Silicon Valley Is Not a Fad
In the late two-thousands, at a party in the Mission District of San Francisco, I was discussing “Silicon Valley” with a guy who worked for a technology company. When I revealed that I lived in Mountain View, he asked me where that was.
I remember in the early two-thousands collecting guests from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and driving them south on the 101 freeway to Mountain View. The 101 is a sea of blacktop flanked by walls of concrete. “This is Silicon Valley!” I said proudly. “But where is everything?” my guests asked, confused. Silicon Valley doesn’t have the sights of San Francisco: no Golden Gate Bridge, no Palace of Fine Arts, no Presidio, usually not even a view of the Bay. Silicon Valley is just one big, very spread-out office park embedded in the sprawling suburbia of greater San Jose.
If you hunt for them, you might find the nondescript office complexes of companies like Intel, Google, Facebook, and Cisco Systems. In the last few years, companies have started to construct interesting buildings, like Apple Park (the donut) or NVIDIA Endeavor, the spaceship-like, triangle-themed building that I currently work in.
Mountain View, California is in the northern part of Santa Clara County, in the San Francisco South Bay, right in the middle of what has historically been known as Silicon Valley. William Shockley opened Shockley Semiconductor Company there in 1956. In 1957, eight employees left Shockley to start a semiconductor division of Fairchild Camera and Instrument, in Sunnyvale, the city immediately south of Mountain View. This division became Fairchild Semiconductor, the company which developed the first silicon integrated circuit in 1960. Gordon E. Moore and Robert Noyce left Fairchild Semiconductor to start Intel in Mountain View in 1968. Intel is now based in Santa Clara, the city immediately south of Sunnyvale.
Google is currently headquartered in Mountain View, but was started in 1998 in Menlo Park, which is two cities to the north of Mountain View. The headquarters of Facebook is in Menlo Park, and even though it was technically founded in Cambridge, Massachusettes, it received its first round of funding after moving to Palo Alto in 2004. Palo Alto is sandwiched between Menlo Park to its immediate north and Mountain View to its immediate south. Immediately to the west of Palo Alto is the city of Stanford, the home of Stanford University, where many founders of Silicon Valley companies studied. For example, in a garage in Palo Alto in 1938, after graduating from Stanford University with degrees in electrical engineering, Bill Hewlett and David Packard started creating Hewlett-Packard. Larry Page and Sergey Brin were Ph.D. students at Stanford when they founded Google.
Mountain View is one in a string of cities running down the peninsula, from Redwood City, to Menlo Park, to Palo Alto, to Mountain View, to Sunnyvale, to Santa Clara, and finally to San Jose. Adjacent to these cities, and nestled closer to the Santa Cruz mountains, are Woodside, Stanford, Los Altos, Cupertino, Campbell, and Los Gatos. Apple was founded in Los Altos and is now headquartered in Cupertino.
So that’s where Mountain View is: in Silicon Valley, in the South Bay, which is a part of the San Francisco Bay Area.
Because I am in my mid-40s, and because I first came to the Bay Area as an engineer in my early 20s, I am able to perceive a relatively large arc of progress and change here. I was engineer long before “techies” existed. In fact, we don’t actually need new words to describe engineering, a discipline that goes back hundreds of years.
I remember the dot-com bubble in the early two-thousands. This was part of the web boom. As that wave of exponential growth popped over the threshold of invisibility, companies with no business plan or real technology were able to raise funding. The media grabbed hold of it, and everyone in the world thought that Silicon Valley was a new thing. But it was mostly about hollow companies run by charlatans, many of which were based in San Francisco (not Silicon Valley).
When that bubble burst, there was talk of the end of Silicon Valley. Little did the world at large realize that before, during, and after the dot-com bubble, Silicon Valley did its thing: exponential technology waves rise and break; new companies are formed; older companies die; and fortunes are made and lost.
Coming out of the dot-com bubble, some e-commerce companies survived and thrived, such as Amazon and eBay. While Amazon was founded and is based in Seattle, eBay has always been based in San Jose. Many less visible companies started and grew through the web boom, such as Cisco Systems, which despite its name, a name that is derived from “San Francisco”, was started at Stanford University in 1984 and now has its headquarters in San Jose.
New computer networking companies were also born and thrived through the web and e-commerce wave, such as Juniper Networks, which is based in Sunnyvale. Silicon Valley companies have been at the center of the broader technological revolution since the 1930s, and the dot-com bubble was a relatively small blip in its history.
