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CAREERS / TECHNOLOGY: A LOVE-HATE-RELATIONSHIP

Technology Is Their Life

For a Pair of Venture Capitalists, Being Without It Just Wouldn't Compute

January 19, 1998|GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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].

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