Friday, October 23, 2009

Shane's Question for Keith Raffel

You’re a history major, not an engineer. How did you fit into the high tech world then?

It is a little embarrassing, buddy. Maybe it’s genetics: my dad was an engineer who went to work at one of the pioneering companies of Silicon Valley, Ampex, developing videotape recorders 50 years ago (almost to the day).

In fact, I found the study of history pretty good preparation for starting a company. The word "history" comes from the French word “histoire” which means “story.” Makes sense, doesn’t it, for what is history but telling the story of the past? Funnily enough, I found that story-telling was the most important skill for being an entrepreneur of a high-tech start-up. I had a dream of a company and needed to tell it convincingly to get venture capitalists to invest and potential employees to sign on. Not too different from convincing a publisher to invest in the story we writers want to tell, is it?

In the end, not being technically-trained might have been an advantage. Most technical founders of companies are kicked aside after the product is designed. They think if they have the right technology, a la Emerson, the world will beat a path to their door. As a CEO, simply knowing the technology isn’t enough. (Amazingly, I have one patent and have applied for another.) The amount I didn’t understand was vast. But by asking stupid questions and insisting we use crisp and clear language to explain what we were up to, I was able, first, to grasp what was possible and then help put together a compelling story. The company I founded, UpShot, pioneered offering applications over the Internet – what’s now called cloud computing. We spent a lot of time telling our story of why it was less-expensive and more reliable than running applications in-house.

I try to keep things understandable when writing about Silicon Valley, too. No one wants to read pages on how a chip design company is moving from 33 nanometer wafers to 20 nanometer wafers. They want to read about the drama, the people, the discovery, the ambitions, the jealousies. As always, story-telling is key.

Until tomorrow then,

As counsel to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Keith Raffel held a top secret clearance to watch over CIA activities. As a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, he founded UpShot Corporation, the award-winning Internet software company. These days he stays busy writing his mysteries and thrillers in his hometown of Palo Alto, California. His latest novel, Smasher, is out this month. Check out his website and book trailer at


Rebecca Cantrell said...

In German they actually use the same word for both history and story: Geschichte. I agree, Keith, we do define ourselves by the stories we tell. And the people we choose to tell them to.

I just got a job offer from a cloud computing company that I had to turn down so I could keep telling stories (or, rather, my own stories instead of theirs), so your post hits home.

Good luck with the rest of your launch week, Keith!

Shane Gericke said...

Gesundheit, Rebecca :-)

Great tale, Keith. Storytelling is SO important in business, whether it's ours or something completely different. Thanks for sharing your skills with all of us.

I, for one, am a fan of cloud computing, as it keeps me from having to (keep being) my own IT department.

Keith Raffel said...

I'm flying high today. Rebecca agreed with ME. And Shane said, "Great tale." I may go buy a lottery ticket.

Alan Orloff said...

In the business world, I thought it was only the salespeople who told "stories." And whoppers, at that.

Continued success, Keith.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

I always agree with you, Keith. When you are right...

Good luck with the lottery!

Shane Gericke said...

All kidding aside, I find that Keith is usually right on most things, and a fine guy to boot. Which is why we enjoy his friendship so much.

Then again, I'm full of bronchitis meds and can't be held responsible for flights of gibberish :-)

Thanks for coming to hang with us, K-man, and go invent something that will make us all rich and leave us free to just write.

Shane Gericke said...

Nah, Alan, all businesspeople spin tales of how their toilets are made of gold and onyx. The truth is what they flush at the end of the pitch. Cable news talkers stand at the end of the pipe and say, Hey, everyone, it's gold and onyx.

Which is how we're in the financial collapse we are today ...