Tag Archives: Keith Raffel

Drop by Drop – Keith Raffel

Here is my promised second post of the day, and this one does not have stats, numbers. It’s about a thriller. A Silicon Valley Washington DC thriller. I discovered Keith Raffel while looking for books about Silicon Valley and he is probably the only author who has created his mysteries (at least two) around the high-tech start-up world. I already commented his dot.dead and Smasher.

Drop by Drop is (unfortunately) not about Silicon Valley and start-ups, even if it begins there. The hero is a History professor at Stanford University though. And I enjoyed reading Raffel’s new work as much as his two previous novels. Do not get me wrong. This is probably not literature compared to Cormac McCarthy‘s Suttree or even Franzen’s The Corrections, but it is entertaining, the stories are good and the personalities always interesting and well-described. It is a good thriller! Though quite different, it reminded me of The Librarian by Larry Beinhart.

There is also something unusual, a feeling I got after reading Raffel’s three books. There is a kind of sadness that all his heroes experience in their relationships with women. Even tragedy. Women are at the same time fragile and strong, fragile because often in dangerous positions. This makes the personalities really interesting.

Drop by Drop is also an ebook. It is in fact the first book I read on a screen. And I could read it! The experience is strange. No page, just chapters and digital references. I read it with white fonts on a black background. And I enjoyed it. I still prefer paper, but I also noticed that I have sold more Start-Up ebooks than paper versions in 8 out of the last 12 months…

Coming back to the story, why didn’t Raffel fly east to Boston, which is the east-coast high-tech cluster, or even to New York, where there is the real life? The answer probably comes from the fact that Raffel has worked “as counsel to the Senate Intelligence Committee overseeing the secret world of the CIA, NSA, and other clandestine three-lettered agencies” before becoming a high-tech entrepreneur. He probably needed to share some his experience. I can tell you something I knew and is confirmed here: the high-tech start-up world may be a jungle with “vulture capitalists” but it is nothing compared to politics and in particular Washington DC!

I would not say there is a lot of action. I would almost say it is a psychological thriller. There is action, but what I liked the most were the hero’s fights with himself. “Our tradition stands for justice. That’s different than vengeance”. It reminds me that even if I am fascinated by President Obama, I am not sure to understand why he said “Justice is done” last May. This is another story. Well not really. This book really adresses in its own way the question: “Does the end justifies the means?” You will need to read it to find your own answer. You will also learn a little more about the American constitution.

From time to time, Raffel remembers he lives in Palo Alto. So let me finish with some quotes:
– About bankers: “For once he had abandoned his Silicon Valley khakis in favor of investment banker pinstripes.” … “An investment banker who takes companies public. And what does that consist of? A great roadshow, generating hype. All his IPO’s, every one, go out above the predicted range. In his business you count winners by dollars, not votes.”… “Investment bankers found themselves talking to the SEC enforcement crew regularly nowadays.”
– About Palo Alto places, he seems to enjoy the Peninsula Creamery as well as the Stanford Theatre: “Since high school, I’d frequented the Stanford Theatre in downtown Palo Alto, a repertory house playing the best of Hollywood’s Golden Age.” (Without Hewlett Packard and the Packard foundation, this marvelous theatre would probably not exist anymore.)

Finally, one of his descriptions of California driving rules, “I navigated over to the carpool lane. Only in California would one driver plus one passenger equal a carpool. And only in California would such loose admission requirements still result in an almost empty lane,” reminded me of why Woody Allen hates California. “I don’t want to move to a city where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light” — Alvy Singer (Woody Allen in Annie Hall). Well, I still love California! And Raffel seems to prefer it to Washington DC…

Smasher, another Silicon Valley mystery

Smasher is the second Silicon Valley thriller from Keith Raffel that I read. After reading dot.dead, I found this one more complex, and certainly as interesting. A mixture of a traditional thriller where the hero’s wife is smashed by a car, together with a good start-up story where the leader in the field is trying to smash the hero’s company and an academic story of intense competition between researchers in the physics field of [smashed] particles. Hence the title Smasher.

