Going to California

Life by the Valley — 6

Jim asked, “Can you start that salmon?” He pointed at a two-foot slab of pink fish flesh.

“How do you want it?” I asked, basically meaning, “No, I can’t.” He made an apologetic little expression, as if sorry to bother me, and inside of a minute he’d set it on a large foil rectangle, dropped some lemon slices on top, and folded the foil over, crisply creasing the edges before sliding it into one of the three grills in the backyard. Then he spun around back inside toward the kitchen, to finish preparing the soufflé in progress.

“Check on it in fifteen or twenty, would you?” he called back to me. I nodded, following.

In early October of 1999, the dot-com boom was only months away from the peak of its power. Yahoo’s stock price had soared up to over 192, from 105 a year earlier, and that was before a two-to-one split. Adjusted, the stock price had gone from 13 to 48, roughly 370% growth. Jim had come into Yahoo as part of the acquisition that created Yahoo Mail, and he’d worked tirelessly for years to make that service the valuable thing it had become, transitioning quickly from a technical curiosity to a crucial Internet service.

It was no surprise he was rewarded handsomely for it. What surprised and impressed people, especially people like me, was what he’d been doing with the money. He’d gotten his Emergency Medical Technician certification, working nights at a local emergency room as motorcyclists were regularly scraped off the road and brought into triage. He’d begun considering a stint with someone like Doctors Without Borders and taking a trip around the world, helping people where he could. In the meantime, he’d also taken chef classes and come out the other side as a more than decent dinner-party thrower, hosting little gatherings of between twenty and forty people every few weeks.

Jim had not been the most social of cats back in Austin. But in Silicon Valley, it was much easier for geeks to bond with random strangers, who were also likely to be geeks. It created an environment where people like Jim could turn to nearly anyone and talk about the recent updates to his favorite open-source mail server, and even if that person didn’t know anything about mail servers they’d probably be interested in why Jim was interested in the differences, and out of that you get a conversation. You didn’t have to start a conversation with a stranger by talking about the weather or your favorite sports team and then see where you could take it from there.

There was a distinct sense that we were all in this together, we were all successful to some degree or we wouldn’t even be there, we were going to be rich, we were finally being given the control we’d dreamed that we deserved through the entirety of our geek-oppressed lives. We were going to change the world. Hopefully, we could learn a lot and have some fun along the way.

And it’s no joke that the work was hard, so the fun was important. The place where Jim hosted his dinners was called the Mancini Mansion. It had a unique reputation in quiet little Mountain View, just off its suburban downtown yet a few blocks back from the droning strip-mall stretch of El Camino Real, that paved-over remnant of the Spanish Colonial-era. The mansion had once been the home of a self-made man, last name Mancini, an immigrant who’d come to California nearly a hundred years earlier with virtually no money but an amazing ambition which eventually led him to great heights. It wasn’t very far from a common Silicon Valley story, decades before the place became Silicon Valley.

The home Mancini built with his money was a five- or so bedroom home with a rooftop deck and a vast semi-circular driveway, with several palm trees, visible for blocks, towering over the whole place. It had been built across four normal lots, an enormous spread even when it was built. It was garishly decorated, and fairly well preserved, all things considered. Every room was unique. For example, one bedroom was set partly over a defunct hot tub.

When Doug had first moved to California, he’d worked a network admin job for Electric Communities, the early virtual worlds startup. When Doug got promoted, he needed someone to take his place so he’d convinced Jim to move out and take over for him. When Jim eventually needed replacing, a young Englishman named Harry had passed the opportunity to a school friend of his, Rob.

Rob and Harry had gone to Cambridge together. While Harry was the rail-thin, long-fingered anti-social type, Rob was the slightly more stocky, strong voiced, hyper-social type, though once you got them talking it was obvious how they could hardly be more alike or better friends.

Rob had eventually moved on from Electric Communities — the place was so ahead of its time that it crashed and burned years before the rest of the Internet startups — but the larger social circle which had grown out of the E.C. people would persist. Rob ended up working for Stanford’s research arm, S.R.I., and renting a room in the Mancini, where Jim ended up throwing his parties. Between the long indoor dining room and the patio tables, there was enough room to seat around forty people.

That night was my first time at the Mancini. We were celebrating Harry’s return to California. He had moved back to England a few years before, but somehow he’d heard about a job working on my team, and had flown out for an interview, which we all presumed was merely a formality. After all, you couldn’t hire remotely decent people for any amount of money, so moving a super-talented guy over from London was a no-brainer.

Personally, I don’t remember talking a lot that night, though I’m sure I did my share. I was dizzied by the nested social connections of how everyone had worked together previously at one or more companies. Keeping tens of new faces straight was a real challenge, no matter how similar we’d eventually discover we were. There was a reason that you could draw a straight line from Doug to Jim to Harry to Rob, and that was because they had a lot in common. No surprise we’d all get along so well.

But that’s today. Then, I was just trying to get through the evening. Another of their friends, Arturo, also seemed glad to meet me. He was from Mexico, though he and Harry had been at the same IBM internship in London. After Arturo made his leap from Mexico City to Silicon Valley, he pulled Harry over from London, who’d referred Rob to Jim. Like I said, it’s a tightly nested mess of people who liked one another.

Arturo was doing security things at Yahoo, where Jim also worked, further entangling the relationships. Jim caught us both in the hallway between kitchen and dining room and introduced us, telling Arturo where I worked, that I was a friend of Doug’s, and then walked away.

“Oh!” Arturo said. “You’re at Kroll. Where Harry’s interviewing.”

“Yes, it seems.”

“Huh!” He thought for a moment. “I’m a customer, you know.”

