20 Years in Silicon Valley

My arrival

[I am updating this entry becuase I received a number of emails asking questions which I left unanswered.]

I arrived on the ground in Silicon Valley, in January 1993, with $500 in my pocket; that was all the money I had to my name. I lost nearly everything in a business venture in former Soviet Union. A failed business…an abject failure by any measure. When I arrived in Silicon Valley, in those days, the pace was frenetic in comparison to Denver, Colorado. I had arrived in the most competitive employment market on the planet where the smartest people, with the hottest ideas, go to make their fortunes. I felt then as I do now, fortunate and blessed.

My venture in former Soviet Union involved the brokering of galium-arsenide (GaAs) avionics chips to aircraft manufacturers. Specifically, it was a Forth virtual machine built into a GaAs processor; most people reading this blog entry will begin to yawn – but make no mistake, at that time this was a revolutionary and disruptive technology. Very few people will recall that the Java platform and language began as an internal project at Sun Microsystems in December 1990; Patrick Naughton threw his hands up at the innumerable c/c++ APIs and tools that were creeping into the Solaris platform. I was a FORTH and Prolog programmer, at that time, so I understood the merits of the GaAs processor.

Naughton, as I was informed by former Sun employees, threatened to take a job with Steve Jobs, at NeXT, and Sun’s Senior executives elected to offer incentive for Naughton to remain at Sun by offering him a stealth project called “the Green Project” with Jim Gosling and Mike Sheridan. Together with other engineers along Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park, California, they developed a new technology for programming next-gen “smart” appliances – little did they know that a Soviet Avionics engineer had developed a GaAs processor with a fixed multi-threaded execution model which was years ahead of them. And I was hoping to cash in on the opportunity this disruptive technology foretold.

Too few, again, will recall that FORTH was invented by Charles H. Moore beginning in 1958/59, while working on an IBM 1130. FORTH was the first resident software on the Intel 8086 chip in 1978 and MacFORTH was the first resident development system for the very first Apple Macintosh in 1984. Moore was convinced he had developed something meaningful – and he was right. He considered it a “fourth generation computer language (4GL).” Moore once recalled “I would have called it FOURTH, except that the 1130 would only allow him five (5) character identifiers – so FOURTH became FORTH, a play on words”. Exactly HOW, he Soviets came to possess a GaAs FORTH processor has bewildered me for many years…and one day I will sort that out. Below are two (2) high-profile examples of the use of a FORTH processor:

  • Multitasking operating system, Forth language compiler, and libraries for UT69R000 radiation-hardened microprocessor used in Space Shuttle instrumentation.
  • Development of the Forth-based Small Payload Accommodations Interface Module (SPAIM), which interfaces the Shuttle Solar Backscatter Ultraviolet (SSBUV) instrument to the Space Shuttle’s avionic systems. The SSBUV instrument is used to calibrate ozone-measuring instruments aboard NOAA satellites.

In any event, things were going well, at first. There were a number of “Trade Missions”, undertaken in Denver hosted by Sasha Visbyn, by emergent Soviet entrepreneurs hoping to stimulate free-market channels for former-soviet technology. I had a number of development platforms in the hands of engineers along the Denver-Boulder diagonal…it was only a matter of time, so I thought, before the cash-register would start making noise. I had no idea how important time would become. Regardless, the true beauty of the chip was speed of execution and resilience under extreme stresses of radiation, heat, UV, cold, and EMP. To learn more about it you can visit this link

Vladimir S. disappears

When the putsch occurred (August 19, 20 & 21, 1990) I chewed my fingernails to bloody nubs as I anxiously awaited the whir of my fax machine delivering news of events on the ground. The only means of communication with Soviet Union was a fax machine whichh was resident in a Government Official’s office – Vladimir had a friend who was a Government apparatchik.  In the week between August 19, 1990 and August 26, 1990, I came ot understand that my contact, for the FORTH chip manufacturing, disappeared…as well as the rest of his family. In the parlance of Soviet life they were “disappeared”…never to be seen again. Tears begin to well-up when the emotions of that period resurface – I find it difficult to convey my sincere sense of loss, at many levels, the moment I found out about Vladimir and his Family.

I had come to enjoy the company of this frumpy Soviet scientist…he reeked of vodka, and ghastly body odor, all the time – he reveled in being vulgar. When he ate food, which was tempered by large doses of vodka, enough food fell from his mouth as he chewed and talked that small animals gathered around him to feast on his overflow. I recall asking his wife how she came to enjoy being his wife – her reply was “once he was young and beautiful, now he is only beautiful”.

She was one of those tough Russian women who reminds us that if not for the internal strength of Russian Women, Russian men would have become wholly debased, emasculated and disenfranchised. Russian women, in general, strengthened their husbands not so much out of love but out of a desire to insure that their children survived…so that they would never be forgotten.

