Technology Is Their Life
Talking about technology and the workplace is a bit of a stretch for Ann Winblad and Bill Gurley, partners in Hummer Winblad Venture Partners, one of Silicon Valley’s leading venture capital firms.
For them, technology is the workplace, and trying to distinguish between the terms is almost futile.
Both are utterly immersed in technology. It is not just a tool for getting work done, but the subject of almost every work-related conversation they have. It is what they use to plan their leisure time, the way they keep in touch with relatives, and the source of their wealth.
“Software has been my whole life,” said Winblad, in an assessment that is not much of an exaggeration.
Winblad, 46, began her career as a programmer. In 1976, she co-founded Open Systems Inc., an accounting software firm, with a $500 investment. Six years later she sold it for $15 million.
She went on to become a strategy consultant for, among others, IBM, Price Waterhouse and Microsoft. (She still vacations with Bill Gates once a year.) Then she co-founded Hummer Winblad Venture Partners, a $200-million fund focused exclusively on software investments. The firm has backed companies including Powersoft, Arbor Software and Wind River Systems.
Gurley, 31, joined Hummer Winblad last year, after a rapid ascent through the ranks of high-tech analysts on Wall Street. A former analyst at CS First Boston, Gurley was listed by BusinessWeek last year as one of the “top 25 power brokers” in Silicon Valley.
As venture capitalists, Winblad and Gurley search for budding companies that have a lot of potential and need financial help. They are looking for ideas that might be industries five years from now. Presumably, that gives them a glimpse of where technology is taking us.
With that in mind, they were asked to discuss how technology is affecting their lives, what it has in store for the workplace of tomorrow and why technology continues to be such a male-dominated field.
How has technology changed the way you work?
Winblad: If the power went out here today or a dial-up line wasn’t available, we might as well go hiking.
When I first started in this industry in 1976, e-mail didn’t exist. Now I can hardly understand how I could function without it. I’m able to communicate with anyone I want to at any time, and I expect people to respond, not because I’m Ann Winblad, but because they always have.
The fluidity of communications, and the flattening of organizations as a result, is amazing.
Gurley: The Internet has really cut down my gadget load. I know so much stuff is out there all the time, I don’t have to hoard any software. I don’t even carry a laptop anymore, but a real light Thinkpad that has no floppy drive. If somebody wants to give me something, I’ll say, “E-mail it.”
But if there’s any communications issue that I think exists, it’s the growing volume of e-mail. If I go through my day and don’t look up, there will be 70 or 80 e-mails waiting for me. If that load doubles again in a year, I’m not sure that’s something we can go through.
What about your life away from work?
Winblad: I’m an avid reader and I like to listen to music. But I can live without going to the strip mall or finding parking here in San Francisco. Sites like Amazon.com and CDnow.com [which sell books and CDs online] have made a big difference in my leisure pursuits.
The Internet has also allowed me more free time without spending my time planning. Over the Christmas holiday, my family gathered in Phoenix, and I remembered that at Bill Gates’ keynote speech at Comdex he showed a site called Pink Jeep Tours (an Arizona company that conducts Jeep tours). I went to Pink Jeep online and booked a horseback trip and gold-mining trip.
Gurley: I’m a geographically challenged Houston Rockets fan. NBA.com [the National Basketball Assn. Web site] just created a service online that allows you to get radio broadcasts of all the games. So if I’m at home or at work, at least I can listen to the Rockets games.
Winblad: Last Christmas, I went and bought WebTV for my parents. [WebTV offers Internet access through television sets.] My parents are very analog people, they have a terror of computers. But my mom now sees the Internet as an extension of her TV, and she goes online frequently to play Scrabble and send e-mail. She does not think it is a computer.
Is there anything you hate about computers?
Winblad: Our computer is not just plugged into a wall anymore, but into a phone line most of the time. The lines are unpredictable and often very low-quality. It is not a predictable event how long you can stay online without some sort of corruption.
Gurley: Yeah, the majority of my problems revolve around dial-up remote access.
Winblad: And that doesn’t show signs of improving any time soon. Bill’s favorite line is that backhoes do not obey Moore’s Law [a theorem that computer chips will double in capacity roughly every 18 months, resulting in exponential growth in processing power].
What does technology have in store for us in the workplace of the future?
Gurley: I think that in certain industries, deals have typically been done based on who knows who and who buys the other guy lunch. In an age where information is more plentiful, these inefficiencies will likely be exposed. This is not to say that relationships won’t matter, just that bottom-line performance will matter more.
Winblad: The thing that will be most profound is what has already happened for us in the technology industry--time boundaries disappear. You can have a 24-hour job if you want it. People don’t just send e-mail between 9 and 5. Finding your own boundaries for your work life has always been a challenge in the high-tech business, and that has now moved into corporate America.
Why does the computer business tend to be a guy thing? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 30% of the nation’s programmers and computer scientists are women.
Winblad: It puzzles me. I also wonder why the number of computer science graduates is diminishing when people are reading stories of not only wealth creation, but about people who like their jobs and are respected. Have we somehow told people not to come here, that [Silicon Valley] is a toxic waste dump?
Every teenager faces the issue of do you want to be smart or popular. Girls tend to hit that phase a little faster. Some people are fortunate to have parents to help mitigate that. But it’s a tough thing to be a nerd in your teenage years.
Gurley: I don’t know how you say to a CEO you ought to have a higher woman-to-male ratio if the numbers coming out of school don’t have that. Why aren’t more of any minorities getting involved?
Winblad: But that said, business schools have a much greater population of women than ever. I was the only one in my class [at College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.], but it’s 60% women now.
Gurley: It will be interesting to ask these questions in about 10 years. All of my young relatives--male and female--are on computers at 2 or 3 years old, learning in really innovative ways.
Winblad: Also, girls today have big-time sports teams, which provides experiences I didn’t have. So they have a better understanding of competition and strategy. My dad was a high school basketball and football coach, so I ended up with more of that than most.
Are there high-tech jobs for which women are better suited than men?
Winblad: No. I’ve said many times that I feel very privileged to be in this industry, because it is a complete meritocracy.