All's Dell

So long to slackers and laid-back lifestyles. Now that cash-rich techies have taken over, can Austin survive the great digital divide?

Purple Plymouth Prowler purring. Purple hair riffling in the breeze. Nate Hess motors away on his lunch break from the hottest company in the hottest industry in one of the hottest economies in America. Pedestrians' heads snap as Hess wheels his vivid retro roadster to a parking place near Manuel's, a noisy eatery near the heart of the burgeoning central high-tech business district in Austin. They'd be purple too, with jealousy, if they knew the 36-year-old Wisconsin native's other car is a $200,000 Lamborghini Diablo -- also purple -- the gull-winged quintessence of automotive exotica.

But the real envy-generator, at least among savvy Austinites, would be the knowledge that Hess was one of the first 40 employees of Vignette Corp. The almost unbelievably high-flying Internet software startup has made millionaires of him and hundreds of his co-workers. Vignette, a developer of software that runs corporate Web sites, had a steep slide in share values from a high of nearly $300 earlier this year. But who cares? The stocks are still trading at many times the $19 each was worth when the company went public in March 1999. Considering the two stock splits and the pennies-a-share options for early-stage employees, it's enough to make him worth seven figures at minimum.

"I consider myself comfortably well-off," Hess says of finances. He's got an address in the tony Brown Building lofts downtown, an ability to indulge his penchant for purple everything -- he says a salesman in the Saks in San Francisco's Union Square has standing orders to set aside every violet-hued garment that comes in -- and an easy insouciance with which he wears his six hoop earrings and beard (not purple) among the hip Manuel's crowd. Those make forceful arguments for his prosperity. But money, as Hess -- and everyone else getting filthy rich in the giddy gold rush of Austin's tech boom -- maintains, isn't what it's really all about.

Nate Hess loaded up with loot and a flashy car after his move from California.
John Anderson
Nate Hess loaded up with loot and a flashy car after his move from California.

The fact is, Hess is sitting where everybody in Texas or almost anyplace else would like to be. He's working with leading-edge technology in a city that resides in the top five of a half dozen published best-of lists. He is also a gracious gentleman, willing to let a reporter pick up the check for lunch without a fuss. If not for the eggplant locks, just dyed at the city's trendy Fringe Salon, Hess would be a poster boy for the everyman Internet millionaire -- not a business visionary like Michael Dell, nor a prescient programmer like Vignette founder Ross Garber.

No, Hess is just a kid who grew up in Chicago and Philadelphia and got a bachelor's in computer science from Penn State, a school known more for football dynasties than high tech. His career started at Intel in Phoenix. In 1989 he joined Oracle Corp., now the world's second-largest software company behind Microsoft, and began job-hopping through several other startups and established companies. While working for a Campbell, California, startup in the early 1990s, he began coming to Austin regularly on business. He liked what he saw.

"You work hard, you play hard," Hess says, nodding so that his hoops jingle gently. "Sixteen-hour days doing a new build, and go out and party on Sixth Street at night." In February 1997 he solidified his Austin connection by becoming Vignette's West Coast interface between customers and software developers. Last September he left Aptos, a famously beautiful community between Monterey Bay and the Santa Cruz Mountains, to become field technical director at Vignette's headquarters on South Mopac Expressway.

He knew almost immediately it was a good move. His first night in town, he and his Vignette colleagues went out for a late dinner at Sullivan's, a downtown steak house redolent of cigars, starched shirts and overheated expense accounts. The next night it was Miguel's, a dining/drinking/dancing establishment, just a few blocks down Colorado from his new loft. Next night: Stubbs Bar-B-Q, an Austin establishment renowned for good music, cold beer and brisket smoked for 16 hours. On his third morning in Austin, Hess recalls thinking, "This is great. This is a life."

The Austin metropolitan area is a life for 1.17 million people these days, many of whom are dazzled by the changes wrought on the city as a result of the technology boom. Electronic message boards are clogged with virulent posts proclaiming the city the new promised land, the old wasteland and almost every shade in between. They moan about the bad traffic and worse public transit, the rising rents and the mushrooming Dell Computer. "Hate Austin and hate Capital Metro let Dell have the freakin place, hate Dell too," vents one 36-year-old business manager. A Dell employee counters, "Dell will make me RICH so don't blame My company! You just need a new job!"

There's no denying one thing: Austin is now a high-tech town. Angelou Economic Advisors, an Austin research firm, says technology is the region's largest employer, accounting for a fifth of the 625,000 jobs. Those 125,000 technology industry employees work at more than 2,000 companies. Eight of those firms, in addition to Vignette, went public last year, and the rest absorbed some $740 million in venture capital. The city's job growth rate of 5.3 percent placed it well ahead of any other major Texas city, and among the top five nationally. "Austin is the envy of communities worldwide who now visit the city and study its success," trumpets the 2000-2001 report on the city by Angelou, which, by the way, counts Dell Computer among its clients.

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