A hilarious stroll through the diary of a computer geek


From Business Journal Serving Greater Milwaukee (August 26, 1995)

by Judy Steininger

Quick quiz.

Identify any of the following: interiority, bungee coding, deletia, manseconds, Pi fight. If you barely passed, you need to read "Microserfs, " a new novel by Douglas Coupland.

The first chapter of this book was originally published in the January 1994 issue of Wired magazine, and the novel earlier this year. But during the second week of August, in a case of life imitating art, a young man named Marc Andreessen fleshed out the book when he became the megabucks proprietor of a high-tech initial public offering called Netscape.

Without a doubt, Andreessen can pass the above terminology quiz. In fact, he is a dead ringer for Michael, one of the major characters in the story. Even more curious is the high probability that had it not been Andreessen as the fictitious Michael, it could have been any of a number of people with stratosphefic IQs working in Silicon Valley.

And therein lies at least a part of the tale.

What is "Microserfs" about? The format is a PowerBook diary written by a computer programmer, Dan Underhill. His surname is symbolic of how he sees his own life as a disillusioned serf working for Bill Gates at Microsoft

If you ever wanted to know what it's like to work at Microsoft, you won't be able to stop reading the early chapters. They provide an inside view of Bill Gates as Lord of the Nerds and Geeks, labels considered compliments by the brilliant people in Bill's employ.

What a strange crowd they axe, existing outside of time and normal human desires. The great humor used in describing their unusual existence is what makes the book such fun.

There are delectable stories of Bill sitting in his office high atop the Microsoft campus watching his collection of Mensa types search for shortcuts to neighboring buildings through the tree-lined property. If they succeed, they may get invited to the lunch with Bill.

For the cluster of characters in this book, their microserf existence starts to take its toll. Frustrated and without a life outside of work, they begin to understand they have deep problems. For example, human relationships are seen merely as interface problems. Plus, all the junk food they eat creates some real mind/body duality dilemmas.

Michael disappears for a few days only to materialize in Silicon Valley. Here is how Dan Underhill describes him. "Michael . . . lives in a mystical state. He lives to assemble elegant streams of code instructions. He's like Mozart to everyone else's Saliefi."

Though the book is humorous up to this point, the real fun begins here. Michael invites Dan and their entire "group house" of programmers to join him in a start-up company in the Valley. They are willing, because new surroundings and a stake in their own company offer a chance to get a life.

For the remainder of the book, the reader can't help but cheer heartily as Dan, Michael, Bug Barbecus (sic), Todd, Susan and Kafia create Oop! (Object Oriented Programming). Oop! is based on the Lego bricks that all these geniuses played with as children. Oop! blocks could have as many as 8,000 bumps if required by the user and could construct anything from complex life forms to buildings.

To get this company to market is a reader's treat. Visits to the Venture Capital Mall and a Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas will leave you in stitches.

What elevates this book beyond a mere satire has to do with Dan, in particular, and the group, in general, trying to understand the effect of computer technology in the larger context of people's lives.

The questions raised by computer technology's impact are not new. What is wittily revealed in this novel is how poorly equipped these mental masters of the universe are to understand this impact. As they intellectually grope their way through "what's the meaning of life" kind of questions, you will be terrorized. History, sociology or the fine arts have never been granted even a single byte of storage in their magnificent brains.

When you read that Andreessen and his Netscape buddies play roller hockey in the parking lots, don't be too impressed -- that's probably about as reflective as they get.

Nonetheless, the microsefts' insights about consumerism, artificial intelligence, time and love -- to mention a few -- are informative.

Since the shipping of Windows 95 is being heralded as not much short of the Second Coming, consider this fictitious (true?) representation of how these brilliantly stupid companies bring new products to market.

Does the Oop! company succeed? Does Dan Underhill divulge in his diary if he discovers the meaning of life? Read this enlightening book to find out. Certainly, before you invest in a high-tech IPO, you will want to read it. "Microserfs" by Douglas Coup-land is published by Harper Collins Regan Books.