By Allegra Goodman
In author Allegra Goodman’s acclaimed new novel, “The Cookbook Collector,” Emily is the CEO of a Silicon Valley start-up, while her younger sister Jessamine works part-time in a bookstore and fights to save redwood forrests. But as Emily’s company rides the NASDAQ rise and fall and Jessamine struggles to find a direction in her life, the sisters’ bond remains strong. We speak to Goodman about her book, excerpted below.
From Chapter 5
Everyone expected Emily to take care and take charge. It had always been this way. When her mother was sick, she’d filled out her own permission slips for school. When Jess signed up to bring home the kindergarten rabbit for the weekend, Emily took care of it. Look at Emily taking care of her sister, her New Jersey aunts said to one another after the memorial service. There were no relatives from England. Her English grandparents had died before Emily was born, but the New Jersey aunts were full of admiration. What an angel. Look how good she is, her father’s sisters said. Emily knew she was not an angel, but the more she doubted, the better she behaved.
At work she was the peacemaker. She wasn’t just the chief executive officer of the company; she was the adult when her partners behaved like children. Admittedly her colleagues were young. Alex Zaslovsky, Veritech’s chief technology officer, was just twenty- two. He had come to America at fifteen, and still spoke with a slight Russian accent. He’d been a math prodigy and skipped several years of school. He’d also been late to grow, so that even now he had a slight frame. He had black eyes, long lashes, a thatch of thick brown hair. He’d heard a secretary whispering about him at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. “How old is that one? Twelve?” He turned on her and gave her the finger right before his pre – sentation to the board.
“Alex!” Emily whispered, and Milton Leong, the company’s twentyfive- year- old CFO, turned red with suppressed laughter. She appreciated Alex’s mind, and Milton’s sense of humor—his jovial personality set the tone for a company profiled in the San Jose Mercury News as “the most happy start- up.” But there were times when the two of them tried her patience.
In a young industry, Alex and Milton acted their age.
This was the story they told about Veritech’s beginnings: Once upon a time, back in ’96 when Alex and Milton were grad students, they stayed up late finishing a paper, and they decided to order takeout. They started shuffling menus, and just as they settled on Thai food and began debating between Shrimp Delight and Shrimp in Love, a new paradigm for large- scale data storage and retrieval came to them. Each cache of data should have a take- out menu.
“Very funny,” Milton said, but Alex wasn’t joking. They met Emily, who saw the potential of a new data- storage paradigm, which was ingenious and elegant, and she drafted a business plan. Within months, Alex developed V.0, Milton found the first clients, and Emily organized the company.
The true story of Veritech’s beginnings was complex and technical, and had more to do with the paper Alex and Milton had been writing than the collection of take- out menus. They had not debated which sort of shrimp to order, because Alex was allergic to shellfish. Nor had they simply met up with Emily. She had come to them looking for an infrastructure project. But it was the business with the take- out menus that reporters fixed on. A take- out menu with numbered specials was something every interviewer could visualize, an endearing symbol for a couple of brilliant students brainstorming late at night. Veritech’s goal was to become the biggest Web- based data- storage company in the world, but its origin myth was all fun and games, as if once upon a time some guys got together and said, “We’ve got enough talent here. Let’s put on a show!”
There had been freedom in the early days, a sense of unlimited possibility, but with each new round of funding, Alex and Milton and Emily felt more constrained. They had to answer to VCs on their board, particularly to the forty- one- year- old Bruno, with his fair hair and sunburned brow. Bruno was Swiss, and he had worked at Xerox and at Apple before moving to Sirius Venture Partners. He cycled competitively, stayed late, and woke early to shoot out e- mails to everyone, “trying,” as Milton put it, “to give us marching orders for the day.” As they filed for their blockbuster IPO, Bruno’s pronouncements and e- mail warnings intensified. “Sensitive time! Remember, we are making an important transition which requires the utmost care. There will be many visitors in the building. Please be discreet in elevators and public spaces.”
