Book Review: The Nudist on the Late Shift and other Tales of Silicon Valley

A book of Silicon Valley anecdotes should never be tedious, and Bronson has ample skill to do his stories justice

A book of Silicon Valley anecdotes should never be tedious, and Bronson has ample skill to do his stories justice

The Nudist on the Late Shift and other Tales of Silicon Valley

By Po Bronson

Published by Vintage

First Edition - June 2000

Po Bronson came to fame with his first book, Bombardiers, a coruscating novel of life on the trading floors of Wall Street. Like Liar's Poker, it tore into the sales culture that promoted - probably does still promote - burnout and cruelty in the pursuit of the deal and the six-figure commission.

But Bronson (like Michael Lewis) has lived the financial life - he's been a salesman. And that gives his Wall Street fiction a certain edge. Now, though he's a Wired columnist, he's just an observer.

Admittedly, he's a well-informed and very savvy observer, but he's not a part of the dotcom culture; he's always on the outside of the Valley. The distance makes his observations sharper, but you never get the feeling he's really on the inside track.

The Nudist on the Late Shift is like a collection of pin-sharp still photos. They're bright and perfectly focussed, but you're watching the scene rather than a part of it. Perhaps it's the difference between anecdote and fiction - the Nudist is a series of illustrative vignettes - but we could never really feel involved with the way Bronson has drawn his characters. And what characters they are.

There's the billionaire who still sleeps under his desk occasionally and wears free T-shirts (sponsored by a rival no less), and the Indian immigrant who arrived virtually penniless, but held his idea through twenty-odd venture capital rejections, building his company until he could parley Microsoft into spending the thick end of half a billion dollars.

Or how about the renowned inventor who has persuaded Disney to fund a clock meant to run for 10,000 years? The entrepreneur who used his military training to grow enough pot to fund his own start-up?

With such a rich canvas to draw on, it's really a shame not to learn more of the people. Bronson is at his best talking about money and the events surrounding a deal; it's here that his acute observations really combine to create an atmosphere that illuminates the characters.

If you want to follow the anatomy of an IPO, this is the wrong book if you need the details of SEC filings, but the right one to see the effects of all the technicalities and how the gleam in a man's eye can mark a seven-figure decision. There's an empathy for sales, but we'd have like to see more on some of the deals.

But perhaps less is more; the Nudist is a fine read. It's more fun than Coupland's Microserfs, and it's all true, apart from a few names changed to protect the guilty. It may not be involving but it's certainly informative. Given that it's just out in a new - cheaper - paperback edition you need a reason not to buy it if you're interested in Silicon Valley.

And the eponymous Nudist? He's a real programmer turned urban legend; a code geek who preferred hanging free in a company that didn't mind as long as he was working past 10pm. Only in the Valley could it blow over when he misread his clock and offended the Union...

John Sabine

Read more on IT for small and medium-sized enterprises (SME)

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