Tech commentator and author Michael S. Malone ’75 MBA ’77 has made the study of Silicon Valley his life’s work. And his new novel finds the point where fact and fiction meet. This article first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.
If you really want to understand Silicon Valley—not the venture capital system or the function of a chip’s logic gate or even the stickiness of a social network—but the soul of the place, how it works and what drives the people who come here from all over the world, you could do worse than spending an hour with Michael S. Malone ’75, MBA ’77.
You could call him a tech columnist, author, historian or businessman. But what he really is, is the professor emeritus of Silicon Valley, a guy who has made the study of this place his life’s work.
“I came here as an Air Force brat when I was 9,” Malone was telling me the other day. “I mean, I’m valley. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. And I do love this place.”
I called Malone recently after reading Learning Curve, his most recent of many books. Yes, it was about his favorite subject—Silicon Valley—but this one was different. It was fiction, Malone’s first novel. I’ve said before that truth in the valley is often stranger than fiction—and so maybe fiction is the best way to handle it.
“I spent my whole life writing nonfiction about the valley and there are certain things that non-fiction just can’t do that you can do in fiction,” Malone says. “There’s the personal dynamics and the wheeling and dealing and the back-room stuff and the realization that everybody here is plotting. And I wanted to capture some of that.”
(How strange is valley truth? Malone tells the story of sending his manuscript to venture capitalist and author Tom Perkins to get a promotional blurb for the book cover: “I had trouble reaching him. He finally got it. Had me send it to him, to his submarine, which he was testing in Tahiti.”)
Now, I don’t call every author whose books I read. Malone has been a helpful source for years and I regularly call to bounce ideas off him. But in talking to him about his book, which manages to poke fun at the hyper-competitive valley without reducing its characters to cartoonish caricatures, it struck me that Malone has a grip on how the valley works that’s tighter than anyone I know.
“He has this real sense of time and decades and the paradigms that have pertained here,” says Joe DiNucci, a former SGI executive and a valley veteran who works with Malone on a program to build relations between Silicon Valley and the University of Oxford. “He’s a great storyteller.”
And why wouldn’t he be able to tell the Silicon Valley story? Malone, 59, literally lived through the head-spinning change that transformed the valley from farm land to tomorrow land. He wrote about much of it in books about Hewlett-Packard, Apple, IPOs, the rise of the semiconductor industry, and risk-taking entrepreneurs. He was in the right place at the right time as an early stockholder in Siebel Systems and eBay. He’s networked to the max. And he still lives in the heart of the valley, in an old Sunnyvale farmhouse that is the oldest in town.
Malone is the sort of player that every subculture—be it Washington D.C., Hollywood, Wall Street—has and needs. He flits from advising startups, to teaching writing at Santa Clara University, to debating at Oxford, where he’s an associate fellow at the Saïd Business School, to work at startup PatientKey, where he is a director. But mostly, he writes, writes, writes. His opinion pieces show up, among other places, in the Wall Street Journal and in Forbes, where he once worked as an editor of ASAP, one of a slew of tech/business magazines that blossomed during the dot-com boom.
He just finished a history of Intel, which is due out this summer. And Learning Curve, which charts the collision course of a global company with a bigger-than-life founder and a startup competitor filled with 20-somethings, is the first of what Malone says will be a quartet of Silicon Valley novels. And while the first installment indicates that the series will be highly entertaining, they are likely to come with a heavy dose of Silicon Valley insight.
“There are truths about the valley that we kind of all have internalized, but we don’t say them out loud,” Malone says. For instance, the truth that “at some point in Silicon Valley you’ve either worked with, for, or against every other person in Silicon Valley.” (Marissa Mayer, meet Sergey Brin and Larry Page.)
In fact, the valley, which we think of as the capital of reinvention, reinvents itself over and over again—semiconductors, PCs, the Internet, dot-coms, social networks. The projects and platforms change, but the underlying stories are the same. (Blockbuster IPO for profitless Twitter, meet blockbuster IPOs for profitless Netscape and Yahoo.)
“Everything changes, but nothing changes,” Malone says. Sure, he says, the people are different, more diverse now, and the products they are building and who they are selling them to have changed.
“But right at the core, it’s the story of the entrepreneur.”
It’s a riveting story that Malone will no doubt find new ways to tell. And if we’re smart, we’ll continue to listen.
Following is an excerpt from Learning Curve: A Novel of Silicon Valley.