Though vulgar and half-drunk, most of the time, Vladimir was consistently ready for work and good-natured at the same time…a trait common among Soviet scientists of that period. He claimed to be descended from Bolsheviks who stood alongside Lenin, and it was from Vladimir that I learned the role of Jews within the Bolshevik Movement…and their subsequent self-assimilation after the Revolution – this of course differs from contemporary narratives of Russian Jews being oppressed. Life was truly unfair to Vladimir and his family, in a different country (under different circumstances) he would have been a Venture Capitalists dream…this brilliant mind was taken into the countryside, along with his family, and shot as though they were dogs who had gone bad. My blood boils, still, when I recall those events.

The putsch that left Boris Yeltsin in power, (and Bill Clinton’s “close friend and drinking buddy”) removed Gorbachev from his role as General Secretary of the Communist Party, and as the first (and last) president of the Soviet Union – without Gorbachev, and a steel-fisted grip on a big land-mass, I rightly expected anarchy to spread. In a word, huge economic sectors were cast into the wind…ripe for the taking of anyone with muscle. Former KGB officers became “entrepreneurs” over-night…often at the business-end of a rifle. Kidnappings, murders, rapes, and black-mail became standard business practice in the former Soviet Union.

Lace up the boots and keep marching

I recall hanging my head in my hands, in my office in Denver Tech Center, trying to conceive of a way to save my venture in 1991 and most of 1992 – but it was a lost cause. In truth, I knew it was doomed to failure yet I had a complication surrounding shutting it down that most businessmen never face – one-third of my employees, AND their families, were executed when Yeltsin came to power…the remaining two-thirds had no hope of remunerative employment and faced starvation due to evaporation of the socialist safety-net of the former Soviet Union. Conditions were deteriorating quickly and no bottom in sight. I have only ever told my wife about the events that led to Bill Clinton’s new drinking buddy staggering down Pennsylvania Avenue, drunk, in his underwear and trying to hail a cab in order to find pizza. That drunken sot was responsible for the death of my friend…and my President was his drinking buddy…ironic, no?

Those six (6) families which survived the putsch were imperiled and “on the lamb”. I was awakened one night by the voice of the wife of Georgi Malov, Sveta, pleading over the phone for money to help them buy food and medicines – the children were sick with whooping cough and they were living in a makeshift home assembled inside an uninsulated barn which had a coal stove.

I vividly recall sitting on the edge of my bed, replaying the phone conversation…the desperation in her voice…recognizing that they went to great trouble to find a phone to make a call and alert me that I was the only person on Earth they thought could help them.

I sent, via DHL, American Express travelers checks plus a collection of over-the-counter remedies and I had an acquaintance in Panama ship over some opium-laced cough syrup. This proved to help this family thrive for about six (6) months in such shabby conditions.  such shipments recurred for the next 3.5 years un til they got on their feet in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Once word got out that I had helped Georgi Malov’s family, my other employees called me seeking the same thing:

Abramov, Mihailov, Petrov, Zilnyenko, Sapashnik, Gurlan

For the next 3.5 years I helped keep six (6) families alive in a climate of grave political upheaval, random political killings, and general anarchy.  They are all alive and well, today, in Baku, Tyumen, Sebastopol, Alma Atay, Kiev and Dushanbe.  They have 16 children among them.

I had purchased an inventory of development platforms, and chips, which were in a storage unit in Lakewood, Colorado – stranded capital. With no hope of recovery. So I scrambled to put together some consulting work to help me pay my own bills as well as help the families. For all of 1993 and half of 1994, I sent every spare penny I earned to my former employees in a disintegrating Soviet Union.

I had no legal obligation to do so, but I believed then, as I do now, that I had a moral obligation to do so. I viewed my role then, as now, as custodian and steward of assets – that my employees, and their families, are my greatest assets and frankly, they were all I had left.  If I ever wanted to look myself in the mirror, I’d have to act.

Progress

On that fateful day when I lifted my head from my hands in desperation, and saw the door of the Denver-branch of a Silicon Valley software company (which would later recruit me to San Jose, CA), I resolved to find a way to scrape up whatever dignity I could muster and walk across the hall to find out what they were doing – maybe I could find a way to make this work. Perhaps some of you reading this page can appreciate such moments…all alone, little hope, but resolved to put yer boots on and keep marching.

I re-tell this story, every now and again, in order to remind myself what it means to be a human being. What it means to be an employer who revels in hiring people who are the best at what they do, laughing with them, sharing in their successes and losses, then to grieve in private silence when layoffs must occur and I must make tough decisions which affect them and their families.  I am not immune to the insecurity layoffs engender.

