By Ann Marsh
July 3, 2000
HADI PARTOVI WAS HEAD OF PROGRAMMING IN Microsoft's Internet Explorer
unit when he heard about a Netscape conference on browsers. As much as
he wanted to go -- this was 1997, when the browser war was heating up --
Netscape was blocking admission to anyone from Microsoft. So Partovi did
what he has done many times when the situation demanded it: He assumed
the identity of his twin brother, Ali, who at the time was working at a
small software company -- and walked right in.
Hey, you do what you gotta do. "I was a spy," Partovi smiles.
You've heard how incestuous the Internet world is. That's nothing compared
with life for these two 27-year-old Iranian immigrant brothers who go about
their business, exploiting their twinness into fabulously successful high-tech
careers. They even plot their career moves so that while one is in a high-risk
job the other is at a big, safe company. "We manage our careers as
a duo," Hadi says. A bit, uh, duplicitous? We've seen worse.
The brothers started impersonating each other in school, where they
would sub for each other in class. The twins got undergraduate degrees
and masters in science (in computer science) from Harvard. Ali helped his
brother out by standing in for him at an interview with MicroStrategy on
the East Coast, so that Hadi could interview the same day at Microsoft
out West. "I know his curriculum vitae cold," Ali says. Apparently
so. Hadi got both jobs and wound up signing on at Microsoft.
It is not surprising that these congenial, curly-headed twins have such
intertwined lives. At age 5 they read sophisticated books like Great Expectations
side by side on the couch. Life in Tehran after the Shah of Iran was overthrown
in 1979 was a recipe for togetherness. "It was total fear, all the
time," Ali recalls. "We had no other friends." The two boys
and their parents spent hours in the basement during air raid warnings
in the Iran-Iraq war. Their father got the family out when the boys were
12. They arrived as seventh graders at a New York private school wearing
matching three-piece suits, leaping to their feet to answer questions in
class and addressing teachers as "sir." They had relied on the
Peanuts comic strip for most of their insights into American culture. "Everyone
was like, 'Who are those freaks?'" Ali says.
There was a brief time, for six months during their freshman year at
Harvard, when the brothers rebelled against twinness. They took separate
rooms. They even picked their classes separately but ended up in half of
the same ones anyway. "That made us both realize: Why fight it?"
The two became roommates and stopped trying to resist a shared destiny.
Says Ali, "It was way too difficult trying to be separate." Jointly,
they ignored their father's hopes for their careers. A theoretical nuclear
physicist, Firooz Partovi had brought a Commodore 64 computer into Iran
from Italy and started the boys on programming when they were eight. He
hoped they would apply their computer skills to a field like biophysics
or genetic engineering.
But the two left Harvard in 1994 burning to find work in some emerging
technology, like interactive television. There was one suitable position
at Microsoft and one at Oracle. "That was neat," Hadi says. "It
felt like a real competition." Hadi thrived at Microsoft, climbing
the ranks to head up programming in the Internet Explorer division. But
Ali found Oracle stifling, so he took a job at spanking new MFactory, which
was developing multimedia software. It floundered.
At the same time two friends of Hadi's tried to get him to come on as
employee number three at LinkExchange, which provides small dot-coms a
means of trading advertising space.
But Hadi didn't want to leave Microsoft before the launch of IE 3.0.
No problem. Referred by his brother, Ali took the job instead -- and soon
had to turn to his brother Hadi for help. A tide of customers was poised
to overload the small company's computer within six days -- unless all
the code could be rewritten. Ali sent chunks of programming tasks to Hadi,
who, after wrapping up his Explorer work at 2 a.m., wrote code for LinkExchange
until 4 a.m. on several occasions. "It definitely wasn't what I wanted
to be doing," Hadi half-complains.
Hadi's biggest helping hand came a little over a year later. He lobbied
Steven Ballmer to persuade Microsoft to buy his brother's company. Ballmer
bit to the tune of $265 million. "I didn't want someone like Netscape
to buy them first," Hadi says. Now Ali works at Microsoft, in its
small-business division, Bcentral.com.
Five months after the deal went through, Hadi decided it was his turn
to try something more risky. So he left Microsoft to help start Tellme
Networks, now in Mountain View, Calif., a free, telephone-based Internet
portal that users access with voice prompts. Ironically, one of Tellme's
other cofounders is Michael McCue, a Netscape veteran whom Hadi had met
at the browser conference where he was passing himself off as Ali. (Only
recently told of the caper, McCue professes to be merely amused.) Ali now
swings by Hadi's office at Tellme in a wildly painted new VW Beetle --
a splurge from the LinkExchange sale -- and acts as cheerleader, giving
seminars there on topics like Web advertising.
Hadi sometimes tries to persuade Ali to join Tellme. Then again that
might not make the most of a virtual clone. Lately Hadi is thinking about
sending Ali to impersonate him to recruit badly needed programmers. Says
Hadi, "It helps having another me."