The Secret History of Silicon Valley” Part IVb – The End of Innocence

Remember when the days were long
And rolled beneath a deep blue sky
Didn’t have a care in the world
With mommy and daddy standin’ by
But “happily ever after” fails

The End of The Innocence – Don Henley/Bruce Hornsby

This is Part IVb of how I came to write “The Secret History of Silicon Valley“.
Read Part IV first and it will make a bit more sense.

Discovering that your worldview is wrong or mistaken can be a life-changing event. It’s part of growing up but can happen at any age. What you do when it happens shapes who you’ll become.

Dinner in a Strange Land
When I was in my mid 20’s working at ESL, I was sent overseas to a customer site where the customers were our three-letter intelligence agencies. All of us knew who they were, understood how important this site was for our country, and proud of the work we were doing. (Their national technical means of verification made the world a safer place and hastened the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War.)

As a single guy, I got to live in a motel-like room on the site while the married guys lived in town in houses and tried to blend in with the locals. When asked what they did, they said they worked at “the xxx research facility.” (Of course the locals translated that to “oh do you work for the yyy or zzz intelligence agency?”)

One warm summer evening I got invited over to the house of a married couple from my company for a BBQ and after-dinner entertainment – drinking mass quantities of the local beer. The quintessential California couple, they stood out in our crowd as the engineer (in his late 20’s, respected by his peers and the customer) had hair down to his shoulders, sharply contrasting with the military crewcuts of the customers and most of the other contractors.

His wife, about my age, could have been a poster child for the stereotypical California hippie surfer, with politics that matched her style – antiwar, anti government, antiestablishment.

One of the rules in the business was that you didn’t tell your spouse, girlfriend, significant other who you worked for or what you worked on – ever. It was always a welcome change of pace to leave the brown of the unchanging desert and travel into town and have dinner with them and have a non-technical conversation about books, theater, politics, travel, etc. But it was a bit incongruous to hear her get wound up and rail against our government and the very people we were all working for. Her husband would look at me out the corner of his eyes and then we’d segue the conversation to some other topic.

That evening I was there with three other couples cooking over the barbie in their backyard. After night fell we reconvened in their living room as we continued to go through the local beer. The conversation happened to hit on politics and culture and my friend’s’ wife innocently offered up she had lived in a commune in California. Well that created a bit of alcohol-fueled cross-cultural disconnect and heated discussion.

Until one of the other wives changed a few lives forever with a slip of the tongue.

Tell Me it Isn’t True
One of the other wives asked, “Well what would your friends in the commune think of you now that your husband is working for intelligence agencies x and y?”

As soon as the words came out of her mouth, I felt time slow down. The other couples laughed for about half a second expecting my friend’s wife to do so as well. But instead the look on her face went from puzzlement in processing the question, to concentration, as she was thinking and correlating past questions she had about who exactly her husband had been working for. It seemed like forever before she asked with a look of confusion, “What do you mean agencies x and y?”

The laughter in the room stopped way too soon, and the room got deathly quiet. Her face slowly went from a look of puzzlement to betrayal to horror as she realized that that the drunken silence, the dirty looks from other husbands to the wife who made the agency comment, and the wives now staring at their shoes was an answer.

She had married someone who never told her who he was really working for. She was living in a lie with people she hated. In less than a minute her entire worldview had shattered and coming apart in front of us, she started screaming.

This probably took no more than 10 seconds, but watching her face, it felt like hours.

I don’t remember how we all got out of the house or how I got back to the site, but to this day I still remember standing on her lawn staring at strange constellations in the night sky as she was screaming to her husband, “Tell me it isn’t true!”

The next day the site supervisor told me that my friend and his wife had been put on the next plane out of country and sent home (sedated) along with the other couple that made the comment. By the time I came back to the United States, he was gone from the company.

It’s been forty years, but every once an awhile I still wonder what happened to the rest of their lives.


The End of Innocence
In much smaller ways I’ve watched my children and now my students discover that their worldview is wrong, mistaken or naive. I’ve watched as they realize there’s no Santa Claus and Tooth Fairy; the world has injustice, hypocrisy and inequality; capitalism and politics don’t work like the textbooks and money moves the system; you can’t opt out of dying, and without regulation people will try to “game” whatever system you put in place.

Learning to accept the things you can’t change, finding the courage to change the things you can and acquiring the common sense to know the difference, is part of growing up.

Part V of the Secret History of Silicon Valley continues here.

Download the podcast here or here

14 Responses

  1. With regards to your marketing comment, it’s up to us to stand up to these kind of marketing shenanigans. Too often people abandon their ethics because “hey the other guys is doing it, I have to to do it to compete.”

    I’m not buying it… literally.

    I stop bringing my business to companies that follow this line of logic. How much longer until they start compromising their products or service under other dubious exercises in logic. Its up to everyday people to make a stand for certain kinds of decorum. because the exploiters will always push for what benefits them.