I re-tell this story to inform the people, specifically those who participated in a hate-crime that attempted to cause my vehicle to explode, that just because you behave poorly I will not wish you harm. The police care little about anti-semitic hate-crime in Silicon Valley because they lack the personnel to focus…and the FBI has bigger fish to fry.  But I know who you are.  I look forward to the next time I can hold the door for you so that you can carry your groceries to your townhouse – I am overjoyed to remind you that you failed.

I am re-telling this story for another reason. My friend, Dave Rynne, is very ill. He is Chairman of my little technology company, and he is my friend.

Dave Rynne

Dave Rynne was Chief of Staff to the Chairman of Burroughs Corporation, Ray McDonald, during a period when Burroughs was entrusted to build the complex systems for the U.S. Space program, notably computers for Apollo Program.  In a word, Rynne was a combination of CFO, and COO at a time when Burroughs Corporation was the premier computer manufacturer – exceeding IBM in quality and quantity.

Dave was mentored by a man who instilled in him foundational leadership attributes…and indoctrinated Dave in a mind-set of stewardship and custodial care of businesses and people. The very same attributes which compelled Tom Perkins (of Kleiner/Perkins) a member of  Tandem Computer’s Board of Directors to personally recruit him from Burroughs Corporation, to “fix” Tandem corporation.  Those attributes which Tom Perkins wanted for Tandem were the very same attributes that compelled Dave House to recruit Rynne to Bay Networks – Dave brought a sense of moral and ethical immovability.

When Rynne is right, he refuses to be moved from his position…many times to the chagrin to present-day leaders of Silicon Valley. It is that attribute which attracted me to Dave as our Chairman, it is that very same attribute which my present business partner, Bjorn Ahlblad carries. I am truly blessed to have these two men as mentors.

I do not tell stories out of school when I mention that Rynne is no saint – he is a complex man.  Yet he is a man that corporate leadership turned to in order to sort out hellish messes.  He is a man who spent a career keeping business leaders in check – restraining self-will run riot.  A man who consulted with former Sec of State George Schultz as well as well as Walter B. Wriston, CEO of Citibank.

I have listened to countless people rail about Dave Rynne “not letting them exercise their own free-will”; and I have listened to Dave recall, vividly, the precise events that led him to tell those same people “no”. Dave did not allow pre-dating of options, Dave did not allow for the booking of sales without the check coming from the customer, Dave did not allow compensation plans to over-ride and set-aside fiduciary responsibility – Dave brought adult behavior to situations devoid of ethical and moral adult behaviors. Dave brought a voice we rarely hear anymore in the frenetic pace of Silicon Valley – the voice of reason in the face of a mob of unreasonable people. I once asked the former CFO of another large computer company why he was so vapid in denouncing Dave Rynne:

…that son of a bitch would not let me re-dated options when mine were underwater…I lost $300,000 in 1980’s when that meant something. I went to Rynne to re-date my existing options, Rynne told me ‘no f-cking way, we’d have to correct our financials to accommodate you living outside your means…I lost my wife and house because I couldn’t cover an options call!!”

The fella looked at me and said “what’s your take on that?”. I replied, “I don’t know what to make of what you just said, I’ve never lived beyond my means and never aspire to do so”. It would seem that Rynne has rubbed off on me and, frankly, I think that’s a good thing. In a world that seems, at times, to have gone mad, I am heartened to discover that I have been able to maintain my moral and ethical center. I am not a rich man to the chagrin of my wife, yet, but I aspire to be. When I come home at night, she knows I will not have done anything to endanger my position as role-model to my children.

Success can be accomplished  — Dave Rynne proved it can be done without graft, illegal acts, SEC investigations and censure, or situational ethics.

In closing

Every now and again I run into men who at first appear to be sensible and ethical adults – but given enough time they prove that restraining their impulses to behave poorly is too much for them to bear. Very recently, I was confronted with a situation in which a man of seemingly righteous repose chose to engage in forgery in a desperate attempt to slur and demean another man. I cannot fathom what drives a man to engage in such low-brow activity when the same amount of energy that could otherwise be spent doing something constructive and helpful. Sadly, such men will never be invited to the table with men of the caliber of Dave Rynne – and they will never fully understand the reason the invitation never showed up.

I once told Dave Rynne my adventures in former Soviet Union.  Now, if you’ve ever met Dave, you know that the first thing he’d do is slightly giggle and say “I almost believed that bullsh-t”. Dave rarely applauds anything, while calculating what your angle might be. But when I explained to him the rationale of my actions to help those families survive until they got on their feet he made a comment that has stuck with me:

“…a man who has no legal obligation to another human being, other than being humane, would do exactly as you did. I have seen many people do detestable and hardly legal things because they could…I have met a small handful who do humane things because they can.  I like humane.”

This was an uncharacteristic comment by Rynne.  Get well, Dave.

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