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Sleepless in SiVal

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Sleepless in SiVal
It's a sign of our times. Since I've started this development job, I've been working more hours than I used to. Though, I still manage to get 6-7 hours sleep. I don't know if I could handle the sort of sleep habits described in the following San Jose Mercury news article which was forwarded from someone in my development team... Sleepless in Silicon Valley --- Technology's fast track dictates a slumberless lifestyle Published: June 21, 1996 BY MARK LEIBOVICH Mercury News Staff Wrier On a typical night, Andre Lamothe will stare into the glow of his MultiSync XP computer monitor until 5 a.m. He will doze off at 6 and sleep until the phone rings from the East Coast or Europe around 8. If it's a restful night, maybe he'll knock off at 4 a.m. and steal three hours; or if he's feeling fitful, he'll thrash around in bed and maybe not sleep at all. Lamothe, 28, who runs a video game start-up company from his Milpitas home, says he feels his body aching more than it did when he was younger. Some mornings he feels dizzy. Yet he endures a schedule dictated in part by a high-tech industry spinning so fast it renders sleep a luxury. Sleep is unproductive time, an annoying rest stop off technology's fast-track to the future. To resist has become a necessary, if not desirable, lifestyle choice for a growing after-hours club of mortals like Lamothe. They have taken the '80s-vintage workaholism that built today's Silicon Valley and accelerated it to extreme -- some would say pathological -- levels. ''We are all absolutely out of control, on a race for something we're not even sure exists,'' says Lamothe, an avid weightlifter who roller blades through the dark streets of Milpitas when he needs a break. ''This will be the first generation to show the physical and mental toll of the information age. We're pushing against how we've evolved on the planet.'' It's a motto that drives this bleary-eyed segment of valley life: Snooze too long and someone else grabs the patent, promotion, venture capital or market share. Never mind the colds, occasional delirium and hazards of driving home drowsy. This is the price of participation in a global marketplace oblivious to time zones, with start-ups sprouting daily and a mad dash to cultivate new Internet technologies. E-mail, ISDN lines and the Web have colonized homes as workplace extensions; product cycles have been compressed in the pursuit of beating the next guy's brainchild out the door. ''There's been an incredible escalation in the speed with which products are being developed,'' says Lenny Siegel, director of the Pacific Studies Center, a non-profit advocate group in Mountain View. '' Ten years ago it was enough just to rush from one job to the next,'' he says. ''Now you need to start something before you finish something else.'' Beyond competitive realities, the sleepless ethic springs from a uniquely compulsive computer mentality in an industry that glories in pushing limits and subverting conventions. Great programs and companies have been born under the glare of fluorescence, buoyed by adrenaline and caffeine. ''I've never understood the need to sleep,'' says David Filo, the 30-year-old co-founder of Yahoo! Inc., who fights the urge just as hard now as he did before his company went public in April and he became a multimillionaire on paper. Filo seldom sleeps more than four hours a night, sometimes under his desk: ''I'm always looking for a way to avoid sleep. Physically, I don't think you need it. It's more a mental thing.'' Night work is well suited to a techie's mindset that prizes long, uninterrupted clumps of time free from daytime interruptions such as phone calls. ''You don't find a lot of people who get into this business because they are political creatures who love to schmooze and sit in meetings,'' says Michael Latham, a0- year-old group director at SegaSoft, his Redwood City office still a blur of activity at 2 a.m. Latham rarely sleeps more than four hours. He calls this ''a permanent lifestyle choice'' -- or as permanent as his body allows. ''They can hang a gold watch from my corpse,'' he says. Like a college dorm Combine this nocturnal affinity with furious competition and you get this hyper-driven slice of Silicon Valley. Company campuses might evoke the frivolous air of a college dorm late at night, with T-shirted post-adolescents eating pizza and playing foosball in their bare feet, but that does not disguise the warrior's mentality that characterizes so many work ethics. Rare is the person who complains about fatigue. ''You have to afford the intellect the chance to transcend limits,'' says Byron Rakitzis, 27, a programmer at Network Appliance, a Mountain View file server company. ''That is the price we pay for supreme human accomplishment.'' Last year that price became too high for Rakitzis when he plunged to ''an emotional crisis point,'' which he blames partly on a work schedule that typically landed him in bed at 4 a.m. Even when he slept enough, Rakitzis felt bone-tired. Computer commands would invade his thoughts unbidden as he drove to work. He took three months off starting in December. Rakitzis returned to Network in March and now calls himself ''a recovering night person.'' He tries to leave his office by 5. But when the interview ends, Rakitzis is still at his terminal, ensconced in a bug report at 1 a.m. He plans to scale back to part-time work later this year. If anyone ever discusses being tired, it's often in a boastful way. ''We compare how little we sleep in the same way athletes compare knee injuries,'' Rakitzis says. Like sports, high tech is predominantly a young man's arena, subject to the limits of the aging process. Single males under5 are the prevailing demographic in the industry. You sense some racing to coax as much production as possible from their bodies (and money from their companies) before they get too