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I, Cringely - The Survival of the Nerdiest with Robert X. Cringely
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Weekly Column

Cringely's theory of relativity: Or why pizza delivery as a career move is looking better and better

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

I relearned an old lesson this week, something I apparently have to do over and over. It was a lesson in tolerance.

This business of writing a weekly column can be very humbling. Not just because a certain fixed percentage of the readership is convinced both that I am an idiot and that one of their missions in life is to share that view with the world, but also because I am very fallible and my growth in this job is not always as fast as it should be.

My first column ran 10 years ago next month, and I now recall how easy it was to write. First columns, first books, first loves come easy because they are built on adrenalin and blissful ignorance. Almost anyone can throw together a column from old jokes and past experiences. But what happens when you are out of old jokes, when you have shared all the past experiences? What happens when (believe me, it's not "if," but "when") the readers begin to notice some repetition? That's when you have to take the work to the next level if you can.

My goal a decade ago was just to get to the end of the year. Then came the new year and things were going well, so I decided to go for another 52 columns. The minute I made that decision, the work got harder. What if I ran out of ideas before I finished the 60,000 word commitment? That was 600,000 words ago and what I have learned is that the work goes in cycles, getting easier until you realize you are naked in front of the world, then getting harder again.

There are only two ways to break the cycle. First is to give up the idea of an end to the labor. If one fixates on reaching a certain date, a certain accomplishment, then peril lies on the other side. You just have to accept the idea of doing it forever. But you also have to keep growing in the job.

This week I've been shooting interviews in Seattle with my PBS-TV crew. One interview was with Len Bozak, who founded Cisco Systems. Len taught me my lesson.

Len's an interesting piece of work. Slender, with thinning reddish hair and an unlined face, he is quite the most immaculate nerd I have ever met. For the interview he dressed like a banker, and somehow, looked like he meant it. Looking at him, there is no reason to expect that he founded a $6 billion company or that his technical contributions are at the very core of the Internet's success. Then he says something and it becomes instantly clear that Len carries around in him the intellectual firepower of a third world country. Len didn't invent the router or the terminal server or the Ethernet repeater, but he figured out how to build them in his back bedroom and sell them for a profit.

Where the ARPAnet's Interface Message Processor (IMP) routers were the size of a telephone booth and cost $150,000 each, Cisco's early routers were PC-sized, cost $12,000 and had far greater capacity than the IMPs. No wonder the ARPAnet died.

I talk with a lot of smart people in the computer and networking industries, and techies usually fall into three personality categories. These are my own categories, by the way. Yours may be different.

First there are the savants, specialists who have some amazing technical talent that is rarely combined with any other talents. These are guys and gals who think in Assembler but have never voted nor even considered voting. Every high tech company has lots of these.

Next are my favorites, the renaissance people. They have the talent of the savants but are charming, too. They couldn't decide between studying music or math. Sun Microsystems founder Bill Joy is my archetype for the Silicon Valley renaissance man.

Last there are the antagonists, who are very smart but generally not as talented as either the savants or the renaissance people. They make up in drive and ambition for the very little they lack in real skills. If only these people would realize how much they actually have going for them, but they see the glass as half empty. Negativism is their thing.

I interview all types, and while I'm not the smartest guy in the world I can usually hold my own. That was until I interviewed Len Bozack.

Len quit Cisco in a huff back in 1990 when his wife and company cofounder, Sandy Lerner, was fired. They took their $200 million and set off to create new lives. Len today runs XKL LLC in Redmond, Washington, where he manufactures a computer called the TOAD-1. TOAD stands for "Ten On A Desk" and is a filing-cabinet-sized version of a DEC PDP-10 minicomputer that can serve up to 200 simultaneous terminal users. The TOAD is really more computer nostalgia, though, since nobody seems to be buying them. 36-Bit computing just isn't as popular as it used to be. Still, with $200 million, who cares?

The interview for our show on the Internet was a wonder. Certainly, it's the first time we'd ever been offered use of a waveform analyzer just to make sure the camera was in good order! I felt good about the interview, though, because Len remembered me from an earlier meeting years ago and because we shared flying stories (we are both pilots) while the crew was setting-up.

Then came the interview, itself, which was grueling. My questions were too vague, too imprecise, said Len, parsing the grammar of my every question to show how inept I was. The interview dragged-on like a deposition. Where I had hoped for a renaissance man who would take my open-ended questions and run with them, it looked like I was getting an antagonist.

But his eyes didn't show that. Antagonists are angry, but Len was just being precise. He wanted the interview to go well, despite the fact that he kept quoting Latin in his answers. So we struggled on, with me trying to tighten-up my questions. Eventually Len began to express emotion and to take strong stands on issues. The interview improved -- despite me, not because of me.

I've thought a lot about that interview in the hours since. As pilots Len and I had a protocol for discussion that we lacked in the TV interview. I was too used to playing to stereotypes, too used to categorizing the people I talked to. Len defies categorization and showed me maybe it's again time for me to get off my ass and try climbing to the next level.

Either that or turn to pizza delivery.

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