I already mentioned novels about start-ups or Silicon Valley (dot.dead, but also The Ultimate Cure). I have never mentioned though Po Bronson (I loved The First 20 Million Is Always the Hardest) or Michael Wolff (Burn Rate). I have not read (yet) Kaplan’s Start-up. On the academic side, there is Small World by the great David Lodge which I have not read (either…) There are of course many essays on the start-up or academic worlds (I mentioned many in my past posts in the must read category) but there are clearly not so many novels based on these worlds,

Raffel loves to take inspiration from real individuals in Silicon Valley. I had played at recognizing a few in dot.dead. Here it is less obvious; the academic smasher is a mixture of Feynman and Gell-Man. The start-up smasher looks more like Larry Ellison with his dark suits and love for Japanese architecture. But there is a little from Steve Jobs as well. The other characters existed in the first novel. I will not talk about the story and only shortly about the particle physics. I will say more about the start-up and broader Silicon Valley context. Smasher talks of Quarks and quirks, of Murray Gell-Man who got the Nobel prize for their discovery and of SLAC, the Stanford Linear Accelerator (a small CERN). You may identify SLAC both on the map and picture below.

There is indeed a link between particle physics and the start-up world. Raffel reminds us that the World Wide Web was invented at Cern thanks to Tim Berners-Lee. Slac had other spin-offs, but this is another story. Slac was also a home for the Homebrew Computer Club (see [1] and extract from page 214 below)

Smasher is also about women and science. “Stanford was on a campaign to recruit female undergraduates, Ph.D. candidates, and faculty to the natural sciences. My mother’s late aunt had been the first woman in the physics department back in the 1960s. In an effort to honor her and to appeal to what was still the second sex in the realm of natural sciences, the university was naming its particle physics lab after her. I’d lived in Palo Alto all my life and couldn’t recall a building, library, school or academic chair at Stanford labeled with a name except in return for a donation of dollars, euros, yens, dinars, or other convertible currency. So maybe Stanford was really serious about recruiting women.” And the invited professor for the ceremony adds: “We all follow in the footsteps of our predecessors. When I was a girl in France, I wanted to be Marie Curie. After two years as a graduate student at Stanford, after two years of hearing about her legacy, I wanted to be your great aunt.” (Page 12)

What may not be realistic is that this French professor smokes Gauloises (page 213). I know I left France a long time ago but I doubt professors still smoke them! It is pure work of fiction of course but Raffel adds in his acknowledgments that he found inspiration in Rosalind Franklin‘s life. A sad story which shows the complexity of being a woman in science or high-tech

A funny (sorry for the jump for sadness to humor) quote and apparently true [2] on the academic world is Clark Kerr once said his job as president of the University of California was to provide football for the alumni, sex for the students, and offices for the faculty. [The physics and Nobel prize professor] sanctum was twice the size of the [professor of English literature]’s but only a third the size of the business school professor [who is on the board of the hero’s start-up].” (Page 34)

It is also about VCs and term sheets. “VCs, bah. When you had no need for their money, investment offers would cascade over you like a tropical waterfall. When you could use a capital infusion – like now – the money flowed like water in a wadi, a riverbed in Sahara. In other words, it did not.” (Page 20)

“I drove west of Sand Hill Road. This was familiar territory, the Vatican of venture capitalism. In the bubble days of the late 1990s, office space on Sand Hill was the most expensive in the world. Here’s where the founders of Google, eBay, Amazon and Cisco had come, hat in hand, seeking the dollars required to turn the base metal of their dreams into stock market gold.” (Page 41)

