(FORTUNE Magazine) – Nerd n. (1951): an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person.

Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, needs a rewrite. In the Nineties, people pride themselves on being called nerd or geek. Surf the World Wide Web, wear eyeglasses with thick, black plastic frames and polyester pants that bunch in the front, sport hair that has but a passing acquaintance with shampoo, and, just like that, you're one of the elect.

Twenty years ago, a nerd was a loser. "It was mostly the nerds, weirdoes, and outcasts who built this industry," says Vern Raburn, who opened a computer store in Los Angeles in 1976. "None of us had anything to do on a Friday night."

Much has changed. Vern got a date, and even got married. He now helps billionaire Paul Allen buy companies and flies his own vintage airliner for fun. What was a cottage industry has matured into an economic powerhouse that employs hundreds of thousands. Many are ordinary folks--people who understand the purpose of a comb. The first nontechies to arrive were PR types who looked good in a trade-show booth. Now the industry includes, indeed requires, people like David Beirne, a powerful people broker who can't code to save his life, and Mary Meeker, a security analyst who takes in the industry from the 14th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper. It even welcomes regular Joes like Joe Liemandt, an Austin entrepreneur who sells software because it's a darn good business. Well, golly!

Hackers still drive the industry, but today's superprogrammer, personified here by Peter Barrett, is a nerd inside with a good haircut and an Armani suit outside. He glad-hands venture capitalists with ease; but when things get tough, he reverts to "occupational programming therapy" to blow out the stress. Another Jolt cola, please.


The success of this brother and sister illustrates one of the most appealing qualities of the software culture--like a functional family, this industry has room for all types. Harvie and Kc Branscomb do not look, act, or think alike, but each has carved out a software niche.

Kc, 40, is one of the most successful women in a business dominated by men. In her 20 years in the industry, she's done everything from programming to marketing for companies like Tandem and Lotus. There, as a senior vice president of business development, she helped orchestrate the $3.5 billion Lotus-IBM deal. Now she claims to be retired but admits she sits on the boards of six companies. A rider since she was 10 years old, Kc would much rather discuss her four horses, including Carlos, the American thoroughbred that graces the photo above. Kc keeps the animals in stables behind her elegant home in Woodside, California.

Brother Harvie, 43, enjoys a more ethereal success. A self-styled technophilosopher, he works only on projects that capture his fancy. These days he's brainstorming at Sun Microsystems' Aspen, Colorado, think tank, helping a Japanese company distribute U.S.-made software, and designing a Web page for a 68-year-old Memphis man who says he was Elvis's best friend when the King was a 13-year-old lad. Since getting his MS in electrical engineering from MIT in 1979, Harvie has helped design everything from systems that test hearing to music synthesizers. Uninterested in acquiring patents, he has received little money for his work--instead, he seems rewarded by the opportunity to indulge his endless fascination with all things digital.

The brother and sister duo did not come by their genius accidentally. Their father, Lewis, was chief scientist at IBM from 1972 to 1987 and is now a professor at the Kennedy School of Government. Their mother, Anne, is a leading communications lawyer and author of an influential book entitled Who Owns Information? If that's not enough to make you climb your family tree and jump from the highest branch, their grandfather Harvie, 101, is a former Rhodes scholar who served as chancellor of Vanderbilt University.


Tim Berners-Lee is a celebrity in spite of himself. Once upon a time he was a software engineer with a simple goal: to design an online workspace where he and his physicist colleagues in a Geneva research lab could share data and ideas. What he invented was so good that people all around the world latched on to his technology. The result is called the World Wide Web.

His reward? In the six years since he invented it, the Web--with its tens of thousands of home pages--has mutated into something he doesn't recognize. "The Web we have now, by comparison to the original conception, is just one great television channel," says Berners-Lee. "You click, click, click, click. I don't call that interaction."

What's more, Berners-Lee, 41, now finds himself a media darling. He is hailed as the "patron saint of the Web." Reporters want to know about his family. They want to get inside his head.

It is just a bit of a bother to the British-born, Oxford-educated scientist. All he really wants to do is build the kind of Web he had in mind from the start. While others reap billions from his creation, he earns a perfectly adequate paycheck as director of the World Wide Web Consortium, an outfit headquartered at MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science in Cambridge.