old. ''The goal used to be to become a millionaire by 40,'' says Gary Burke, president of the Santa Clara Valley Manufacturing Group, a high-tech trade association. ''Now it seems like it's down into the 20s.'' This ambition extends to the broader technological sensibility of today's Silicon Valley. ''It is no longer enough to solve a problem in this valley,'' says Chuck Darrah, chairman of the anthropology department at San Jose State University. ''Now we expect everything we do to be a model for the rest of the world. If you're off the highway for a nanosecond, time passes you by.'' In this context, sleep becomes a ready casualty. ''You sense this new, panicky edge to staying ahead of the competition and the technology curve,'' says Lili Pratt King, a career counselor who works with Stanford Business School graduates. Forget the notion of the relaxed California lifestyle. ''People in Silicon Valley have developed this tenacious inability to let go of their workday and rest. It has become so profound and much worse than anything I have seen on the East Coast or in the Midwest.'' This is hardly a unanimous way of life among the valley's high-tech workforce, estimated at 200,000. People who adhere to traditional schedules account for two commuting periods each day. But high-tech campus parking lots can be crowded at a.m. And many evening commuters will log on to their office networks from home. Sending e-mail at 2 a.m. Brian Ehrmantraut, the3-year-old systems engineering director at Network Appliance, leaves his office most nights at 8 and works at home in Saratoga until 2 a.m. Ehrmantraut tries to sleep five hours. But if he gets an idea when his head hits the pillow, he'll get out of bed and send it to a colleague on e-mail. ''I will e-mail someone at 2, wake up with another idea at 4 and find that my 2 o'clock e-mail has been answered already,'' he says. If he can't get home, Ehrmantraut's office is equipped for long-term comfort: stereo, bowl of fruit and espresso machine, with a stuffed Tasmanian devil atop his terminal (''to scare away the marketing guys''). If a deadline looms, SegaSoft workers sleep at a nearby Motel 6 at company expense; Netscape Communications Corp. employees used to sleep in designated futon rooms, but the company removed them, partly to encourage workers to stop working and go home. But habits die hard. ''People keep asking for the futon room to come back,'' says Cindy Hall, a Netscape technical writer and a late-night regular at the Internet giant's Mountain View campus. With gym bags packed with clothes, personal hygiene items and roller-blading equipment, Hall calls herself ''a yuppie bag-lady.'' ''Instead of pushing my shopping cart, I just cram everything into the back of my Beemer.'' Employees are often grouped in a ''team'' structure, and when deadlines and shipping dates near, late night becomes essential work time. In a collaborative environment, failure to pull your weight can be devastating. ''We work under aggressive deadlines, and no one wants to have to say "this is my fault,''' says Hall. Peer pressure intensifies when, as in the case of many companies, employees own stock. Computer product teams are socialized like soldiers in a platoon, says Paul Saffo of the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park. ''In war, no one dies for their country,'' he says. ''They die because a structure is set up where you look like a coward in front of a big group of people. Same thing if you're in a group developing a product.'' Saffo describes today's Silicon Valley as ''an intellectual arms race.'' The machines themselves cast their own tyranny. Engineers and programmers describe the time-warp sensation of tinkering with a problem for a few seconds, only to realize hours have passed. ''Last night, I was working on a piece of code, and I just couldn't get everything working at once,'' says Deborah Kurata, co-owner of InStep Technology, a software consulting company in Pleasanton. ''But I kept getting positive feedback from the computer. It's so addictive. I had to keep going until I was finished.'' By which time it was 4 a.m. At 7:30, after a nap, Kurata was up getting her two daughters ready for school. A family sleep trade-off Among high-tech parents, Kurata's is a familiar scheduling equation: Borrow from sleep time to balance the demands of family with career. Before his son,-year-old Andrew, was born, Greg Gilley, the director of engineering for imaging and video products at Adobe Systems, would leave his office at 10 or 11 p.m. Now he gets home at 6, eats dinner, gives Andrew a bath, puts him to bed and spends time with his wife, Karen. At 10, Gilley returns to Adobe in Mountain View, and he doesn't get home again until around or 4 a.m. ''You either have to trade off family or sleep,'' Gilley says, eating a Butterfinger in his office at midnight. ''There's no real choice.'' Pale and disheveled, Gilley does not look well. He doesn't exercise and hasn't seen a doctor in five years, and Karen worries about him. When his current product cycle ends, he plans to catch up on rest. ''I can usually go at this pace for four months before I'm toast,'' he says. How long has he been at it now? Gilley shakes his head: ''Eight months.'' Later this month, Helmut Kobler, the 27-year-old president of Cyclone Studios, a subsidiary ofDO, a games company, will take his first vacation in years. ''There's almost a folkloric quality to pulling all-nighters in this business,'' Kobler says, sitting in aDO cubicle at midnight. ''But once you go through it for a few years, they lose their romance. Now I'd rather be in bed.'' Kobler acknowledges he has said this before: ''I've said to myself, "I'm sick of eating Campbell's soup every night. I have to develop other interests. I vow to change. But after a while, my life starts feeling pedestrian. And I want to conquer the world again.''
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Entered on: 05/07/1998
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