San Mateo County Times

Silicon Valley commuters take trips on the Nerd Bird

By Liz Garone

Monday September 6, 1999

SAN JOSE -- Despite the cell phones in the crooks of their necks and the laptop computers hanging from their shoulders, the dark-suited men beat everybody else down the boarding ramp. They're motivated by a single goal: entry on the Nerd Bird.

Sometimes daily, some times weekly, these commuters from Silicon Valley's myriad high-tech firms take Alaska Airline's first morning flight at 6:40 a.m. from San Jose to Seattle, aka Silicon Forest. No one knows where the Nerd Bird moniker came from, but it's more familiar to the passengers riding it than to the Alaska em ployees servicing it.

"I'm from San Jose, and you hear it all the time," said Bill Stambaugh, a telecommunications director heading up to Seattle for a mid-morning meeting. "People tell you they're taking the Nerd Bird, and you know exactly what they mean."

Like Stambaugh, most tech commuters are male, and most wear the signature un iform: a dark suit, their cell phone and a laptop. Few have luggage, and even fewer pay attention to anyone else boarding the plane. They're fixated on one thing and one thing only: getting to their favorite exit row or aisle seat and settling in.

Though computers and the Internet were supposed to make it possible to work any where, techies are apparently finding that they still need to have "face time" with their customers and co-workers.

Whether it's for a meeting at Microsoft or to visit a satel lite office, commuters between San Jose and Seattle are be coming increasingly common, according to Jack Evans, Alaska's spokesperson. To accommodate the increase in business travelers, Alaska now has eight daily nonstop flights between San Jose and Seattle.

Customer service represen tatives get to know the regu lars.

"They know us by name, we know them by name," said Mary Perez, a 12-year veteran of the ticket counter.

But, familiarity doesn't make them favorites among flight attendants.

"In general, the techies tend to be ruder than most passen gers," said one attendant, who didn't want to be named. "They want their space, they want to be left alone."

They also have special requests.

"I had a guy run out of computer batteries, and he expected us to have batteries for him," another attendant chimed in. "When he found out we didn't, he dropped the old ones into my ice bucket."

Once the regulars make their way on to the plane, they immediately settle in for the 105-minute flight north. Within seconds -- before most of the plane's passengers have even boarded -- they are seated, their seatback trays down, their laptops open and booting up Windows 98. All this despite the fact they know they'll be asked to turn them off minutes later when the flight prepares to take off.

The 737's two mid-cabin exit rows are peppered with suits and laptops. One man spreads out, using both seat back trays to hold his papers, his laptop and his precious coffee. Another jockeys for position with a nearby passenger; he scores with a row of three seats to himself.

Ten minutes into the flight -- when the announcement comes on that it's OK to use portable electronic equipment -- the coach cabin once again turns into a virtual office. Alongside the drone of the plane's engine and the idle chatter of vacationers can be heard the familiar clicketyclack of computer keys.

"Sometimes I might jump the gun a little bit," admitted a sheepish Terry Strickland, the director of marketing for busi ness software maker Chro nology Corporation. "But usually I wait."

Strickland lives in Gilroy and has been flying the Nerd Bird weekly for the past 18 months. His company is head quartered in Redmond, just down the street from Microsoft, and he works out of the San Jose satellite office.

Regulars not only know when they can bring their laptops out, they also know when to watch their backs.

"Somewhere, some time, there's going to be someone who's either a customer or a competitor," said William Dickert, northwest regional manager for Unigraphics So lutions in Santa Clara. "Gen erally, I won't open the laptop if I'm in a position others can see. Only if I can establish a buffer, then will I read e-mail."

Dickert often has to give new employees training in the art of laptop use outside the office.

"I instruct my employees that they need to be mindful of the material they read," he said. "You never know who's sitting next to you."

Not to say that there isn't any informal networking or downtime on the Nerd Bird -- especially on the return leg when people just want to unwind.

With an open seat between them, IDC's Rod Proctor and Cadence's Vamsi Rachapudi talk tech for almost the dura tion of the return flight to San Jose.

Nine rows up, White Pine Software's Peter Norona has his laptop open and stares intently at his screen, a little white ball darting around.

No e-mail or PowerPoint presentation here.

"I'm playing a round of PGA Championship Golf," Norona said.

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