The Techno Tribe
Back to "The 12 Tribes of Boston"

Boston's cyberworld is alive and kicking again-less than a decade after the fall of giants like Digital, Data General, and Wang. Today, however, the principal action has shifted from hardware to software and Internet-related systems, and has spread from Route 128 to other parts of Waltham, Kendall Square in Cambridge, Newton, Andover, and the new industrial parks along Interstate 495, where there's a new generation of code jockeys stuffing their faces with pizza as they wait for Microsoft or Yahoo to make them into instant millionaires. Make that billionaires.

It's not only the software guys, however, who are making the money. A number of startup companies on routes 128 and 495 are developing Internet-related systems with a significant hardware component. Companies like Omnia Communications and Redstone Networks are focusing on building complete systems-both hardware and software.

Silicon Valley has titans like Oracle's Larry Ellison, who flies Russian fighter jets and races his yacht around the world in his spare time. Seattle has America's richest Bad Haircut victim. But Boston's lively community of high-tech start-ups, computer publishers, academic incubators, and Internet analysts has no clear chief. Michael Ruettgers, for example, president and CEO of the most powerful company in the local high-tech world, has been nearly invisible-even as his company, EMC Corporation of Hopkinton, which makes computer storage systems, has nearly overtaken Gillette as the state's most valuable publicly traded corporation.

Still, there are contenders. Bob Davis, president and CEO of Waltham-based "portal site" Lycos, went on an acquisition binge last year that gave his company a $4 billion market cap, making it a serious threat to Yahoo in the fast-growing Internet search-engine niche where high-profile leadership can bring a competitive edge. Larry Weber, after selling his PR shop in 1996, became one of Boston's biggest boosters, chairing the Computer Museum and the Massachusetts Interactive Media Council (MIMC). David Wetherell, of CMG Information Services, in Andover, became Wall Street's favorite Internet stock picker with his early investments in superstars like Lycos, GeoCities, and the New Hampshire-based Silknet Software. And MIT has its two Greek Geeks-Nicholas Negroponte of the Media Lab and Michael Dertouzos of the Laboratory for Computer Science-battling for national prominence as gurus of cyberculture.

But the leading candidate for tribal chieftain is Bob Metcalfe, who as an MIT undergrad and Harvard Ph.D. helped lay the groundwork for the ARPAnet-the Internet's predecessor-and invented Ethernet before starting Silicon Valley's 3Com Corporation, now a Fortune 500 networking company. Metcalfe returned here in 1992 to join International Data Group (IDG), publisher of InfoWorld, Computerworld, PC World, and the Dummies books. He bought a lavishly appointed brownstone on Beacon Street and a 150-acre farm in Maine, where he and his family live. The brownstone is for parties, meetings, and cybersalons-key events for the Techno Tribe. "I'm trying to re-create what I felt out in Silicon Valley," says Metcalfe. "There's a process there with mentors and role models-a network of people that I was fortunate enough to get plugged into."

At Metcalfe's soirées, winners of MIT's $50K Entrepreneurship Competition mix with pioneers like spreadsheet inventor Dan Bricklin, Boston Globe columnist Simson Garfinkel, and former BBN Corp. CEO-turned-venture-capitalist George Conrades. Often, there's group Web surfing on a giant screen in the den. Always, there's an open bar in the library. Invitations are highly prized.

More typically, the real action in the Techno Tribe takes place late at night when the code wonks hunker over their workstations, dreaming of becoming the next Viaweb, Firefly, Narrative Communications, or Learning Company. Those are the local companies that were sold last year (to Yahoo, Microsoft, @home, and Mattel, respectively).

Some tribe members worry that these young entrepreneurs are positioning themselves as a farm team for Silicon Valley and Seattle. (Bostonians are constantly comparing themselves to Silicon Valley, says Metcalfe, but no one else does.) It is worth noting that Boston is still considered the second-largest market outside of Silicon Valley for many semiconductor manufacturers. Others, however, see an upside. "If Microsoft can't create something for themselves, that's okay," says Larry Weber. "We'll take your $40 million and keep the great, smart people here. Why do we want to build more bureaucracies like Digital? We're becoming a center of innovation for cutting-edge technologies."

These geeks also seem to think they're the new Brahmins. "We in Massachusetts have not touted what we have as much as the Valley," says Bricklin, who invented VisiCalc and founded Trellix Corp., in Waltham. "It's not our style. We're more into quietly plugging away, and coming up with new stuff. It's the Yankee work ethic."

Techno Tribal Rites

Hangouts: Breakfast at the Newton Marriott for merger meetings and job interviews; breakfast at the Ritz Carlton or the Regal Bostonian Hotel for tête-à-têtes with venture capitalists . . . Miracle of Science Bar & Grill, near Central Square-a favorite of MIT hackers and Gates wannabes . . . The Cambridge Brewing Company, after-work rendezvous of choice for employees of Lotus, Ziff-Davis, net.Genesis, Giga Information Group, and other denizens of One Kendall Square . . . Web designers of Boston's CyberDistrict, aka Fort Point Channel, congregate at Café 300 on Summer Street and lunch at Yada Yada.

Lingo: "Bandwidth," meaning capacity, either mental or technological, as in "I don't have the mental bandwidth to handle another project right now." . . . "Mezz round," mezzanine or intermediate round of venture capital, as in " just got their mezz round last month. Looks like they're a good IPO candidate for 2000." . . . "Triple dub," shorthand for "WWW" (double-you, double-you, double-you): "Check out triple dub It's a new meta-auction site." . . . "W3C," Worldwide Web Consortium, headquartered at MIT's Lab for Computer Science: "Are your programmers hip to the new W3C XML standard?" . . . "Veal pen," also known as a cubicle: "Our office used to have an open floor plan, but now it's a sea of veal pens."

Dress Code: Anything except neckties. Cutoff jean shorts and Teva sandals in summer for programmers. Web designers favor all-black ensembles; also shirts with the top button fastened . . . Funky-shaped eyeglass frames (rectangular, trapezoidal) are mandatory . . . Khakis and golf shirts for CEOs.

Allies: PR firms like the Weber Group, FitzGerald Communications, and Schwartz Communications, who help the tribe publicize their companies . . . Venture-capital firms like One Liberty Ventures, Greylock, and Charles River Ventures . . . Analyst firms like Forrester Research, the Yankee Group, Giga Information Group, IDC Research, and Mainspring Communications-when they plug your company's new product.

Enemies: Mainstream media, like the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald, which seem to think the Techno Tribe went extinct along with Route 128's dinosaurs . . . Mayor Menino, who hasn't backed the Techno Tribe with the same fervor that L.A.'s Richard Riordan devotes to the Digital Coast or San Francisco's Willie Brown does to Multimedia Gulch . . . Analyst firms like Forrester Research, the Yankee Group, Giga Information Group, IDC Research, and Mainspring Communications-when they pan your company's new product.