Wall Street Journal Manager's Journal

How Valley Guys Talk

By P. O. Bronson

Recently, a friend came back from a scratch-and-sniff session with a
potential acquirer--an established Internet search engine company
that's hunting for ways to keep its heavy Web traffic from clicking
off to some other site too soon. My friend is in this year's piquant
category, streaming Internet radio, which seems a likely solution to
the search site's needs. The average stay on its Web site is seven
minutes, vs. 35 minutes on his site.

"They hated me," he sighed. "I've never been so antagonized in my life."

I immediately suspected otherwise. He has a background in the
financial side of the music industry, so he's a little new to the
customs of the technology sector. I asked him to elucidate how he had
been "antagonized."

Wasn't it true, they had asked, that over a 28K modem the sound
hiccuped when the system was overloaded? Wasn't it true that record
labels still weren't providing complimentary compact disks for his
programming? Wasn't it true that search engines were focused on deals
with on-line retailers, which would earn commissions as well as
advertising revenue? On and on the inquisition went. A second group of
staffers wandered into the room and fired another round of questions
at him. Was his software scalable? With the transition to 56K modems,
wouldn't his revenues stay the same but his server costs significantly

Shook His Head

Describing these questions, he just shook his head with regret. "Boy,
it seemed like not only were they combing for every conceivable reason
not to buy me, they actually seemed to be trying to talk me into
quitting my own business."

I assured him he was in good shape. He thought I was just trying to
cheer him up.

"They loved you," I insisted. "You'll hear from them tomorrow."

Their interrogation style was just how people talk out here. People
love Socratic interplay, improving ideas through active
conflict. Arguing is fun.  Arguing is the whetstone that sharpens the
high-tech brain. Playing devil's advocate and trying to talk someone
out of his idea is a role-playing form of friendship. Interrogating my
friend was their way of showing keen interest.

I gave him a quick lesson on Silicon Valley conversational techniques
that he might encounter as he works towards a deal.

1. There's no agreeing to disagree. Having trained themselves to debug
programs, these rational minds feel an obligation to correct even the
slightest inaccuracies in any comment voiced in their direction. Two
engineers who might agree on 98% of their analysis of (for instance) a
new Oliver Stone movie might nevertheless cause a tumultuous incident
in a restaurant discussing the film.

This makes dangerous the pledge that your team will "iron out the
details later." Sometimes it's hard even to agree on what words mean.

Frustrated project manager: "Can we just try to develop some consensus
around here?"

Engineer: "Define 'consensus.' "

2. The hunt for protocol. Also known as the "Are you for real?"
conversation.  When two companies agree on the strategic value of some
cooperative deal, it's conditioned on having "my engineers talk to
your engineers." The purpose of this discussion is to ensure that
neither side's product is jerry-rigged hype.

Similarly, when two tech workers meet, they go through a sort of
cascade of language syntax, negotiating like two modems, trying to
find the most efficient level of conversation they can hold. It ends
up sounding like the dueling banjo scene from "Deliverance."

Programmer: "Hi, nice to meet you. Hey, that's a sweet access router
over there. Wow, both Ethernet and asynchronous ports?"

Webmaster: "Yeah, check this baby out--the Ethernet port has AUI, BNC,
and RJ-45 connectors."

Programmer: "So for packet filtering you went with TCP, UDP, and

Webmaster: "Of course. To support dial-up SLIP and PPP."

Programmer: "Set use User_Name ifilter Filter_Name."

Webmaster: "Set filter s!.out 8 permit tcp
src eq 20."

Programmer: "001011011000101110010011101100001."

". .. . .. . .. ... ... . ..... .. .. .... .. .. . .. . .. ...  ... .

Programmer: "Wait, you lost me there."

3. Soap bubblers. At some point in the negotiations, a crisis of faith
will occur, and both sides will want to retreat to their corners to
seek advice from their favorite guru, asking "Am I doing the right

The rate of gurus per capita is higher in high-tech than any other
industry.  Because of Silicon Valley's attack-dog atmosphere, gurus
have discovered the only way for their catch phrases and utopian
visions to avoid persecution is to set every prediction in the far off
future, where nothing can be disproved.  They don't talk about the
real world of megabytes and baud rates. Their minds are occupied with
neural nets and terabytes. (A terabyte is 1,000 stegabytes, and a
stegabyte is 1,000 tricerabytes, and somewhere in there is gigabytes.
You get my point--it's hard to argue when you can't pin down the

When caught in conversation with one of these gurus, a good way to
respond is, "Hmmm . . . I've been rethinking Toffler. Perhaps, a
thousand years from now, we will see that the Industrial Age and the
Information Age were really just the trough and crest of the same
wave, not separate waves."

4. Blowing smoke is safe as long as you don't inhale. Since one's
command of technical jargon is a status proxy, less
technically-inclined personnel attempt to mimic the computerese syntax
of the hardcore. A company's sales force, for example, will create its
own terminology to impress clients. (As soon as the clients pick up on
the lingo, the sales terminology will upgrade, to ensure continued

Atlanta Rep: "Set battery recharge zero minus 10 for link upload?"

Chicago Rep: "Approve conditional route switch for No. 1 download."

Translation: "I'm hungry, want to get a hot dog in 10 minutes?" "OK,
but I have to go to the rest room."

What this means for a merger or acquisition is that the new combined
sales force won't be able to converse for awhile. Give it time, be
patient. They may have to speak standard English for a few hours, but
within a day a new terminology will emerge.

5. When to ask for help. Never. Never ask for help. Just
kidding. There are actually a few cases where it's not
inappropriate. For instance, since asking for help is a good way to
acknowledge someone else's superiority, do so only when your actual
intent is to pay someone a compliment.

Disguise Your Voice

If you actually happen to need help, ask for it over the phone, and
disguise your voice.

6. Safe bases. If all this scares you, don't worry. There are a few
topics you can always talk about with anyone you meet, the way
Minnesotans talk about the weather. In the early days, the universal
conversation gambit was rather pathetic: "Are you a Mac person or a PC
person?" This has evolved only slightly over the years. Today's
equivalents are: "So, do you think Apple will survive on its own?,"
and "So, you think the government has a case against Microsoft?"

The good news was, my friend got a call from the search-engine people
the next day. The bad news was, they expressed their interest.

Mr. Bronson is author of "The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest: A Silicon Valley Novel" (Random House, 1997).