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The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardestby Po Bronson
Synopses & Reviews
The Shiny Shoes
Oh, God. No sooner had Francis Benoit started explaining to this reporter the difference between the ISA and PCI electrical standards when the reporter's head nods--customary cues that implied "Go on, I'm with you"--were replaced by this high-tempo bobbing and rocking motion that signaled that the reporter's brain had lost the train of thought and was spinning idly, frozen like a processor caught in an infinite loop.
He knew what she wanted. She wanted Francis to say something familiar, something tangible--something like "Imagine the mother board is like a fruit tree"--to rescue her brain back into this time and place. But he wasn't going to say it for her. Forget it. He hated having to translate his work into dumbed-down metaphors for the shiny-shoe set--the meddlesome lawyers, media scribblers, and potential corporate sponsors who came through wanting to under stand without doing the hard work of paying attention.
The reporter was from the San Jose Mercury News, and she'd been invited to chronicle the design of a next-generation chip for one of La Honda Research's sponsors, Omega Logic. Francis was the lead designer. The reporter's name was Nell Kirkham. She sat with her legs crossed and her head tilted back so her hair fell behind her shoulders. She didn't wear earrings or a necklace or rings, but only a tenth of the cost of the gold watch she was wearing was devoted to telling time. She didn't wear the kind of cheap makeup that needed reapplying after every meal. She was a woman who wanted it both ways: she wanted to be considered pretty but be taken seriously for her intellect. She wanted men to think she was beautiful, but not to comeon to her. She would never flutter her eyes. She would never giggle or tell people they were smart or try to make them feel too special.
She said, "Now this project, this chip. Most projects have code names."
Francis wasn't going to let her go in that direction. "What's your question?"
"What's this project's code name?"
"The six eighty-six."
She looked disappointed. "Most code names . . . are . . . more metaphorical than that. More . . . inspiring." Francis had given it the name 686 specifically to avoid any metaphorical simplification. "And your question is . . . ?"
She sighed and put down her pen. "I don't just want my stories to be about how you're packing ten million transistors on a chip. I'm really interested in being able to write about the personal journey you go through. I want to know what this means to you."
"Well, it won't be ten million transistors. We're getting the specs from Omega's fabrication team. It might be six million."
Francis pinched his forehead with the fingers of his right hand. He blew out some air. "Ms. Kirkham, with all respect, if Omega's plant in Singapore could put ten million transistors on a chip, we would produce a radically different circuit design, not need graphics accelerators, math coprocessors, et cetera. Ten million transistors, Christ. That would put half of Omega's competitors out of business."
"But you understand my point, right? I need to know what you think about the project. I want to write about how it makes you feel. "
Francis agonized over this. He'd spent the past ten years of his life devoted to designing more powerful computers. But after all that time, computers didn't actually operate any fasterfor their users, since the software programs had grown so huge that it took all the new hardware power just to maintain the status quo. Bigger software required faster hardware, which in turn stimulated demand for even bigger software. Omega was La Honda's biggest sponsor, and Omega was taking heat from Wall Street, Chip or Die. The truth was, Francis had a hard time seeing the point of yet another faster beast. He'd agreed to take the assignment very reluctantly. But he wasn't going to tell this story to a reporter who wouldn't even bother to understand his technology.
He said, "What do you mean, 'how I feel'?"
"Well, for instance . . . La Honda is a nonprofit research lab. Sponsors pay you to design things, and then you don't ever see any profit from that. You don't really even get the credit. So how does that make you feel ?"
Ahhh. Reporters always got around to asking that. They couldn't understand that all Francis wanted to do was to work without intrusions, to create. They couldn't believe that he wasn't interested in being a billionaire.
"I feel fine," Francis said. "I get what I want from it."
"But you watch all these young guys with uncountable wealth on the cover of magazines . . ." "What about 'em?"
"Jealous ? "
"Naw . . ."
Despite all the roll-up-your-shirtsleeves myths and stereotypes, when you got right down to it, working in a corporate start-up meant you spent 80 percent of your time doing complete bullshit-- chasing venture capital money, writing technical documentation, hiring people--and all of it involved dumbing down your work. And the meetings! It was inevitable that at some point the system of for-profit entrepreneurship rewarded engineers who weregood at dumbing down their work. To participate in that game would be a waste of God-given talent, it would be a crime against Francis's very own nature.
When he didn't say anything more, she tried again. "Well, does it make you feel you have something to prove?"
"Mmmm. This feeling, this feeling of having something to prove--you know what it comes from? It comes from when somebody doesn't believe you, doesn't believe in you. And the only person in the past month who's questioned me, the only person who doubts me . . . is you, Ms. Kirkham. I told you. I'm happy with the way it works around here. You think all that matters is money, and magazine covers? Fine. But don't presume that's all that I think matters. Now, if you excuse me . . . I've got to go talk with Hank."
They were in Francis's office. He stood up, hands on hips. While she gathered her tape recorder and notepad into her shoulder bag, he walked to his doorway and stood holding the door open. There was nothing impatient in his body language but by merely being one step ahead of her, he kept her unsettled. She dropped a pen on the way out.
"[O]ffers worthwhile insight into the peculiar, arrested-adolescent computer culture of Silicon Valley....It's a predictable plot, but one that is brightened by Mr. Bronson's comic twists and savage cynicism — and by his infectious enthusiasm for entrepreneurial genius." Bill Kent, New York Times Book Review
"A restrained sense of satire and minimal 'outrageousness,' along with convincing detail and 3-D characters, set this novel apart." Rob Riddel, Wired
Dazzling and outrageous, Po Bronson's The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest is a knowing, eye-opening, and unrelentingly funny insider's look at the ultimate millenial adventure: the gold rush in Silicon Valley. It is a novel that brazenly opens up the American dream and lays out its twisted circuitry for all to see.
Dazzling and outrageous, Po Bronson's "The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest" is a knowing, eye-opening, and unrelentingly funny insider's look at the ultimate millenial adventure: the gold rush in Silicon Valley. It is a novel that brazenly opens up the American dream and lays out its twisted circuitry for all to see.
About the Author
Po Bronson received an MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State University and a BA in economics from Stanford. The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest was derived from experiences and interviews conducted while writing about Silicon Valley for Wired, The New York Times Magazine, and Forbes ASAP. His first novel, Bombardiers, was translated into ten languages and became an international bestseller. He grew up in Seattle and now lives in San Francisco, California.
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