An Interview with Ann Bridges: Silicon Valley Fiction Rings True

Saucy Jaw editor JZ Bingham explores the Silicon Valley inspiration behind Ann Bridges’ addictive debut novel, Private Offerings (Balcony 7, 09.15.15) where the blurred lines of heady success find sharp focus in reality.

(SJ: Saucy Jaw  AB: Ann Bridges )

SJ: Ann, your first novel, Private Offerings, is finally getting into the hands of media, reviewers, and readers from all over the world. In this work, you lift the curtain on Silicon Valley players to expose intensely private dreams and aspirations that reveal your characters’ motives, some good and some bad. How much is inspired by what you saw as an SV executive over your decades-long career?

AB: There are many little tidbits and anecdotes from real people included in my story, including a few of my own. I had a wonderful opportunity as an executive in one of the early Internet-based IPOs to interface with both the founders and the financiers of the company, and see where their dreams collided with Wall Street reality. Later on, I consulted with many early-stage businesses who thought funding their company through venture capitalists and bringing it public would be easy, and therefore treated it as an afterthought. In truth, only companies with forward-thinking founders and sound financial strategies ever cut deals that benefitted them. Therefore, dashed dreams and disappointed employees are more the norm than typically portrayed in today’s media, who tout only the wildly successful. I instead focus on the experiences of the average entrepreneur, who has to deal with competing global interests and changing conditions, including not bringing their company public. This option, called private equity, or a private offering, is much more commonplace, and reflects Silicon Valley’s ever-changing business dynamics.

 Today, any Silicon Valley visitor can’t miss the melting pot of cultures and ethnicities flocking to make their millions through this modern-day Gold Rush. I purposely chose characters depicting a different kind of background than the white, American male—an Indian software engineer, an Hispanic ex-military private investigator, a Chinese-American female executive, and my co-protagonist, a female small business owner of a public relations firm. The motivations and aspirations of these characters were drawn from first-hand experiences working and talking side-by-side with similar entrepreneurs, and grasping what drove them to succeed, often quite different from what you might expect. I hope my readers will learn something new from their unique stories and woes.

SJ: The role of women in PO could be viewed as somewhat stereotypical, given the age-old beauty versus brains argument, yet comes across as particularly realistic. Two highly attractive women each play a major part in the offense and defense of advancing SDS Technologies, the IPO target in your book. How often did you see instances of this type of behavior in real life, and did these women achieve their sometimes conflicted agendas?

AB: I grappled with perpetuating a stereotype in my novel against the realities, at least in my experience. It’s hard to combat what gets results in business. Frankly, sometimes having an attractive woman on your team makes a huge difference, especially in two such male-dominated industries as technology and finance.

I remember my CEO asking me if I would be willing to dye my hair blonder, since in Japan having a blond woman on his team was a sign of great success, and therefore standing by his side as he pitched the company would be a reflection on his stature as a powerful leader. I have no idea if the same holds true today. (I declined the token opportunity, yet he raised the needed funds in Japan, anyway.) Another time, he told me that the best advice he had ever received was to hire women in sales and marketing roles, because their expense accounts would be a tiny fraction of a man’s. And I found that to be true, sometimes having to argue to pick up the tab for a client. I remember I once submitted an expense account for one week’s worth of meals—$1.75, the cost of a frozen yogurt at an airport on the way home, and about 1% the cost of my male counterparts. I didn’t eat much, rarely drank, and was hosted by businessmen for the rest of my meals, presumably eager to keep their egos intact.

In terms of female vs. female, I actually was taken aback at the out-and-out hostility I ran across from other female executives most of the time. It was almost as if once a woman earned her place at the table with men, she recognized she her power as the token female, and fought to keep other women out. I tried to capture that element—the “Queen Bee Syndrome”—in the friction between my two female characters. Who has the power, and why? Who has the ear of the CEO and, therefore, the greatest influence? Who has earned the respect of the male colleagues, and how?

