David Weld is a nephew of William Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts. He is a grandson of David Weld, the founding partner of White, Weld, the once-great Wall Street investment bank. He grew up, as Welds often do, in New York City and was educated, as Welds often are, at Andover. At every step of his early life he was groomed for his seat at the high table of American WASP culture. After Andover came Dartmouth; after Dartmouth came a clearly temporary stint at Arthur Andersen, the accounting firm. After taking an MBA from Dartmouth, he worked on his uncle’s 1990 campaign, and then, after his uncle became governor, he set off to New York to be an investment banker at Bankers Trust. That should have been the end of his journey. “My genetics said I was supposed to go to Wall Street and become a managing director at some bank,” says Weld. And so he did.
But six months into his Wall Street job, at the age of 28, David Weld decided he could stand it no longer. When you ask him why, his tone becomes ever so slightly aggressive. “I don’t think you have to be that smart to be a managing director at Goldman Sachs or wherever. A huge portion of it is social. It’s who you know. It ain’t a rocket science kind of business.” Mainly, it seems, he felt his identity was a lie–though the truth was not immediately clear. Oh, there had been signs. At school he had evinced an untoward interest in computer science, for example. His idea of an evening well spent was to sit down and write computer code. But this was mere recreation. When late at night his boarding-school teachers stumbled upon David and friends stroking their keyboards, they could dismiss it as harmless adolescent games. They could not have imagined, much less admitted, that a Weld might be … a geek.
Yet eight months into his job with Bankers Trust, in the summer of 1991, David Weld flew to Seattle to interview with Microsoft. “I had been denying that I was a geek,” he says. “When I came out here I embraced the fact I was a geek.”
No identity, even a false one, is easily jettisoned. Weld’s Microsoft interviewers did not like the smell of his past: He had worked mainly in politics and finance. He looked just like one of those well-rounded opportunists who keep sneaking through the bushes to get their hands on Microsoft stock options. His dark hair was sharply parted, his handshake firm, his voice unnaturally low, in the manner of the eternally self-assured. So they tested him. They asked him questions that a more traditional Weld would not care to understand, much less answer.
“Why are manhole covers round?”
“Calculate how many people die each day in Seattle.”
“How would you design a mute button on a stereo?”
J ust weeks before, David would have been forced to chuckle with feigned aloofness at such questions, even as his neurons longed to dance and sing. Now, liberated, he told them why a manhole cover is round. (Give up? Click.) The Microsoft yogis next demanded that he write code; David leapt happily to his feet and scribbled C++ across their whiteboards. “I hadn’t written code in five years!” he recalls delightedly. “But I could deal.”
At last, he felt, he could be himself. Even better, it paid for him to be himself. There are limits to the search for one’s essential nature. If David Weld’s true passion had been for, say, gardening rather than computer logic, he would probably still be in banking. But David’s discovery of a post-Weld essential nature was extremely timely, because a Weld no longer can be a Weld–making a handsome living with half a brain–just schmoozing customers for Bankers Trust. Even banking doesn’t work that way anymore. And banking is no longer the top of the socioeconomic pyramid, as it was when Welds were Welds. Now there are these other careers that are more prestigious, that pay even better, that are even more mysterious to outsiders than investment banking.
W eld got the job at Microsoft and spent the next six years designing and selling software. His options vested; he made a pile. But in the end, mere money (or at least the amount of mere money available from working for Microsoft) wasn’t enough for him. A snail who has lived too long in a borrowed shell longs to test the speed of his own. Or something.
In April 1996, Weld persuaded four other Microsoft employees to quit and join him in starting a company called Cognisoft. (David came up with the name, just as–before leaving Microsoft–he came up with the name Slate.) Like Eric Ver Ploeg, whom I wrote about last week, Weld and his buddies knew they wanted to start a company before they knew what that company would do. Or so they say. But soon enough they had a product–and, more important, another great name. The software, called IntelliServ, is “push” technology for “intranets.” (Push means software that delivers information to your computer rather than your having to “browse” for it. Click here for a Slate article explaining push. An intranet is a smaller version of the Internet limited to one company or organization.) Employees can instruct IntelliServ what sort of information they need to see, and the software sucks it out of the ether and shoots it directly into their computers. Also to their cell phones and beepers. No matter how people may try to hide, the noise of the day will track them down.
Punch line: In January of this year, eight months after they founded their company, David Weld and his colleagues sold it for $10 million, cash. He was in by spring and out by winter. In the silicon economy, one does not found a company, put one’s name on it, and expect one’s grandchildren to be carrying on the family tradition. The buyer, a company called Verity, instantly went into a nose dive, but that is another story. Eight months of entrepreneurship yielded Weld several million dollars. He now lives in temporary retirement in Seattle, with no plans to return back East. “Life is so much more … rigid back there,” he says, as we hike up a mountain outside of Seattle. “I have friends who are managing directors at Goldman Sachs, or partners at Sherman and Sterling. I find it boring to the point of terror.” And the Weld family? “When I have kids there’ll be some family pressure to move back. But that’s what airplanes are for.”
All in all, a nice illustration of the contextual theory of ambition. The contextual theory holds that the most ambitious people will become whatever their context rewards them most highly to become. Had Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez been the sons of a U.S. senator they would have become Washington lobbyists. Had our old friend T.J. Rodgers, the government-loathing entrebuccaneer, been born in the Soviet Union, he would have become a member of the Politburo. The world now shows the theory at work every day. Across Eastern Europe people who were once communist hacks are suddenly capitalist tools. And right here in the belly of capitalism, people who once ruled from the heads of mahogany tables are now ruling as millionerds.