Raffel has a few notes on Silicon Valley culture:
“The value of Silicon Valley company wasn’t in inventory or patents. It was in the brain of its employees.” (page 33)
“I had learned in the Valley that no more than two people could keep a business secret and that only worked if one of them was dead.” (Page 45 )
“Under an NDA? I asked. Non-disclosure agreements didn’t usually do much good in the Valley, which was built on loosey-goosey dissemination of intellectual capital, but having one couldn’t hurt. We had a raft of patent applications pending on the technology, but if they stole what we had, we would be defunct by the time we won any lawsuit.” (Page 94)
“Ron Qi, the inventor [of the technology incorporated in our product] and now head of engineering looked down as if examining the polish on his shoes. The other three around the table, Samantha Maxwell, our Korean-born MIT-educated marketing genius; Ori Mohr, the ex-Israeli paratrooper and kick-ass head of operations, and Bharat Gupta, the CFO, all moved their eyes back to me.” … “I saw Ron, who’d been brought up in the more deferential milieu of Taiwan…” (Page 44) [Immigrants again]
“I asked the engineers how the tweaking of the product was going, the sales rep what I could do to help them close their big deals, and the bean counters how much work was left to close the books for the latest quarter. What I heard from them was unfiltered by the vice presidents who reported to me. (The business professor) had told me that I could ask any employee anything but I could only tell my direct reports what to do. Managing the others was – who’d’ve thunk of it? – the jobs of their managers. As I popped into offices or cubicles, I was following the footsteps of the Founding Fathers of Silicon Valley, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, who advocated MWBA – management by walking around.” (Page 102)
“Thirty minutes later, I walked into a building named after Robert Noyce, one of the “traitorous eight” whose departure from Shockley Semiconductor loomed as large in Valley history as the exodus from Egypt did in the Bible. One of the founders of both Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel, Noyce was the co-inventor of the microprocessor, the electronic brain that ran everything from cell phones to server farms.” (Page 194)

A few more things on the academic world:

“It seems that the only way for a Stanford professor to win prestige is to start a successful company.
– Americans may not be interested in how the universe is made. I can tell you though, in Silicon Valley, they definitely want to know how money is made.
A researcher at CERN wanted to share information with others physicists. He invented a language to send it around and we ended up with the World Wide Web.
– Of course you would know our wonderful Sir Tim. […] The computer nerds at SLAC in the early 1970s hosted meetings of what they called the Homebrew Computer Club [1]. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak came.” … “And from that came Apple Computer and the whole PC industry. So you’re saying Silicon Valley wouldn’t be much without the physicists?”
(Page 214)

as well as

“I caught sight of a new photo over the desk. His head flanked by two earnest student types. He followed my eyes. “Another sign of my vanity.” Sergey Brin and Larry page developed their search algorithm as Stanford grad students and, of course, started their company to exploit it. Stanford got shares in the venture in return for their ownership of intellectual property.
– And how many millions did that piece of Google add to the university coffers?
– Three hundred and thirty six”
(Page 218)

Smasher is certainly not about literature, but it is (really) entertaining; nor does it belong to the category of the mystery masterpieces. Raffel does not have the genius (or experience) of James Ellroy, or even George Pelecanos and Henning Mankell but he is a real pleasure to read, I appreciate his talent, imagination and his interesting description of SV culture, history and dynamics.

[1] Homebrew Computer Club: “One influential event was the publication of Bill Gates’s Open Letter to Hobbyists, which lambasted the early hackers of the time for pirating commercial software programs.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homebrew_Computer_Club. Another site is Memoir of a Homebrew Computer Club Member

[2] Another legacy was his wit—after writing a serious book “The Uses of the University”, Kerr surprised an audience with this riposte–“The three purposes of the University?–To provide sex for the students, sports for the alumni, and parking for the faculty.” From http://content.cdlib.org/view?docId=kt687004sg&chunk.id=d0e21648&brand=calisphere&doc.view=entire_text

dot.dead, a Silicon Valley mystery

I seldom mention novels here. In fact, I only did it one with the excellent “The Ultimate Cure” by Peter Harboe-Schmidt. I nearly bought by accident dot.dead, the first novel written by Keith Raffel, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur turned into a thriller writer. And I enjoyed it.

There is no point in telling you anything about the story. It may not be very realistic, but which mystery novel is? The description of Silicon Valley, Palo Alto and Stanford University is nice and accurate though  and you have the feeling you are back there if you know the places. What I also enjoyed and what is relevant for this blog are the links with the high-tech start-up world.So let me quote Raffel.

– An interesting comment about motivation to be an entrepreneur (page 42), maybe the most surprising thing in the book! “She asked if the hard work required to start a business was worth it. […] -[It is] a kind of Catch-22. To found a successful company, you had to think it was more important than anything. But if you were intelligent enough to run such a company, you had to know it wasn’t. Realizing that, you could not have the drive needed to start the next Sun, HP…”

– A much less important detail (page 45): “[The company] had gone public at $12 a share. After three two-for-one splits, [he] had sold the company for $42 a share. An investment like this might explain the […] comfortable circumstances.” I let you compute the multiple!