Fortunately, I believe much of that has changed in the workplace now, although women still network through external associations more than mentor internally in their own organizations. To the extent that it all came down to corporate politics, some women learned to play the game and advanced, while others chose to remove themselves from that environment entirely rather than play it (such as myself). Women make their mark in Silicon Valley every day—you just have to search for it behind the standard hoopla.

SJ: Without giving away the story, let’s discuss a very interesting, and somewhat troubling, aspect of PO’s plot: the role of consultants who move in and out of companies without a particular loyalty to one or another, stepping in to troubleshoot and possibly knowing too much of the inner workings of code, leading to what we see all too often today, cyber attacks that become more malicious and widespread with every incident. Did you mean to expose the vulnerability of SV companies who rely on independent consultants, and did a real-life incident inspire this in PO?

AB: As much as Silicon Valley prides itself on being new and different every year, in reality technology goes in cycles, including its secretiveness or openness. In the early years of the PC, technologists realized that they needed to cooperate in sharing protocols so that they could all interoperate and sell this new machine to the masses. Then Apple came along with its leading edge graphics appealing to a niche set of users, locked in the school market, and ultimately hooked students on the Apple brand for years to come. Its ease of use and proprietary platform set up a non-cooperative environment. The most famous battle that was never resolved is the ongoing one between the Apple standard and the PC standard (formally spearheaded by Microsoft’s Windows, but now including open-source software platforms, too).

The Internet boomed only when players agreed on common standards and interoperability again for web pages, email, and the like. Today, competing mobile platforms threaten to fragment the market again into smaller pieces as the largest companies in both technology and telecommunications worldwide vie for dominance.

Therefore, in years when proprietary secrets and intellectual property drive the business model, signing a Non-Disclosure Agreement and enforcing it was the norm. In periods of cooperation to drive the whole technology industry forward, there was a more relaxed atmosphere. Defense contractors, which needed to guard national secrets, became minor players in Silicon Valley during the last twenty years, and are only now returning and asking for help in the worldwide battle against hack attacks and terrorism.

However, software engineers are often contract workers, working on a specific project and then moving on. No different than any other human, they talk off-the-record at watering holes throughout the Valley about incidents they witnessed, slack security measures that are hushed-up, and possibilities for abuse.

In an era of high costs, carrying employees without maximum productivity, I see this as a real threat to any company or nation with genuine secrets to protect. Certainly, we rarely hear the full truth of how a virus started or which individual started it. The firms whose products supposedly protect us through a series of firewalls and virus scans wouldn’t want to admit an errant employee planted a bug years ago that went undetected. But it is possible, and a scenario I chose to highlight as part of the larger picture of the risk of our reliance on secure networks for our financial markets and military communications.

SJ: You marry SV’s high-tech output to national security and introduce how an historical, idealogical enemy to capitalism—China—could play, or perhaps is already playing, a role in procuring sensitive technology to promote world dominance, and maybe even gain an edge in controlling commerce and financial transactions across the world. With the global economy in a looming crisis and our own stock market feeling the reverberations of overseas pressure, why do you think this topic continues to be minimized by pundits and media, and not given its due?

AB: Great question, and I wish I knew more of the answer. In part, this situation is what inspired me to research China and then to write Private Offerings. But let’s first look at the facts.

Most of the media is still headquartered on the east coast—New York City and Washington, D.C. Our financial markets are the last to open on any given day (eastern time), so the financial attention is always given to what has happened in Washington, D.C., or other markets just before stock trading begins, and therefore to the east, or Europe. The heritage and focus of most of the population east of the Mississippi is still European, and increasingly Middle Eastern. China is literally on the other side of the world. They don’t weekend-vacation there, they don’t have friends or family there. Out of sight, out of mind.