Of course everyone down to the secretaries knew that this was a sensitive time. Emily had braced herself for arrogance and gloating, a sense of entitlement at the company, but in fact, the ethos was the opposite— one of indebtedness to investors, to underwriters, to the world. With floodgates of cash about to open, everyone felt enormous pressure to produce the next new thing. Veritech stored data for more than one hundred corporate clients, ranging from monumental Microsoft to newcomers like Bluefly, but on the eve of the IPO, Emily began to understand what no one wanted to admit: at the moment, Veritech’s real customers were their underwriters, their true audience the analysts poised to examine the company from head to toe, and ultimately Veritech’s true product had nothing to do with data storage. What Veritech offered the public was its stupendous expectations.
“We need a new idea every week,” Alex complained.
And Emily said, “Well, yes.” And then, more thoughtfully, “A new idea is practically built into our share price.”
Alex did not enjoy this comment, but he was willing to hear it from Emily. He respected her more than anyone. He was also in love with her. He stammered when he spoke to her. At times he couldn’t even look at her. This was awkward, given the amount of time they spent working together, and the tension they both felt. The public offering weighed heavily on Alex, even as he conceived one new idea after another—his latest, the prototype for an electronic- surveillance service.
He presented the concept at an early breakfast in Veritech’s rooftop lunchroom, a place with a stainless steel outdoor kitchen and round tables shaded by market umbrellas. Charlie, the tall blond company chef from L.A., was whipping up omelets for Emily, Alex, Milton, and Bruno when Alex announced, “I have a plan for something called electronic fingerprinting. This will track every time someone touches data and record who touches it, as well as when and where. The records will be kept in a log for every data-store. . . .”
“Cool,” said Milton.
“What did you want me to say?”
“Something better,” Alex said.
Picky, picky, thought Charlie behind the stove as he flipped Alex’s omelet—plain with no cheese, no sautéed mushrooms, no roasted peppers.
“Okay, how would this be different from tools we already have?” asked Milton. “We can do all that when we collaborate on projects.”
“This tool is not for collaborators,” Alex said.
“Who is it for then?” asked Emily.
“People who want to check security. For example, managers who want to check on their employees.”
“So managers could use fingerprinting without employees’ knowledge?”
“Do you see a problem with this?” Bruno asked.
“When it comes to privacy and human rights?” Bruno prompted.
“Born in the USSR,” Milton teased.
“Meaning?” Alex demanded.
“This is like a Soviet- style app you’re coming up with here.”
Alex took his finished omelet to the table.
“Seriously,” Milton said, following him, “this kind of surveillance idea sounds kind of Cold War, don’t you think?”
The four settled at a round table shaded by a green umbrella, and Charlie cleaned his griddle and thought about his future restaurant.
“A surveillance idea is therefore . . . out of date?” Alex challenged Milton.
“Well, yeah,” Milton said, “since the Cold War ended, like, ten years ago.”
“And what makes you think it ended?”
“You guys,” Bruno said. “We are in storage, not security. Are you suggesting that we expand into an entirely new area?”
“Let me show you what electronic fingerprinting can do,” Alex said.
“I’m not interested in what it does in general. I’m interested in what it can do for us.”
This was the kind of thinking that enraged Alex. “He doesn’t get it,” Alex fumed to Emily, right in front of Bruno. “He doesn’t have the capability to understand.”
“My capabilities are fine,” snapped Bruno. “But let’s pretend that I’m the rest of the world and I have no use for what you’re selling me.”
“I’m not selling anything. I’m inventing. You don’t know the difference.” Alex spoke louder than he had intended, and Miguel, the cleanup engineer, as he was called, looked up, even as he kept wiping tables.
“Alex,” said Emily.
He glared at her, as if to say, Don’t you Alex me. “I’m going to work.” He marched down the stairs.
“No, wait.” Emily hurried after him into the top- floor lounge they called the Playroom, a space furnished with sagging couches, Foosball, pool, and Ping- Pong tables. “Don’t go.”
“What do you mean, ‘Don’t go’? Am I a child for you to order me around?” Alex demanded
“Oh, stop and listen to me,” said Emily. “You have got to get hold of yourself. Don’t let other people get under your skin like that. You’re so smart. Be smart about people too. Be generous when you come to the table with something new.”
“I’m not interested in speaking to Bruno about this,” said Alex.
“But you’ve got to. You’ve got to speak to all three of us. That’s how it works,” said Emily. “Go back up there and start over.”
“No. He should apologize to me.”
Copyright (c) 2010 by Allegra Goodman