Ravi Desai, Silicon Valley executive

Ravi Desai, Silicon Valley executive

A weeklong electronic journal.
Nov. 18 1997 3:30 AM

Ravi Desai, Silicon Valley executive

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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. 

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Comdex is oddly quiet so far. My flight last night had dozens of empty seats, even though Bay Area-Las Vegas traffic during Comdex must typically represent some substantial percentage of several airlines' profit. And even with dozens of flights stacked up over McCarran Airport, it took less than five minutes to get a cab at the airport, and even less than that to check in to my hotel.

My morning meetings start at 7 a.m., and are accessible only by walking through an ear-jangling (but empty) megaplex of slot machines. I meet with a handful of customers, a couple of potential customers, and the executives of a company trying to build a market I'm interested in. Since there's seldom any definitive agreement at the end of these half-hour meetings, judging their quality depends entirely on details of tone. Eye contact, a few smiles, an agreement to follow up at a specific time, suggest that everyone got what they needed. Signs of a bad meeting: an early end, fiddling with paper clips, furtive glances at watches. It's virtually impossible to read these tea leaves over e-mail or the phone, which means that United Airlines (and Comdex) will stay in business for the foreseeable future.

Bad meetings are almost as useful as good ones, since they help me decide where to focus my energy over the weeks to come. At the end of the morning, I run to my room and scribble a handful of notes on each meeting. The meetings for the most part have gone well. The only exception is our session with the CEO of a very small company who'd requested a meeting with me. Although I had assembled a fairly substantial lineup of my colleagues to participate, the CEO of this company is clearly miffed that our CEO didn't join the meeting. Quantum tends not to pay an enormous amount of attention to hierarchies, and I sometimes forget that other companies--even seven-employee, no-revenue companies--do focus on titles.

Twenty minutes into the meeting, the CEO--a large-eared, jeans-clad, unshaven 27-year-old two years out of business school--stands up, wiggles his index finger at his associates (apparently to make them stand up), and tells the slightly aghast Quantum group to "call me when Mike (Brown, the CEO of Quantum) has time to grow his business." Mike's a brilliant, funny guy, generous to a fault with his time--but somehow involving the CEO of a $6-billion company with this self-important jerk strikes me as a bad idea.

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I cross that company off the list, and listen to my voice mail. It turns out that two of my late-afternoon meetings have canceled; flight problems, nothing more sinister. This gives me a chance to go to the show floor of Comdex. I strike out toward the Convention Center with two goals: an honorable one of trying to understand new products in this industry, and a slightly dishonorable one of trying to collect Comdex's legendary freebies. At the Convention Center, two things quickly become apparent.

First, the place is so full of gawkers and freebie-collectors that trying to learn anything meaningful will be impossible. Companies, wising up to the demographics of the average Comdex visitor, have either stopped exhibiting entirely or have reduced the number or median IQ of their employees to save money. I stop at the IBM display, a towering video wall with truly impressive graphics, and ask one of the reps a slightly technical question about an advanced storage product they'd recently announced. The rep blinks, and starts reciting, "A high-capacity disk drive is a way to store your most valuable information at low cost, with fast access and ..." When the rep blinks again, I sneak away. After two more episodes of this sort, I switch gears and start seeking free toys.

The second lesson I learn is that most companies have wised up to freebie-collecting. Here, though, a weird dichotomy seems to prevail. The companies least able to hand out freebies hand out the nicest ones, and the most successful companies have scaled back. IBM, for example, hands out a cardboard box ("briefcase," because it has a plastic handle) in which you're supposed to put your freebies from other companies. Rumor has it that Microsoft is handing out free subscriptions to Slate. On the other hand, suffering companies have become tchotchke heaven.

I head to the deserted booth of a company that makes home defibrillators, devices with which your spouse can restart your heart if it stops while you're in the shower, or the back yard. All of a sudden I'm surrounded by several representatives from the company, and after I ask a few questions, I'm whisked to a back room where I am introduced to the CEO. We exchange cards, chat for a minute or two. I explain that I stopped by out of curiosity, rather than out of any desire or ability to distribute his defibrillators. Not entirely believing me, he offers to lend me a sample, "to show your colleagues." When I beg off, not knowing what I could possibly do with a defibrillator, he instead offers me a bottle of vanity-labeled red wine. This gesture, I assume, is meant to reduce the probability I'll ever need one of his products myself. Shouldn't he be handing out cheeseburgers instead?

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I leave the show floor. In the hour I have before a series of parties, I amuse myself in the shower by trying to predict what tomorrow's Comdex stories in the papers will include. I decide there are five elements, and that each story will include at least three:

Praise of Bill Gates' visionary tendencies (even though I've yet to encounter someone here talking about his keynote speech last night).

A fabricated cabby quote, talking about how cheap Comdex visitors are. (Incidentally, my cabby last night wanted to talk about how personal-privacy software was the biggest untapped market.)

A quote from a dancer in a strip joint about the drop-off in her tips.

Descriptions of the lack of activity in the casinos, combined with a condescending comment about local ladies in polyester pants being the casinos' only current inhabitants.

Comments about Apple and Oracle that are either terrifically optimistic or deeply cynical.

I knot my tie, wondering what a reporter's expense report has to look like in order to incorporate a quote from a stripper.