the edges of this coming-of-age story about Silicon Valley, but they never interfere with Bronson's affection for the people of northern California's computer enclave.


That marks a surprising turn for Bronson. His first novel, 1995's Bombardiers, was a deft satire of the bond-selling business and its often nonsensical system of risks and rewards. Bronson's second novel, 1997's The First $ 20 Million Is Always the Hardest, was a less interesting tale of a team of idealistic Silicon Valley go-getters. But at the center of both books is a seemingly inescapable trap.


In Bombardiers, the King of Mortgages, Sid Geeder, needs to keep meeting the increasingly insane quotas his boss sets for him so he can retire and cash in his company stock; but the company sets his quotas so high (far higher than anyone else's) that there is no way he can do it.


In The First $ 20 Million, characters struggle against "infinite loops," a term that refers to computer errors the computer doesn't register and so cannot adjust for. Infinite loops also refer to various pranks (some harmless, some not so) the novel's computer programmers play on the uninitiated to demonstrate their superiority. The entire plot turns on one programmer's successful effort to break an actual infinite computer loop, a trick that is worth millions.


The most significant difference between the two novels is that the hero of the first novel cannot beat life's peculiar logic traps, while the hero of the second novel can.


The forces over which the individual has no control in Bombardiers -- capitalism's perversity, evil corporations, the American government's absurd bond issues -- become in The First $ 20 Million the kind of force against which a good guy has a chance. And the only apparent cause of difference between the brilliant but tortured bond salesman of Bombardiers and the flexible and crafty hero of The First $ 20 Million is the magic Bronson finds in Silicon Valley.


Bronson is thus one of those people who, with the stock-market boom, seem to have been mugged by a happy reality. And in his The Nudist on the Late Shift, he demonstrates his continuing love -- a little tempered, perhaps -- for American business. Silicon Valley, you see, gives Po Bronson the chance to be on the side of the small heroes standing along against the system -- and to go to a place where people are making a whole lot of money.


"My mom says instead of going to Hollywood to become an actress, I've come to Silicon Valley to be a . . . a . . . well, whatever grandiose term we might call it," says Julie, a saleswoman with the terrible job of calling around for new contacts.


But it isn't glamor that they come to Silicon Valley for; it's rather some inarticulate urge to be recognized as a person remaking the world, a serious person of death-denying commitment to the challenge of bringing great products to market. And as ridiculous as this superachiever ethos sounds, Bronson's enthusiasm is nevertheless contagious, at times leaving the reader with an incredible itch to drop everything and catch the next flight to San Jose.


Bronson's account of Silicon Valley is not so much a series of stories as a series of snapshots. And only a couple of his subjects can be considered very successful (Sabeer Bhatia, the founder of Hotmail, for instance) or very influential (George Gilder gets a chapter to himself).


All the others are minor programmers, venture capitalists, salesmen, promoters, drifters blown into town over the weekend, and immigrants looking for a share of American gold to take back to India or Indiana or wherever.


The whole book has the feel of studied incompleteness; it's the opposite of a saga: a collection of short stories about a variety of engaging characters. But, as far as literature about the computer industry goes, The Nudist on the Late Shift represents a tentative victory for the situation comedy over the mythical lore surrounding Bill Gates and other industry titans.