  2. […] | Posted by Chill on 24 Aug 2009 at 11:47 am | Shattered. […]

  3. Learning to accept the things you can’t change, finding the courage to change the things you can and acquiring the common sense to know the difference, is part of growing up.

    Common sense and wisdom are not the same.

  4. Maybe it’s me, or maybe you’re just unclear, but it seems like you’re trying very hard to make ethical behavior sound big and complicated and oh so difficult to understand how to achieve, which is different from saying oh so difficult to achieve. Perhaps it’s difficult to achieve everyone acting honestly and ethically, whether to the public or to their spouse, but it’s not a complex problem. Just a hard problem. But then again, you worked in the U.S. nuclear armaments industry during the cold war, so I guess that sort of fuzzy thinking might be a necessity.

  5. Life is so short, do we really want to spend it making it miserable for ourselves and others? The bad behavior of some companies should stay with them, business is no different to any other social interaction. We can decide to be unpleasant self centered and unethical – or not, it’s our choice.

    One may get more ‘success’ by being unethical – but if in that process you have no happiness, what sort of success is it really, what good does it bring you? Being miserable in a big house is never better than being happy in a small one! These poor miserable people who insist in making money at the cost of others, deserve our compassion, not emulation 🙂

    The real success I believe is leading a happy life and to hopefully provide for your worldly needs and those of your dependents.

    I get that you’re not hammering home a particular point and I realize from your other entries that you’re not some crazy amoral dude 🙂 and it was also quite an interesting story about priorities really – family or job! I think it’s to your credit that you think about these issues – far too many people take unethical behavior as a given!

    Keep them coming 🙂

  6. I doubt this is TechCrunch’s first encounter with PR people lying. Instead, this is a culture clash. Anybody with a sense of how the Internet works should have known that they couldn’t commit such open fraud on this scale and expect to get away with it. It’s like seeing a pregnant woman with a cigarette in one hand and a can of beer in the other: mildly remarkable in an old photo, but these days it’s shocking in person.

  7. I am shocked, shocked that PR firms try to game the system!

    TechCrunch knows how to create controversy and PR firms are excellent targets. 870 retweets tell me they achieved the goal of driving traffic just fine.

    Last year they posted several guest posts from a gentleman who shared his tactics for gaming YouTube. He got lots of outcry and even more business. In fact he used the publicity to raise money from Ron Conway and others.

    This is as much of “culture clash” as professional wrestling.

  8. Best summary of what the post is about is a comment posted on Hacker News by mechanical_fish
    What he seems to be saying, in an elegantly indirect way, is:

    A) Um, yeah, PR firms shill for their clients on the Apple Store. Duh. People who didn’t see this coming are deluding themselves.

    B) Moreover, it’s particularly ironic that TechCrunch, a site which sits squarely in the center of the tech PR universe, would profess to be shocked, shocked at the behavior of the people that they chat with every day.

    C) If TechCrunch really is shocked by this, they’re going to have a nervous breakdown when they figure out (e.g.) what percentage of the stuff they read every day is written by PR staffers.



  9. Thanks for a great story Steve, it was very shocking. I wish you would have told it in class! I don’t really know how the story applies to entrepreneurship, but if you could find a way to incorporate into the curriculum of E145 in the future I’m sure that future students would be grateful.

  10. I think you need to look at the incentive system for TechCrunch. Mike Arrington is a capitalist. Page views drive his ad revenue, which is probably CPM based. He knows how to publish articles that drive page views, and this is a good one.

    He spoke at the Founder Institute last week, and his advice was to not hire a PR agency until there were so many inbound requests that you can’t handle them yourself. He prefers to interact directly with the founders of a startup. It’s his job to introduce new startups to the world. He naturally prefers exclusives, and if your strategy requires a review from TechCrunch, then it’s a good way to go. Also, his #1 advice for getting coverage on TechCrunch was to make a great product. There’s just no substitute for having a great product that people love. Also, don’t BS or lie – he’s a professional at detecting BS, so if you lie, he’ll detect it and try to find out the real truth.

  11. Its funny that you would say that without regulation people would try to “game the system”. It seems to me that regulation is used more often to game the general population than protect it.

  12. Dan,

    That’s why we have term limits (and lack of them) and different branches of government in the U.S.

  13. Peel back the onion, and no one is surprised to find there nothing in the core.

    This is the way the world works. Paid PR. Money. Guns.

    Yet in spite of this, it is amazing the planes stay in the air, medicines work, and we can have orderly revolutions.

    Somewhere in the midst of total chaos, human-kind managed to layer enough integrity into a system that had built a rather wonderful world.

    I think it is because in the end, customers count. No amount of paid publicity can achieve much if the product fails to make the customer happy. Customers walk, patients sue, and people vote.

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