Here in Silicon Valley (and including San Francisco), China has played a huge part in our lives for almost 200 years. From the first Gold Rush in the 19th century to the current day, Chinese immigrants have flocked to California, and many have stayed, and continue to stay. In addition, as China opened up its markets to modern goods starting in the final decades of the 20th century, their customers became the automatic growth curve for any technology business with a global reach. If your business plan didn’t include a way to reach the new Chinese middle-class, you didn’t get funding. And if the Chinese wanted to buy your technology or intellectual property, why not sell it to them if they are the highest bidder, regardless of the long-term implications? The U.S. government came under huge fire for blocking the sale of “sensitive” technology, and finally capitulated in most segments, driving even more of our attention across the Pacific ocean and west (from the California coast), not “east.”

I believe the other element minimizing the story of China’s growing influence is a fear that China has indeed bypassed America as the dominant global player, and neither the media nor our political leaders are sure how to respond to that fact. Some believe we should fight back and re-assert out dominance. Others believe that by sheer population alone, it’s an inevitable, irreversible trend. Clearly, China’s influence on our stock market and investment dollars has made its mark in the last few weeks. In fact, anticipating such a scenario, I depict the players behind the Shanghai Stock Market Exchange in my novel to bring a sense of the Chinese perspective and their motivations to my readers.

SJ: How does your sequel leverage what’s already been revealed in PO? Without revealing too much, can you give readers a glimpse into the next angle of your fictional, international saga?

AB: Rare Mettle delves farther into the economic and political implications of China’s dominance on our technology. It is loosely based on two real incidents: the purchase of an American leading-edge technology company in the 1990’s which landed in the hands of the son-in-law of the then-Premier; and the years-later embargo of key minerals to Japan for their electronics industry over a territorial dispute. National media has touched superficially on what might happen to Silicon Valley’s tech giants, like Apple, if their supply and access to purified rare earth elements is ever cut off. However, I go one step further, and explore what might happen to our military weaponry and other industries, too, like solar and automotive.

As more of our life depends on technological advances, we are becoming increasingly reliant on China’s cooperation, something quite new to an America that has always been the leader. It makes for a compelling and hopefully motivating read, even if disturbing, and especially timely in light of the Department of Defense’s re-emergence as a player in Silicon Valley with its new research outpost, DIUx.

SJ: Most people consider Silicon Valley ground zero only for technology and innovation. Yet you chose to focus on a business suspense thriller, not a science fiction or dystopian novel that typically comes from this region. Why is that?

AB: If “the business of America is business” as President Calvin Coolidge famously said, and Silicon Valley is America’s economic engine, then Silicon Valley is the origin of our nation’s 21st century economy. By minimizing the importance of the business side of Silicon Valley, and presenting its success only through a dark lens of whiz-bang technology gone awry, or gruesome stereotypes of geeks and unethical megalomaniacs, I believe the true source of untold wealth is underserved and misrepresented. All other regions seeking to replicate Silicon Valley’s success often focus on either technology or venture capital resources or respected universities. In truth, this region has a plethora of all three, which come together to create economic life via a business. The purpose of this life is to create profitable businesses to reward investors for taking a risk on new technologies and ideas; to pay its employees well for working long and grueling hours; and to re-invest in the company to create more products, more jobs and supply more markets with its innovative goods. If the business owners and investors don’t focus on profitability, too much venture capital becomes wasted on unproductive initiatives and frivolous expenses. Eventually, there won’t be more money to invest in deserving and essential future technologies.

I sought to capture one Silicon Valley corporation’s heart and soul, and perhaps create a starting point for readers the world over to understand the behind-the-scenes process of bringing a company to life. Hopefully, in time, Private Offerings could become required reading for business students, the same way Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead is a must-read for architects. I find it ironic that it took a female writer to inject a passionate, human element into a story about a male-dominated industry, and make it both exciting and topical.

SJ: Thank you, Ann Bridges. We recently finished reading Rare Mettle and we can assure your Silicon Valley fans that the action not only continues, it lurches into high-octane. Readers are in for an eye-opening ride.

(This article originally appeared on Balcony 7 Media & Publishing’s SaucyJaw.com)

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