W3C, as the group is called, is funded by some 150 companies, including IBM, Microsoft, Netscape Communications, and Sun Microsystems. Berners-Lee works with engineers from those companies and research scientists from universities around the world. His goals are simple but ambitious. First, he wants to make the Web a more interactive place, where users from all over can do things like embed software programs in E-mail and collaborate on projects in real time. Second, he wants to ensure that no single company owns key technologies that could make the Web costly or difficult to use.

Of course, the same companies that fund W3C are trying to kill each other in the marketplace for software that takes advantage of the Internet. Interviewed at his small office overlooking the MIT campus, Berners-Lee allows that he has dealt with this kind of conflict before: "I was approached by several major software companies that wanted me to work for them, but I didn't want the Web to become proprietary."

Then the slender, fast-talking Brit adds, "If I had a thousand dollars for every time a reporter asked me if I ever thought about cashing out, I would be a millionaire." He speaks with not a trace of regret.


At the heart of the software industry a few supercoders reign, hackers with programming talent to burn. Australian-born Peter Barrett is one: When he was just 17, he invented an encryption technology so tough to crack that the National Security Agency won't let him export the stuff. Then he created Cinepak, an algorithm that made it a lot easier to compress digital video. Then, at age 25, Barrett got a couple of venture capital firms to pony up $4 million for Rocket Science, a company he founded to make Hollywood-quality videogames that would run on any platform, from Nintendo to the PC. Two years later, after losing an internal power struggle, Barrett left the company.

Did failure cramp his style? Hardly. The 28-year-old millionaire is now "entrepreneur in residence" at Mohr Davidow, a venture capital firm in Menlo Park, California. That means Barrett gets a six-figure salary to drink the firm's coffee and think big thoughts. It's probably a wise investment. The software industry, like professional sports and Hollywood, is propelled by superstars. As Barrett himself explains, "If you have an entrepreneurial bent, the likelihood that you'll come up with another great idea is high."

Barrett's an idea factory. Before he joined Mohr Davidow full-time, he "committed some software occupational therapy" and created a Web browser that he licensed to three companies. He is also toying with the idea of "fixing" the next version of the Macintosh operating system and giving the code to Apple for free, "just so they won't make another mistake."

While he's thinking up the Next Big Thing, Barrett's having a good time doing things like shooting pool and driving racecars. He wants to take some time off to direct movies, study French literature, and write a book about his grandfather, who defused Japanese bombs and land mines in New Guinea during World War II. And someday, Peter might even earn a college degree. "The idea originally was to come to Silicon Valley, make enough money, and then attend Stanford University to study things that hum and go bang," says Barrett, who left Sydney University after attending for one year. "But I seem to be having too much fun on step two of the process."


Ruth Hennigar is a punk at heart. When she began her career in 1981 as a programmer at Bell Northern Research, her personal dress code consisted of black lipstick, white nail polish, and a purple mohawk. Six years later, for her first day of work at Apple Computer, she cut her hair in a bi-level style and dyed the shorter half the colors of the company logo. Call it corporate loyalty with a twist.

These days Hennigar, 36, wears her hair a blond that can be found in nature. "It's a lot of work to maintain pink hair," she explains. Besides, the natural look befits a corporate executive, which is what Hennigar, following a typical Silicon Valley career path, has become. At Sun Microsystems she managed the 75 members of the Java Products Group, which works on Sun's hot new programming language. In May she moved on to OnLive! Technologies, a startup.

It's her boldest move yet. Besides leaving the cocoon of a $6-billion-a-year company with 15,000 employees for an outfit of minimal revenues and just 40 people, she's quitting Sun at a time when Java seems poised to play a key role in the evolution of the Internet. The success of OnLive!, on the other hand, is anything but assured. The company builds 3-D virtual worlds that enable people with a microphone hooked to their PC and a modem connection to hold conversations and exchange insults remotely, while inhabiting cartoonlike avatars on one another's screens. Eventually this technology could make online chat rooms as exciting--or as tedious, depending on your point of view--as a party at your neighbors'. OnLive! is well funded and has recruited a number of top managers, but this speculative market is also being pursued by the like of Microsoft and America Online.