“Really?”

“Yes. You’ve done some security work for us.” He thought for a moment. “Do you know C?”

I know now, and I suspected at the time, that I could pick up C — which is, by the way, a computer programming language. I’d touched on it in college, before changing my major away from the Computer Science track, and I already knew enough about the security side of things that I probably could’ve faked my way into a job. I would’ve been granted stock, real Yahoo stock, the value of which seemed to be approaching escape velocity.

But one of the first things that Doug had told me, reinforcing what I already felt, was this: “Just be brutally honest about what you don’t know. One of the best things you can do is not be afraid to ask questions. I mean, you can ask too many questions, but be clear about what you do and don’t know. Start at first principles if you have to. The right people will happily tell you what you need to know, when you really need to know it.”

So I told Arturo, “I don’t know C. I’m more a designer than a programmer.”

“Ah,” he said, hands up in apology, backing away. “Ah, I see.” Then he paused, something close to confused. “But you know Doug?”

“Yes,” I said, happy to find a touchpoint we shared. Arturo tilted his head slightly, looking at me through heavy eyebrows. “Why?” I asked.

He took a shallow breath. “We worked together at E.C.” There was only a hint of Spanish in his accent.

“Uh-huh,” I said. There seemed to be a bit he wasn’t telling me.

“Where is El Doug?” he asked.

“Don’t know,” I said.

“Ah, a secret.”

“No, I really don’t know.”

Veiled curiosity gave way to the softness of concern. “Oh,” he said.

“At least I got my shotgun back,” I said.

He shook his head, clearly confused. Jim walked by, so I asked him, “Did you hear I got my shotgun back?”

He stopped in his tracks. “What?”

“I didn’t tell you about the shotgun?”

He laughed. “Somehow, no.”

“Oh.” I glanced to see if Arturo was still listening. He was standing patiently. “When I drove out last month, I’d brought everything I could fit in my car that I’d grief over having lost, like my great-grandfather’s old shotgun.”

Jim laughed again, almost nervously. “And how did we get here?”

“Ah,” I said. “Okay, first principles. So, there’s this guy named Doug.”

“I know him,” said Jim.

“Si,” said Arturo.

“He let me stay in his spare room when I first moved out here. I don’t even have any ammunition for the shotgun, but I’d tucked it between two bookshelves in Doug’s spare bedroom just to keep it out of my car once I got here. Then when I moved into my own place, I forgot about it.”

“So you saw Doug?” Jim asked.

“No,” I said. “This guy named Doug, he broke up with his girlfriend.”

“Oh,” Arturo said again. “I’m sorry to hear.”

“I think it was for the best, though I learned the hard way not to say.”

“Though you just did,” Arturo pointed out.

“Yes,” I said. “I’d been exchanging messages with his girlfriend for a few weeks, trying to meet up with her. She wanted me to come by her place and pick it up there so I could fix something on her computer.”

“I bet,” Jim said.

I sighed. “That’s exactly what I was afraid of.”

“So did you…fix her computer?”

“No!” I said, glancing around to see who else might have been overhearing. My “no girlfriends of friends” policy still extended to ex-girlfriends, especially recent ex-girlfriends. Especially her. Jim and Arturo were grinning. “I mean, no,” I said more like a normal person. “So I had her bring it to the office. It was almost a disaster.”

“How so?”

“Ah, well, she saw the danger well before I did, and called me from the parking lot. She said, ‘It occurs to me that your co-workers might become a bit worried if Doug’s ex-girlfriend walked in the front door carrying a shotgun.’”

“Oh, holy shit!” said Jim. Arturo put both hands up to his face in sympathetic mortification.

I nodded. “So like I said, I got my shotgun back.”

Jim smiled, then he turned to Arturo. “Your head’s looking okay,” he said.

“Thank you,” said Arturo, nodding slightly. His hair was closely cropped.

“He made a bet,” said Jim, pointing a thumb at Arturo before moving on to get some other piece of the dinner party together.

“A bet?” I asked Arturo.

“When I interviewed at Yahoo a little more than a year ago, one of the guys there said that he thought the stock would hit X value—” He held his hand up at roughly shoulder height. “—where X was a multiple of the stock’s value at the time. I told him no way, it would never happen. That if it ever did, I would shave my head.” He grinned like a boy and rubbed the top of his closely cropped hair.

“Wow,” I said. Then, not knowing how to respond, I said, “I’m sorry I don’t know C.”

He shrugged. “It’s very hard to find people,” he told me, then he waved, and made to move down the hall toward his original destination.

Before the end of the year, Yahoo’s stock would more than double again, going from 48 to 108, adjusted to today’s values. We had know way of knowing, overwhelmed by euphoria and lacking the precognition we enjoyed attributing to our fine selves, that this would be the high water mark. Everything after that would be a decline, and then a fall.

But in those final days of the first global Internet boom, we were at the top of our collective game — except for me, I felt. While the other great geeks of the age were toasting one another about having finally overthrown the shackles of nerd-dom and taken over the world, I’d soon begin sliding in the grips of what would be one of my deepest and longest lasting depressions.

Given that most everyone would be joining me within the year, you could say I was simply once again ahead of my time. Here’s what happened.

Standard

2 thoughts on “Life by the Valley — 6

  1. Theo says:

    Finally something I know something about! And I just no this: at this time Rob was still in conservative english haircuts, the colored dreads were still to come…

  2. You’re right, Theo! I simply hammered this out after dinner in Helsinki and hit “Post” without re-reading it. Oddly enough, this was one of the few pieces I’ve been nervous about getting right, the previous post being one of the others. So thanks! I made a few edits overall — thanks to Arturo as well for his notes.

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