Back in 1968, Los Angeles was a mass of snarled traffic where dreams went to die. Perhaps inspired by the song, everyone moved to San Jose and they took their freeways with them. 50 years after Dionne Warwick fled to the beautiful Valley of the Heart’s Delight, it took an average of 90 minutes each way to commute 25 miles from Almaden Valley to Mountain View and all the orchards were gone.
LA is a great big freeway.
Put a hundred down and buy a car.
In a week, maybe two, they’ll make you a star.
I arrived in Mountain View in 1996 with big dreams after two wonderful years working on Wall Street. Downtown Manhattan is an amazing place to live but it’s no place to bring up a baby and after the biggest snowstorm in a hundred years, we decided we wanted to live somewhere warmer.
Chris worked for a company based in Silicon Valley and said we should go live there and we all solemnly pledged to be out on the West Coast by the end of August. Of course, when July rolled around we had done nothing to advance our quest, so we renewed our promise over a beer. Three weeks later we moved into an apartment on the Sand Hill Road in Palo Alto.
AlphaBlox was just across the street from Netscape and, on the day we arrived in California, Jeremy asked me if I had ever seen a cheque for a million dollars. Jeremy and Michael had just come back from their first meeting with Netscape’s CFO who, impressed with their pitch, pulled out his chequebook and wrote seven digits. The first few thousand dollars went on custom door handles in the shape of the company logo. A few more tens of thousands went on custom-built furniture to match the logo colours. The Dotcom Boom was underway.
I learned a lot at AlphaBlox. I learned that if you put together a team of twenty-something developers who hate each other you can reconstruct Lord of the Flies without the civilising influence of the conch. Version One of the AlphaBlox product taught me that you can fool a lot of the people a lot of the time if you spend vast sums on marketing.
I still remember the early promise and the excitement around our first product. We were going to build Personal Info Apps that would reconfigure themselves according to the microclimates of the Bay Area and the performance of NASDAQ. They would walk you through your data in three dimensions in shades of Christy Blue and dispense entirely with expensive software developers. Instead, we built a complicated charting package that, if you were sufficiently competent in SQL, could draw you an attractive pie chart.
There was one brief interval of sanity where the entire leadership of the engineering department got fired and we were left to our own intuitions for a period of about six months while they searched for a new VP of Engineering. When Bill finally arrived he interviewed all of the senior engineers and decided that, since we seemed to know what we were doing he would let us continue while he worked on important stuff.
We actually ended up with a pretty good product but that just led to more marketing folks and a flood of new VPs and SVPs until it became almost impossible to build anything of value. By the time we had burned through a hundred and something millions of other people’s money, we were pretty much unable to build anything much at all and I decided it was time to move on.
Weeks turn into years, how quick they pass
And all the stars that never were
Are parking cars and pumping gas
After that, I worked on my own product at home for a while. Extreme Programming was all the rage and I built a project management tool that captured the mood of XP. I sold a few copies but eventually, the loneliness drove me mad and the first Dotcom recession meant that no one had any money to buy stuff anymore. I put my dreams of a company of my own on the shelf and got a job with Agitar.
Most people who work in tech don’t actually do much that is technically difficult. It’s mostly just login boxes and connecting to a database. Agitar was different. We built a tool that would help developers test their own software. We won awards and everything. Once we started to be successful, Agitar brought in new leadership who decided that, since developers don’t really like testing their own software, it would be better to have The Agitator generate tests for them magically. We were selling snake oil. Agitar ran out of money and I moved to Portland.
Portland is the city where young people go to retire. Some friends had moved there and I went to join them and work at WebMD. Mrs Clown didn’t love Portland like I did though and she moved us back to California. I spent the next few years flying up to Portland to drink beer with Matt and the rest of my time talking on the telephone. WebMD felt like a 100,000-person mega-company when it was actually quite small. There were high walls between the departments so salespeople couldn’t talk to developers and developers couldn’t talk to QA people. The software process was like a history lesson about the 60s. My job was to make them all agile and stuff. Mission accomplished but I’m not sure it really did any good.
Eventually, the loneliness got to me again and I got super-depressed. By happenstance, I got two calls asking me if I wanted a job back in Silicon Valley. One was from Netflix. Netflix was just around the corner from my house. They had gleamingly beautiful offices, their product was super popular and the folks on my team were super smart. Software developers got paid hundreds of thousands of dollars and our stock price increased 50-fold over the next ten years but… sorry! That was on a different timeline. The second offer was from a brand new start-up where I would be employee number five. International movie company with a huge salary? Or a tiny little start-up with a huge salary cut? Rian persuaded me that I am more of a start-up kind of guy so I took the job at Smart Patients.
Smart Patients was the first company that I truly loved. We started out borrowing space from Singularity University inside NASA at Moffet Field where everyone was a genius. We hung out with people designing 3D printers for the International Space Station and handheld scanners that would generate a medical report. Our weekly beer bash was a blast!
We soon moved into our own Silicon Valley-style garage that we shared with Chris the Photographer. Every day was filled with dreams of building the best online community for patients and our members loved us. We were like a family and it was worth the 90 minutes each-way commute to spend time in the office together. We were doing good, meaningful work.
But even happy families drift apart and eventually the two founders fell out. First, one founder quit. The other followed later. Then America elected the worst president it was possible to imagine and suddenly the charms of America felt less charming and it felt like time to go home.
Dreams turn into dust and blow away
And there you are without a friend
You park your car and ride away.
When Trump won the Republican primary the Clown Family made a deal: If Trump wins the general election, we are going back to England and the day after the election we started making plans. A year later, Pearl and I were on the plane flying back to the old country to begin a new life.
For all my complaining, I loved living in California and I left behind a long trail of friends along the way. We enjoyed our twenty-four years in America but it sure is good to be back home.
I’ve got lots of friends in San Jose
Oh, do you know the way to San Jose?