Ari Kaplan in USA Today


Posted 1/6/2004 10:00 PM


Work hard, harder, hardest — tech industry titans find it hard to let go


There is a crisis brewing in 2004. An entire generation of technology industry leaders might soon spontaneously combust. One minute they'll be sitting in their conference rooms and — foom! — nothing left but ashes.

Trip Hawkins' family ski trip to British Columbia included time spent reading about CBS' William Paley.


This is the conclusion after asking more than a dozen tech CEOs and venture capitalists what they did over the holidays. The responses were so far off the kinetic end of the activity scale, it makes the rest of us seem ergophobic.

"When the economy is recovering and you are in the groove, you work!" says Alan Warms, CEO of Internet company Warms not only worked the whole holiday season, but also interrupted his Christmas Eve dinner to go downstairs, receive a faxed contract and fax it back. "Vacations are for recessions," he says.

After getting such hyper-responses, I turned to an author of management psychology books to ask if tech leaders are going to be OK — or if, as a society, we need to do an intervention.

"What worries me is that (the tech leaders) seem a little showy about their vacation accomplishments," says Katherine Goldman, author of Working Mothers 101 and other books. "People love to list how much they do, as if it's a competition. And the line between complaining and preening is pretty fine."

Take Mark Housley, CEO of Glimmerglass, a Silicon Valley start-up making an optical networking doodad about the size of a chubby guinea pig. From Dec. 20 to Jan. 4, Glimmerglass shut down, and Housley was on vacation. "I, however, had tons of work to do," Housley says.

He closed a financing deal. He reorganized the company and hired a chief operating officer "to focus the company on being able to grow somewhere between 2X to 5X in 2004," as he puts it. He met with customers and with Glimmerglass engineers who were also supposed to be on vacation but who were in the office working on new products.

Then Housley adds: "Fortunately, between phone calls and faxes and e-mails, one can go sailing, cook an amazing carbonnade from a Christmas cookbook, see all the movies I'd been waiting to see, explore San Francisco with my wife, restart my vinegar productionline and finally get my Mac's iSync working on all three machines."

For the record, a carbonnade is kind of a fancy beef stew. I had to look it up. Thought it might be a drink, like lemonade but flavored with carbon.

But for heaven's sake, the guy works like a dog, goes sailing and makes his own vinegar from leftover wine. Now don't you feel really inadequate?

Ari Kaplan, CEO of Chicago software company Expand Beyond, and his wife had their first child, a girl, on Thanksgiving. Over the holidays, more than 50 friends and relatives visited to see the baby. Yet, Kaplan worked through much of it.

"There's no such thing as a real day off," he says. "That's why I made sure our home is only five blocks from the office."

Trip Hawkins, founder of Electronic Arts and CEO of his new start-up, Digital Chocolate, took his family to ski at Whistler in Canada. While there, he read a biography of William Paley, who built CBS, "taking notes and thinking about strategies." He adds: "If your thesis is that guys like me never stop thinking about their work and never really get a pure break, you're right!" Funny, but I never suggested any thesis.

There were exceptions. Women responded a little differently than men. Vani Kola, CEO of software company Silicon Valley's Nth Orbit, worked a lot, but says she "also did family things that were meaningful to me." She took her younger daughter to see the Nutcracker. She took her 10-year-old to a high tea, and says her daughter "felt very grown-up about it."

Notice the distinction: Kola put work things aside to do special interpersonal things; the men tended to put interpersonal things aside to do special work things.

Another woman, venture capitalist Magdalena Yesil, told me: "I took seven days off and cleaned closets. It felt great. Went to Yosemite for two days and played in the snow." She did not work.

The other exceptions to the hypervacations were tech leaders who were not Americans.

In the United Kingdom, start-up investor John Taysom went to his country home in Devon, where he celebrated the holidays by "chopping some logs, digging some vegetables and visiting the pub for a pint of hand-pulled ale."

Louis Woo, of Hong Kong-based Vision Century, went to a resort in Malaysia with his family. Did he work? "I purposely did not take my notebook with me," he says. "Otherwise, that would be grounds for divorce."

Apparently, if there is going to be any spontaneous combusting going on, it will mainly be American male tech CEOs. Women, Europeans and Asians seem to maintain a bit of sanity.

Can the men be saved? "My advice (for them) is to focus on the outcomes," author Goldman says. "What are your real goals for these vacations and trips and projects? Is it about you?" Like, can you impress others by going on a luxury trip, or can you win admiration by making a tasty carbonnade?

"Or is it about how you're going to make other people feel?" Goldman continues. "All of this is very tied up with how you run your company. How do you make your employees feel — happy about their own accomplishments or amazed by yours?"

Of course, we don't want to criticize too much. The USA owes a lot of economic success to crazy work schedules. We don't want to end up at the other extreme, with the ergophobes — people who fear work. Don't believe me? Check out, which humorously says, "This site is very much under construction. Check back rarely for changes."

Kevin Maney has covered technology for USA TODAY since 1985. His column appears Wednesdays. Click here for an index of Technology columns. E-mail him at:


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