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BIV just asked me to write an article about my experiences on the RollerCoaster. I think this might be more than they were looking for..

Escape From Silicon Valley

As I stared up from under the sweat-soaked crown of my badly scarred goalie mask I saw the opposing line take shape around centre ice: Sun Microsystems¹ CEO Scott McNealy, flanked by San Jose Sharks wingers Scott Thornton and Matt Bradley. Only in Silicon Valley would a CEO stack the roster of his company hockey team with NHL prospects. Sun, as a major sponsor of San Jose Arena and the Sharks, usually had no problem recruiting ³ringers² during the off-season.

But the daunting prospect of facing the now superbly stacked Sun Dukes (with their alluringly cute Java ³Duke² logos proudly portrayed on their jerseys) was the least of my problems. In fact, having two-pound pieces of rubber hurtled toward me 40 or 50 times over the next hour was a welcome relief from the more inescapable punishment of daily life in Silicon Valley.

I first moved to the Valley with the prospect of eternal dot-com glory and visions of stock-option-supported sugarplums dancing in my head. As a young, underpaid, underappreciated employee at a big telecom company in Canada I was an outsider, looking in on a technological revolution as my peers in their khakis and Kenneth Coles marched on to early retirement.

I was recruited by all of the biggies: Netscape, Cisco, Sun, Yahoo. In the end I went with Cisco because I thought they were changing the world and because I thought that their future was secure. With my NAFTA work visa in hand I hopped a plane to the Bay Area and reunited with my furniture a few months later in the suburbs of San Jose (which itself is a suburb).

Cisco greets its employees every morning in more than 30 nearly identical buildings that shun all known schools of architecture and design. The parking lots are littered with the signifiers of any successful startup ­ on rainy days you can walk from building to building on the hoods of Mercedes, Lexus, and Porsche automobiles and never get your feet wet. That is not to say that you ever have to, mind you, because rain in Silicon Valley is as hard to come by as property.

On the subject of property, it took me several weeks to locate an apartment, in a characterless gated community located in the ³Golden Triangle², an area of San Jose known for its high property costs and higher traffic. Once I finally found a home, I was sucked into a beauty contest and bidding war with other potential occupants, each vying for the affection of the property manager. After reviewing my banking and investment history, my employment terms, my assets, and checking all of my references and previous landlords I was finally deemed worthy of residence in my new enclave. With a vacancy rate of less than 1%, finding a domicile in the Bay Area is an act requiring superhuman finesse, persistence, and extreme patience.

Once there, I began adjusting to the small frustrations of Silicon Valley life: endless commutes, infuriating airports, freeway drivers with severe behavioral disorders, lineups for everything from the bathroom (think 5 guys for every girl) to the local Costco parking lot ­ all indignities associated with any city but amplified by the fact that the Bay Area, quite simply, has too many people.

All the while my life centered around the routine drudgery of technology workers in Silicon Valley ­ 12-16 hour weekdays were not uncommon, which left little time for much other than some MTV, email, and occasional sleep. The corporate environment, designed to immerse employees in a community of.. well.. work, encouraged employees to spend as much of their time as possible on the company campus through the provision of gym facilities, restaurants, free snacks and drinks, and even a company store.

The result of all of this is that so-called ³lifestyle workers² all but slept under the supervision of the company. This was a culture in which workers proudly proclaimed the abandonment of their families and personal interests in slavish devotion to The Company with pride. Weight gain, pallid complexion, and poor hygiene were worn as badges of honor and garnered muted respect among peers. After all, who had time for such frivolities?

Any moments of low self-esteem or mild depression were dispersed by unsolicited calls and emails from persistent recruiters. These scavengers were more often than not unable to conceal the fact that Boolean search terms had led them to my resume, rather than actual interest in connecting me to the right job. This too, was part of the equilibrium of Silicon Valley life.

I welcomed these New Values because, of all things, Silicon Valley workers are motivated by one, unifying cause: greed. After a year, greed took me from Cisco and into a whirlwind of startups as the valuations of such companies reached hundreds of times their earnings. We all bought into the vision that the illusory market would continue to drive our option growth forever ­ or at least for long enough for us to get out and buy our mandatory Boxster and retirement palace in Carmel-By-The-Sea. Frankly, for Valley workers, most of whom are under 30, it was a chance worth taking.

But then came March 2000. The cataclysmic downturn of the dot com economy (if it ever was one) brought with it more than its share of nervous anxiety. But the worker bees still believed in their Stock Market Prophets, who proclaimed that a bear market was a buying opportunity. We kept our noses to the grindstone, accepting the inconvenience of a delayed IPO. Boxster orders were placed on hold, but plans went ahead to redecorate the guest bedroom.

The days of reckoning came shortly before Christmas. The stock market, unsatisfied with their prior grumbling regarding unprofitable dot com companies, resorted to a sucker punch. Dot com companies, especially those without actual business plans, and their employees could no longer cling to fuzzy notions of early exits. They learned that it would be a long grind.

Silicon Valley is now a much different place. The $100,000.00 per month billboard ads touting online shopping sites, which flanked the 101 Freeway through the good times, have been replaced by those of boring, uncool infrastructure companies. The recruiters don¹t call as often and aren¹t as persistent.

I left in October, along with others who saw the writing on the wall. Collectively, we realized that the self-sacrifice was not sustainable, and the sacrifices without the reward carried the penalties of our youths. We emerge from the experience as seasoned veterans of Generation X¹s best opportunity to get what our parents got, and more. Some of us succeeded, some of us will try again.

Returning now, from my new, reasonably-priced home in the Hollywood Hills, is like arriving at the party after everyone has left, and being asked to clean up. The detritus of the dot com revolution still trudge down the 101 every morning and evening, still making the payments on the Land Rover, but the tone and the conviction is not the same.

The blind optimism is gone. For now, it¹s back to business.

-Ian/2001

Ian Andrew Bell is a technology consultant and writer living in Hollywood, CA. Reach him at scoop [at] ianbell [dot] com

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