Editor’s note: Although we have confirmed that Ravi Desai worked at Quantum, we can not vouch for the contents of these “Diary” entries. For the complete explanation, see this “Press Box” column.
Sundays tend to be fairly quiet days in my house. The Sunday Times, a large brunch, Brinkley (yeah, yeah, I know, but find me someone other than Sam Donaldson who calls it “our This Week program”), 49ers football on TV–that sort of thing.
Taking a decent piece of most weekends off is one of the benefits of working in the hardware industry; e-mails from my friends at software companies seem fairly consistently to arrive between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. on Saturday nights. I only discover this when I check my e-mail in the morning. (On the other hand, these friends take a certain perverse pride in exhaustion, as I did when I ran an Internet startup. There’s something gratifyingly macho about calling a friend–say, an exhausted med-school student who’s about to go to bed at midnight–and saying, “Gotta run. Team’s waiting.” Or having a cot in your office closet.)
Today is letting me relive those moments, in some highly diluted way. Tonight I fly off to Comdex, the computer industry’s annual Las Vegas extravaganza of customer meetings, T-shirt giveaways, and parties with terrifically odd themes. Although it seems as though fewer companies exhibit each year (we don’t have a booth this year, for example), nearly everyone who matters still goes. Paradoxically, the diminishing importance of exhibits makes the trip even more valuable; rather than standing in a cube handing out freebies, I’ll spend the next two days in a series of back-to-back meetings with our customers, potential partners, and people from whom I simply want to learn.
I am pleased not to be wasting the next two days, but it means that today I’m carefully preparing 15 separate presentations for these meetings. A few years ago I went to a supplier meeting for a client of the consulting firm I worked at. One of the suppliers, desperately hoping to get more business from my client, got up and gave a slick, choreographed presentation, something straight out of the recent Labor Party conference, complete with every multimedia effect you could imagine. Unfortunately, in every place my client’s name should have been, the audience–filled with senior executives of my client–instead saw the name of its chief competitor. It was as embarrassing as if the wrong person had bounded up onstage to accept an Oscar, and given an entire acceptance speech.
The ghost of that quickly fired supplier haunting me, I spend the day carefully sorting through and rewriting presentations, reviewing my schedule for the next two days, calling people who’ll join me in the meetings, separating the documents. A typical presentation contains a few slides which we’ll actually discuss during the meeting as well as “backup,” a dozen or more slides designed to anticipate questions and present supporting data. Backup hardly ever gets used, since Comdex meetings seldom last more than a half-hour, but not having it is an invitation to undisciplined thinking. A mentor once told me, “Any smart person can write five good slides. About anything. To write 20 good ones, you have to know what you’re talking about.”
I’d have done some of this in the office last week, but the week dissolved into a series of lengthy meetings, all scheduled at the last minute. The enormous benefit of working in a consensus-oriented culture is that, when we reach a decision, people pull in the same direction. The slight peril, though, is that before we make any decisions, we hold an endless series of meetings to listen respectfully to every viewpoint, no matter how misguided or irrelevant.
Still, spending this Sunday working allows me to focus on something I enjoy–my job–rather than something I don’t–Comdex. The clichés about Comdex get repeated every year: two-hour cab lines at midnight, order-of-magnitude changes in hotel-room prices, beer-soaked nerds, and so on. They’re all true. Every year 200,000-odd computer-industry professionals volunteer for something any other sane human being would fake severe illness to dodge. Sure, the meetings are useful. Still, every year the same departure-lounge themes arise: “Whew, I’m glad it’s a year till the next one”; “There’s got to be a better way.” Comdex being what it is, those complaints tend to be phrased a little differently, something along the lines of, “I don’t have the bandwidth for those check-in lines.”
The problem is, of course, that no one knows how to solve this problem. A few years ago, I suggested to a friend that Softbank, the acquisition-happy Japanese conglomerate that had just bought Comdex, resembled a house of cards, just needing a gentle, unanticipated breeze to cause its collapse. With absolute certainty, I asserted that Comdex would be that breeze. What with videoconferencing, and the proliferation of other high-visibility industry meetings, who needed Comdex?
But it’s still where you get the work done.