It’s just after dark on November 16, 1999, and about 450 of Texas’ modern-day wildcatters—the men and women of the Austin high—tech scene-are crammed onto a terrace overlooking the Umlauf Sculpture Garden. Moving shoulder to shoulder through the throng, they slurp Absolut with grapefruit juice, bat their eyelashes, and swap business cards. I ask the woman at the door to point out high-tech consultant Harry Pape, the event’s 32-year-old organizer, and she does: That would be Mr. Tall, Dark, and Animated near the bar. He is immediately recognizable as the Hef of the party. Girls are waving to him playfully; guys are slapping his back or giving him a rough half-hug, half-handshake. As one of the representatives from the evening’s sponsor, TFA/Leo Burnett Technology Group, walks by, Pape points out a lipstick mark on the guy’s cheek. “Really? Great!” he says with a laugh, grazing his jaw with his finger before he’s pulled back into the fray.
This is the High-tech Happy Hour, and while it resembles a more subdued version of the gothic orgy in Eyes Wide Shut, it is actually the meeting place for recruiters, potential dealmakers, millionaires trying to keep in touch with their “people,” and twenty- and thirtysomethings looking to excuse themselves briefly from eighty-hour work weeks. (Eighty hours a week in slacker country? There oughta be a law.) The HTHH meets each month at a different Austin location, with a different corporate underwriter each time and a $5 door charge benefiting a local charity (the first drink is free). But networking, not fundraising, has been the point since Pape began putting on these dos in July 1998. Back then he was an Austin-based marketing consultant for the San Francisco company Open24.com, and he was watching with frustration as high-tech company after high-tech company set up shop in Austin, fragmenting the scene. Pining for the well-oiled networking machine he’d seen on his trips to Silicon Valley, he took it upon himself to pull together an intimate gathering of techies, and his e-mail invitation list quickly exploded to more than one thousand. To keep the thing from growing out of control, he required that potential partygoers ask to be asked. “Sometimes people will send me an e-mail and say, ‘Hey, could you add these twenty people?’” Pape explains. “And I say, ‘No, those twenty people have to write or call me.’”
One reason that the HTHH has taken off is that a lot of new money is making its way around Austin, courtesy of the many initial public offerings in 1998 and 1999. I’m told there are about fifty millionaires in attendance tonight. One of them, a dark-featured thirtyish man in a black leather jacket, explains that he’s made all the money he needs but has come back “for old time’s sake.” He introduces me to his blond Lithuanian girlfriend, who fills her mouth with a sandwich, pretends she doesn’t understand English, then turns to him and speaks the language perfectly. This amuses her boyfriend, and they excuse themselves. Elsewhere on the terrace, the high fiving and giggling reach a fever pitch around Pape, because a few hours earlier he, along with the 99 other original employees of the Internet chat software maker iChat, made a killing when the company (now called Quintus) went public. “I’m not a millionaire,” Pape says, “but let’s say that I’ll sleep a lot better tonight than I did last night.” IPO gloating has become a regular feature of the HTHH. “I’ve noticed that it has changed those people a little bit,” Pape says. “They’re out buying million-dollar homes.”
The party started at six, and by six-thirty people are already spilling outside into the sculpture garden. Dozens of kids who work at start-ups appear out of the dark parking lot slap on name tags that read “?.com” to signify businesses too new to have names. Newcomers saunter out of their haphazardly parked Saturns and Ferraris, pass the off-duty cop moonlighting as a crossing guard on the road out front, and squeeze their way to the bar. The designers stand out: A guy with wavy, chin-length hair and Buddy Holly glasses wanders through the crowd; a girl with a pixie haircut, a feather boa, and a black Morticia Addams dress drapes her arms around a blushing companion. The tech guys are dressed in striped, button-down shirts—their studly best—while the business types are in their khakis and blazers. The women are mostly in Ann Taylor—esque coordinates.
I keep thinking that a meeting of upscale department store salesclerks might not look much different: The taste on display is nice but not especially high fashion or boutiquey; the riches are still too nouveau, it seems, for anyone to have spent them on anything really expensive. I ask myself what’s missing, and the answer springs to mind right away: Where are the classic pigeon-toed computer geeks, the guys who dress and act like the Lone Gunmen on The X-Files? The truth may be out there, but the nerds aren’t—at least not tonight.
Around seven, blues singer Malford Milligan and his band start to play. A person enters the cluster where I’ve been standing. Eyes go to the name tag and then the chattering begins. “Anyone who says they’re going to stay with one company for more than a year is lying,” one woman tells me. Heads nod. Others confirm that a typical tech job will last two years, tops—and once it’s over, you’d better know who’s doing what if you want a piece of the action. Two men in suits lean together to trade business cards-you can almost see their lips move as strategies for recalling names are subtly employed. One woman describes how she came to the HTHH a few months ago, picked up as many business cards as she could, followed up with résumés, and got hired. Others haven’t been so successful: A stocky Filipino man who works for USWeb/CKS remembers the day he saw a fax coming through his machine that read, “I don’t know his name, but I talked to a solid-looking Asian guy at the High-tech Happy Hour who said I should apply here.”
As the music gets louder, strangers start talking within inches of each other’s fuzzy earlobes, practically shouting domain names-“Deja!” “drkoop!”-over the ruckus. They begin bumping into one another as they reach across tables of food and accidentally smacking each other upside the head as they tell stories that apparently require a lot of hand waving and touching and … cuddling? Suddenly I’m in the middle of meatmarket.com. I’d heard that the schmooze gives way to the booze around nine, when the pairing off begins to take place, but the baser instincts seem to be kicking in early. One guy gets a discouraged look on his face when I bring the conversation back to him. “Aw,” he asks. “Am I still being interviewed?” (There goes my free drink.) People who’ve attended past HTHHs acknowledge the Love Connection aura, though they’re hesitant to talk about it. Most of the first-timers don’t seem to be aware of it yet. Or they’re oblivious. Or they’re lying.
Members of the core HTHH group circle around to whisper who has a crush on whom and who knows it, but from all the eyes that roll, it seems the secrets aren’t as guarded as the keepers might think. The object of one man’s affection seems to sense what they’re whispering as she approaches and quickly does an about-face. Two guys walk into the women’s restroom because the men’s is too busy; the girls inside shrug it off. By this time, all are joyful, several sheets to the wind. Gen X’ers who have to act like all-knowing adults during the day are acting more like, well, Gen X’ers. If you’re wondering whether the aftermath of the party results in its share of hide-your-head-in-the-sand regrets, count the granules: One woman says that co-workers have admitted the morning after an HTHH that their drunken enthusiasm led to a crudely constructed business deal, prompting a collective, “You did what?!?”
By the end of the night, some pairs who’ve been waiting for their third wheels to spin off head for a stroll into the farther reaches of the romantically lit garden; the dollar signs in their eyes melt into valentines. The hors d’oeuvres table is left with plates of crumbs. Singles start making plans for late dinner, grouping up, and heading out.
A straggler who is here for the first time tells me it has been strictly a networking opportunity for him. He is offended that I would accuse him of staying past nine for any social reason. I note his sincerity. A few minutes later, I hear two girls gabbing in the women’s restroom: “He’s cute, isn’t he? Well, in a kind of preppy way?”