In 1985 experienced war photographer Doug Menuez decided to embed himself in a different kind of revolution—the tech revolution in Silicon Valley. He convinced Steve Jobs, recently ousted from Apple and launching NeXT computer, to give him unrestricted access to, well, everything. And once he earned Jobs’ trust, other Silicon Valley doors opened to him, doors at some 70 companies during the next 15 years.
In 2000, with the dot-com boom turned to bust—marking, Menuez felt, the end of an era—he decided it was time to leave the Valley, having taken some 250,000 photos, recorded lots of video interviews, and seen more of the inside workings of technology development than just about anyone in the world. Then just a few years ago, with Stanford University interested in his collection, he started digitizing the images, creating a book, Fearless Genius: The Digital Revolution in Silicon Valley 1985-2000, and a traveling photography exhibition.
This week, the exhibition opened at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, the only west coast stop on its tour. And Menuez was there to share a few stories that went with the photos.
“I want to take you back,” he began, “to Silicon Valley in the age of the beeper, when fax was cool, and when entrepreneurs and engineers came together and sparked an explosion that changed our world.”
“It felt like Paris in the 20s must have felt,” he said, particularly when Adobe got desktop publishing going, because that’s when a huge variety of artists started to show up.
Mostly, in this round of storytelling, Menuez talked about his first few years as an embedded tech company photographer at NeXT and Apple. A few vignettes:
- At NeXT, he reported, the team was trying to put the power of the day's mainframe into a one-foot cube. “The prototype came, and I asked what we would do with this cube. [Steve Jobs] said "I want a kid at Stanford to cure cancer in his dorm room." I believed it was possible because he believed it was possible, and his team believed it was possible.
- In the early days of NeXT, said Menuez, Jobs interrupted a presentation to say, “Let’s work nights and weekends until Christmas, then take a week off." An engineer raised his hand and replied, "We already are working nights and weekends."
- In the spring of 1989, with most of Jobs’ money gone and NeXT on the ropes, Menuez attended a meeting between executives from NeXT and Japanese manufacturer Canon; Canon was prepared to invest in the company. Jobs had heard that instead of the $100 million he needed, Canon was going to offer him just $50 million and ask for far more equity than he wanted to give. Jobs, Menuez said, started the meeting by making six unreasonable demands that weren’t on agenda. Even the NeXT executives, he says, were baffled. After lengthy discussion about the demands, Jobs turned to the NeXT team, shouted, “You guys have f’d up this deal,” and stormed out of room. Later, Menuez saw Jobs laughing in a hallway. Eventually, Jobs went back in room, and fought for his six points for another hour and a half. It seemed to an observer that Jobs was getting crushed, with Canon eventually winning on all six points. Then, says Menuez, the “victorious” Canon gave Jobs the $100 million he had hoped for without a fuss.
- Over at Apple during the development of the Apple Newton handheld computer in the late 80s and early 90s, John Sculley saw the Newton as a project that could save the company. At one point, after thirty programmers had spent a year writing about a million lines of code, the decision was made to change the processor, meaning all the code had to be rewritten. Shortly afterwards, programmer Ko Isono, after loading the code he was working on, went home and shot himself, Menuez reported. Said Menuez: “People outside the Valley do not realize the level of sacrifice made to create these products. But the team rallied, gathered together, and made some technical breakthroughs that allowed them to meet the ship date.” That may not have been a good idea; the technology, Menuez said, wasn’t quite ready for prime time, “but the team’s vision for Newton was [eventually] vindicated,” paving the way to the Palm Pilot and the iPhone and the iPad. In fact, said Menuez, “I have a picture of what is the iPad form factor which was actually a Newton in 1993 designed by Jony Ive."
Those are just a few of Menuez’s observations; he’s sure as he goes through his photos in coming years, he’ll have more stories to tell, not just about the Valley’s successes but about its failures as well.
Menuez hopes these stories will provide lessons for future engineers and entrepreneurs trying to change the world. But he’s concerned that engineers of today have lost their long-term focus, and aren’t doing what is necessary to make amazing things happen.
Says Menuez, “The good news is, there is a new wave of stuff coming—sensors, genomics, biotech, nanotech, 3-D printing. You can feel it, it’s going to explode, and a new crop of idealistic innovators is coming with it.”
But he’s not so sure just how passionate these new innovators are.
“I met an entrepreneur on the plane,” he said, “and said ‘Tell me about your app. Is this the most exciting thing you’ve ever done? Does this define you?’ And she said, ‘No, I’m just going to make money and go to Bali.’ That’s the difference; the entrepreneurs today can walk away. Then, the stakes were higher, they were middle class kids that were smart enough to get into Stanford or MIT, they had values of use it up or wear it out; they didn’t feel they could go back home” if things didn’t work out.
“The people I photographed,” Menuez said, “were on a mission; they wanted to create tools that improve our lives. Inventing new technology is breathtakingly hard. You have to have something meaningful to walk through that fire. You don’t have to be a genius, but you do have to be fearless.”
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.