Polished executive that she has become, Hennigar betrays no nervousness about her new job. The risk must appeal to her punk edge. Besides, if things get really rough, she's got ways--downhill skiing, a ride on a friend's motorcycle, a drive in her own red convertible Porsche 911--to ease her stress. "I like to go much too fast," she says with a wicked grin.


If you're flying east from San Francisco and you spot a traveler in business class with a blanket over her head, don't get spooked. She won't hurt you. It's just the only time Mary Meeker, Morgan Stanley's new-media analyst, gets any sleep. "Friends worry that on long flights I'm not getting enough oxygen," she says.

Meeker likes viewing the world from 30,000 feet. When she's not flying, her vantage is high in a Manhattan skyscraper. A longtime computer aficionado--she bought her first PC in 1982--Meeker thinks she benefits by staying detached from the industry she follows. "When you are immersed, it can be harder to see what is real and what isn't," she says.

Recently her stock-picking vision has been 20/20. Last December she recommended a portfolio for investors looking to play the Internet: America Online, Ascend Communications, Cascade Communications, Cisco Systems, and Intuit. (Morgan Stanley had helped all five raise cash, either through IPOs or secondary offerings.) As of May 14, the portfolio was up 58.97%, vs. 15.79% for the Pacific Stock Exchange technology index, which tracks 100 stocks.

Meeker has had nothing but that kind of success for years. Last summer she helped Morgan Stanley lead the Netscape IPO, the event that kicked off Netmania. (She didn't include Netscape in her portfolio because it was then a volatile, expensive stock after investors had bid it sky-high.) In March she became a celebrated author: While analysts' research reports are usually as dry as dust, HarperCollins published one she wrote with fellow analyst Chris DePuy as a 287-page softcover book entitled The Internet Report. Like Meeker herself, the book is funny and direct. The book has sold around 17,500 copies, according to the publisher.

Managing all this good fortune leaves the 35-year-old Meeker little time for the things she loves, like in-line skating, biking, and spending weekends at her country house in Amagansett, a small town on New York's Long Island. Instead, the pace she keeps makes "home" a relative term. "Gate 64 at the American Airlines terminal at San Francisco International Airport is my other house," she says.


Joe Liemandt is an entrepreneurial machine unencumbered by a need to seem cool. The 27-year-old founder and CEO of Trilogy Development Group, in Austin, Texas, looks and acts like an earnest, slightly aged fraternity brother: clean-cut, preppy even, with a tendency to say "goll" or "holy cow" when agitated. At the office he uses a card table for a desk; at home the principal decorative touch in his living room is a collection of airplane liquor bottles (full).

Liemandt readily admits that he's utterly unhip. At first blush, his company seems pretty bland too. Trilogy makes software called Selling Chain, which lets companies use computers to configure orders for a range of products from airplanes to shoes to telephone switches, and perform other complex tasks. The nuts-and-bolts style is consistent with Liemandt's ambition to, as he puts it, "change the way things are bought and sold around the world." His clients are big corporations that can pay millions for a Trilogy makeover, and Liemandt figures big corporations appreciate a little blandness in their vendors.

Joe knows corporate: He grew up corporate. His late father, Gregory, worked for Jack Welch when Welch was running General Electric's components and materials group in the mid-Seventies. "I'm not afraid of big business," says Liemandt. "I love big business." And big business seems to love him. Some 100 companies have bought Trilogy software--including GE, Boeing, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM.

Despite the corporate emphasis, Liemandt goes out of his way to keep Trilogy an interesting and enjoyable place to work. The company has a couple of water-ski boats for employee use, bonuses frequently involve expensive sports cars, and two Christmases ago Liemandt took Trilogy's entire staff--just over 100 people at the time--to Hawaii. "Every dime I spend is on people," he says.

In pop-culture terms, Liemandt is the diametric opposite of the Dustin Hoffman character in the 1967 movie The Graduate. (For one thing, he isn't a graduate: He dropped out of Stanford during his senior year.) He is not likely to slack off, road-trip, and leave the establishment behind--certainly not without his laptop and a clean pair of khakis. When asked what kind of company he'd be running if he'd started out 30 years ago, Liemandt pauses. "Goll," he says, "good question." Then, unprompted and in a tone that would have driven Dustin Hoffman nuts, he says, "Plastics." --James Aley


Vern Raburn was born a merchant. Some kids put up lemonade stands; Raburn, age 7, built a miniature golf course and charged the other kids in the neighborhood a dime to play 18 holes.

