Confessions of a (tech) Deadhead

As Seagate CEO Bill Watkins gears up for a fund-raising push to house the band's archives at UC Santa Cruz, he bemoans a nascent trend toward sartorial formality.

Seagate Technology CEO Bill Watkins doesn't Twitter, but he's not big on sartorial formality either--especially when it comes to ties. You know that cliche about marching to a different drummer? In this case, it's Watkins' own drummer and that's why he grooves on the Grateful Dead.

Bill Watkins
Bill Watkins
So much so that he's one of the Silicon Valley hotshots volunteering to help the University of Santa Cruz raise money for its planned archive of Grateful Dead memorabilia.

"We've got a warehouse full of posters and letters and things," Watkins says. "We want to create a library annex, and we're going to try and raise $2 million to build it. In August, I think maybe we'll hold a big fund-raiser party somewhere in the Bay Area."

Grateful Dead

Watkins, who calls himself "a Deadhead from way back," owns a couple of the band's old guitars as well as a gold record or two, among other Grateful Dead paraphernalia. And he says he's not the only fan and collector from the ranks of Silicon Valley's managerial elite.

"You'd be surprised how many secret Deadheads there are out there," he noted.

Then again, maybe we shouldn't be that surprised considering the tech industry's counterculture wellsprings. I'm not going to cover that in detail here, but a good resource is John Markoff's "What the Dormouse Said: How the '60's Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer" does a nice job pulling the disparate strands of the story together. He offers a good explanation of how drug experimentation and rebellion against authority in the 1960s fed into the thinking of several of the key computer researchers, whose contributions to the tech canon ultimately laid the basis for the contemporary PC business.

Maybe that's why Watkins appears increasingly irritated at often finding business interlocutors--and even employees--dressing in formal attire (a no-no in the historically more casual West Coast technology community).

"It's one of my secret peeves," he says. "I showed up at a meeting the other day, and I was the only one with blue jeans on. They were all dressed up in suits. But there's another side to this. You start creating social structures within your companies where ties are becoming ways of differentiating the senior guys from middle management. It's senior management that's trying to differentiate themselves...and I don't like it much."

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