It's Not Just Lunch!

You know how it is. Some programmer geeks sneak into a corporate cafeteria to eat free food and meet other programmer geeks. Then those geeks start sneaking into other corporate cafeterias for lunch, and they tell more geeks, who sneak into more lunches. Pretty soon those corporations catch on and are happy about it — the tech sector, after all, is an employee’s market right now, and free burritos are a small price to pay for getting talented geeks in the crosshairs of your laser sights — and soon the geeks have given the whole endeavor a name, Lunch 2.0, and a slogan: “We really want to eat your lunch.”

Before the cupcakes, but immediately after the chicken and black beans at a recent Santa Monica iteration of the Lunch 2.0 phenomenon, a guy got up on a chair — he was a tech company CEO, presumably — and said that he was hiring Perl coordinators, and project managers and “anybody else who is just generally awesome, or who is looking to do B-to-C, or paradigm-shifting work.” Our host was ThisNext.com, a social networking/shopping site, and its Third Street Promenade offices were filled to capacity with hundreds of people who moved around the room as if massaged by a giant invisible hand. You had time enough only for bite-size bits of conversation.

“Search engine optimization is more of an art than a science,” one man told me as I swirled to shake hands with a guy in shorts and a baseball cap.

“So, do you do programming?” I asked him.

“Define ‘programming.’?”

“Do you go to a lot of these events?”

“Define ‘these events.’?”

Definitions are necessary when you are power lunching with computer nerds. “Networking,” can mean shaking hands, smiling and talking shop, but it can also mean connecting one computer to another computer and helping those computers understand each other. “Speaking” can happen between people and between computers, or between people and computers. And in Los Angeles, which invented the Hollywood types who invented the power lunch, “programming” can very easily mean the stuff you watch on television.

Very soon, so much business-card trading and hand shaking and head nodding and smiling had whipped us into a networking frenzy. I collided with a guy who couldn’t manage to have lunch with ThisNext’s founder even though they worked, literally, next door to each other. Then with a venture capitalist who was looking to connect with some startup guys. Then with some startup guys who were looking to connect with venture capitalists. “You may not know or have met someone you’d want to hire, but they may have met someone who’s met someone you’d maybe want to hire,” a man told me before plunging back into the swirl.

“If you get to talking with someone and you enjoy the conversation, you can spend 30 minutes with them,” a former chemist turned tech entrepreneur advised. “But if not, just spend a few seconds getting their business card and move on.” I got his business card and moved on.

Later, after I’d made a few hundred friends, I spoke with a guy whose job was to explain the culture of American corporate employees to Japanese corporate employees, and vice versa. “The Japanese don’t understand why Americans want to go home to their families,” he said. “They don’t understand why someone would want to leave after an 11-hour workday.” He was in the process of helping Sony Japan speak with Sony USA. He handed me his business card with a little bow, gingerly pinching the corners, and a small group of us practiced bowing and pinching and handing each other our business cards.

Eventually, I slipped into the air-conditioned space in the back, where several guys who had broken ranks were hiding out. “Those aren’t programmers out there,” said Jason, one of ThisNext’s programmers, who was playing tennis on a Wii with ThisNext’s intern, also named Jason. “They’re too extroverted. Programmers are introverted and hang out on the fringes. They’d all be in here playing on the Wii.”

“Don’t you think that the next Bill Gates is out there?” I said. Earlier, I’d met someone who represented investors who were looking for interesting ways to spend $200 million. When I’d said that I could think of a few interesting ways to spend it, he took my business card and moved on.

“Bill Gates was a brilliant businessman. Who’s out there right now? Businessmen. So, yes, he could be,” said Sanjay Gupta, a social networking programmer. Gupta reminisced about having been part of the original dot-com bomb. He’d been employed at a company for six months before it folded, before people started carting out the desks and chairs.

“Gates was a programmer, but he got famous because of his business acumen,” said programmer Jason, adjusting his Indiana Jones hat. “John Carmack is a brilliant video-game programmer, but you don’t hear about him in the world.”

“Who’s John Carmack?”

“Exactly.”

After exchanging hugs with Lunch 2.0 organizer Andrew Warner, I left. At the bus stop, I passed two bums shaking hands. “How you doing?” said one to the other, who was grinning. “There it is. There’s that best smile in the world.”

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