– Of course, when you read a fiction about Silicon Valely, you may try to guess if the author found inspiration in real individuals. Paul is the easy one (page 16): “While not quite at the level of Bill Hewlett or Dave Packard, Paul still rated as a Silicon Valley legend. Born in Hungary, Pál Békés had been a baby when his parents carried him across the border into Austria during the 1956 revolution. Paul Berk, as his parents rechristened him, graduated from the Bronx School of Sciences at sixteen and from Stanford…” Well it is not exactly the personal history of Andy Grove at Wikipedia but close enough: “During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, when he was 20, András István Gróf left his home and family and escaped across the border into Austria, where he eventually made his way to the United States in 1957. There, he changed his name to Andrew S. Grove. Arriving in the United States in 1957, with little money, Grove retained a “passion for learning.” He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the City College of New York in 1960, and earned a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley in 1963.”

– The other people I tried to identify with less success are the board members of the company (page 57): in addition to Paul, there is
” Bryce Smithwick, board member as well as corporate counsel. sat to Paul’s right, leaning forward an Armani-clad leopard.
” Darwin Yancey, the technical genius behind Paul’s previous company. As usual Darwin’s glasees had slipped down his nose so that he peered at Paul with his head cocked back. Darwin had worked eighteen hour days [in the previous start-up] but to everyone one surprise had not followed Paul to [his new start-up]. Instead, he retired with his millions in the south of France. “My wife told me that our firrst twenty years of marriage belonged to work and that the next twenty years belonged to her.”
“A rare representative of her gender in the macho world of top venture capitalists, Margot Fullbright had cofounded Chance and Fullbright. Seated next to me, she had her hands folded on the table like a prim schoolgirl. A sideways glance showed me that the short skirt of her expensive suit was designed to show off the thighs of a Parisian runway model, not a buisiness executive. But Margot, approaching fifty, had a body toned as much as shiatsu, Bikram yoga, and two-thousand-dollar-a-day spas could achieve. Known for her ability to do complex calculations in her head, her mind was in even better shape.
“The fifth board member, wearing his trademark bowtie, hie crew-cut hiar beginning to show a few flecks of gray, was leon Henderson, a Stanford professor. A handful of former students, inculding three Fortune 500 CEOS, had thrown him a sixty-fifth birthday party the previous January. I myself had taken his entrepreneurship course and now met him vevery month or two for breakfast at Stanford’s Tresidder Union, where he offered me parctical advice on management and product positioning.

I do not know who these people are. There are a few women in VC, including Ann Winblad and Esther Dyson. Raffel is right, it is a macho world. They could all exist and look like SV stereotypes.

Ann Winblad (left) – Esther Dyson (right)

Another detail on bankers (page 100): “I had the natural prejudice against investment bankers. We worked seventy-hour weeks to make a start-up successful. Then, when the payoff came, investment bankers got a six-percent cut for a few weeks’ effort.”

Raffel could not avoid telling his Silicon Valley history (page 107). Nicely written: “Riding in the back of my parents’ Country Squire station wagon thirty years earlier, I would have been passing apricot orchards and horse trails. We didn’t know it, but they had already been condemned when William Shockley opened a company in 1955 to exploit his invention of the transistor. In an almost biblical sense, Shockley Semiconductor was the progenitor of hundreds of the firms flourishing in the Valley, for people from Shockley begat Fairchild and people from Fairchild begat Intel and someone from Intel begat Apple, and so on. In a variation on the biblical theme, two of Shockley’s most promising disciples, Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce, revolted against the founding father of the Valley to start that first competitor, Fairchild Semiconductor. Shockley was left claiming betrayal and ended his days using his Nobel Prize to defend his indefensible view on eugenics. This drama set the tone for Valley culture: young, brilliant technologists breaking away from companies run by the previous generation of entrepreneurs and founding their own.”

I plan to discover soon if Raffel’s latest novels bring pieces of interesting data.