Raburn, 45, has been building enterprises ever since. In 1976 he opened a computer store in Los Angeles. Three years later he joined a small startup called Microsoft, where he began to develop the retail distribution scheme that would allow the company to enter the consumer market.

After butting heads too many times with his good friend Bill Gates--"We were two alpha males pissing on each other, and there wasn't enough room for both of us"--Raburn left, sans stock. (He had to return it, he says, or Microsoft's airtight noncompete clause would have left him pretty much unable to do anything but sell Avon door to door.)

Raburn was hardly grounded. In 1982 he helped Lotus Development launch 1-2-3, one of the industry's first megahits. He then made millions by taking public Symantec, a company that produced graphics software packages. For a while he tried venture capitalism, but found funding companies, as opposed to building them, "too voyeuristic." So in 1990 he created Slate, a pen-based computing outfit he sold to Compaq in 1994.

Raburn now heads up the Paul Allen Group, a holding company that plots strategy for the 21 high-tech companies owned either wholly or in part by the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft. "The need for 'grayheads' in this industry is greater than ever," says Raburn. "Many of the CEOs who report to me are first-time heads of companies. My experience can help them get unstuck."

Wealthier than he ever imagined he would be, Raburn is a grayhead at play. His passions are his wife, Dottie, technology, and airplanes--Vern now owns five of them. The pride of his fleet is a Lockheed Constellation, a post-World War II four-engine airliner that he flies to air shows around the country. This passion even relieves the tedium of a commute that would seem an insurmountable obstacle: Vern lives in Arizona, 1,108 miles from his office in Bellevue, Washington. That's OK: Raburn just flies himself north, far above the fray the rest of us endure. Truly, a revenge of the nerd.


"My job is to get inside your head so that I understand what are your motivations, what are your fears, what do you like about what you're doing, what do you not like about what you're doing..." David Beirne is not a therapist. The 32-year-old is a headhunter for technology companies; by all accounts, he is the best in the business.

Zeroing in on motivation seems to work for Beirne. He brought Jim Barksdale to Netscape from McCaw Cellular. He coaxed former Lotus Development head Jim Manzi out of retirement to run a Pittsburgh startup called Industry.Net. In 1993 the 6-foot-6 headhunter even managed to persuade Robert Herbold, a Procter & Gamble lifer, to take the COO position at Microsoft.

Beirne and co-founder Charles Ramsey opened for business on October 19, 1987--Black Monday, the day of the stock market crash. Since then, everything's been looking up. Ramsey/Beirne's revenues are "well in excess of $10 million," says Beirne, who's the majority owner. With clients like Bill Gates, Craig McCaw, and Steve Case, Beirne has become a fixture in the industry. When he makes a placement, Beirne typically gets one-third of the executive's total annual cash compensation, including bonuses, at the new job--unless the exec was making more at his old firm, in which case Beirne gets a third of his annual take there. Beirne and his team also have equity stakes in several of the companies for which they do searches, including cable-modem purveyor @Home and a Jim Clark startup called Healthscape.

Power brokers like this usually maneuver from a control center at the heart of the industry. Beirne works 3,000 miles due east of his client base, in an office in Ossining, New York--better known as the home of Sing Sing prison. Beirne grew up in the next town over, Croton-on-Hudson; when he drives around in his Chevy Blazer, he rolls down the window to wave to neighbors. He and his wife, Terry, live just a dozen houses away from the modest house where he grew up.

The couple met when David was 12. He asked Terry to marry him nine years later, saying he'd do whatever it took. That's why he works in Ossining. He has even used his professional skills to help his personal life. After having a biological son, Matt, in 1989, he and Terry decided to adopt two years later. Rather than going through conventional agencies, they placed 1-800 ads in newspapers around the country. They found their son, Tim, in just five weeks. "Best search I ever did," says Beirne.