Before the web wave there was the much longer, slower personal computer (PC) wave. This wave was created and ridden by Intel and Apple which took the baton from older semiconductor and computer companies. I arrived in Silicon Valley at the tail end of the PC wave. While it was still a start-up, I joined NVIDIA, a company which revolutionized PC computer graphics.
After the web and e-commerce wave came the app and social networking wave. I think that this technology, combined with the movie called The Social Network created an image of Silicon Valley as a place for fun and parties. According to that image, this was a place where you could come and make tons of money and party all night. The app and social media wave promised the confluence of the pragmatic success of technology with human need for social interaction.
But while Facebook or Tinder may have brought people together in the real world (or not), the true nature of Silicon Valley has never been palatable to most people. At the core of Silicon Valley is engineering, the kind that involves sitting in beige cubicles staring at computer screens all day. Over the years, those screens may have become thinner and displayed more pixels, but they still feature a command line and scrolling, monochrome text conveying error messages and warnings.
It’s not even necessary to try to make this more exciting. All the intrigue is inside the mind, in complex plans and systems, in the workings of intricate machines and beautiful hierarchies of abstraction. Bring your kid to work day doesn’t make sense in this context: the child sees only someone staring at a screen, lost in deep thought. All of the excitement is hidden in deeply nested abstract realms that can never be purchased along with a VIP bottle service.
The most sociable that engineering gets is sitting in meeting rooms and co-creating block-diagrams on whiteboards. I’ve witnessed armies of fun-loving, sociable types pour into Silicon Valley and San Francisco hoping to make a quick buck and snort something fun, only to become disenchanted after discovering that this is the land where the geek is king. In recent years, these temporary residents would write cynical articles about Silicon Valley while leaving in a huff. Meanwhile, many others have ridden wave after wave, engaged in creating technology, not getting caught up in the ephemeral fads. These are the people who love this place.
In the last few years there have been a lot of complaints about high rents and house prices. But the cost of living in Silicon Valley was unreasonably high even when I first arrived in the late nineties. Around that time, I remember seeing a joke newspaper clipping on the wall of a friend’s house in Palo Alto showing a shack for sale for millions of dollars. It was a commentary perhaps partly intended to convey to visitors from outside the Bay Area that, “we might live in what looks like an ordinary house, but we’re actually pretty rich.” This particular couple seemed to be compelled by the nouveau riche drive to telegraph their material wealth to others.
America is an archetypal melting pot of people seeking new and more prosperous lives. Silicon Valley is that archetype on steroids. Silicon Valley is richly diverse in every way, from those seeking liberation from emotional pain through polyamory to those hoping to evade death by becoming cyborgs. It’s easy to say that Silicon Valley is full of “tech bros” if that’s the cohort that you surround yourself with.
I recently read another of the many articles complaining about Silicon Valley (link at end), written by a product manager at Google. It painted an image of a place full of people focused on hacking their corporate promotions and engaging in shallow conversations peppered with tech buzzwords. Of course there are people like that here. You can find anything you want in Silicon Valley: you can find “tech bros;” you can find countless meaningless start-ups making apps that do essentially nothing; and you can find venture capitalists (VCs) throwing around millions of dollars with little discernment. I suspect that some VCs cannot smell bullshit simply because of the olfactory-desensitization caused by their own stench.
But you can also find dedicated, savvy, smart, skilled, and well-educated people from all around the world. I have friends at work (and outside work) with whom I discuss philosophy, religion, spirituality, leadership, politics, physics, and life in general. Silicon Valley is the home of innovation. This is where all ideas and approaches are welcome, even the “stupid” ones, even the “techies” and the “tech bros,” even the apps that do nothing, and even the VCs who don’t know their ass from their elbow. It’s always been this rich mix, and it always will be.
New exponential technology waves are now rising up and preparing to crest: artificial intelligence, blockchain, virtual reality, and robotics. There are many people working earnestly on developing these technologies, and, at the same time, there is the usual hype cycle. Again there is the talk of Silicon Valley and of its apparent resurgence. Again the media has been taking notice. Again the fun-seekers looking for a quick buck arrive in San Francisco by the planeload. The cycle starts over again, even though Silicon Valley is not the cycle itself.
We’ve just learned (in 2019) that Y Combinator (YC), the iconic and sometimes controversial start-up incubator, is moving from Mountain View to San Francisco, reporting that, finally perhaps, “the center of gravity for new startups has clearly shifted over the past five years [up the peninsula?].” But although YC has produced some important Silicon Valley companies, companies such as Dropbox, Airbnb, Stripe, and Reddit (all very web-centric), in my opinion it’s also incubated a lot of nonsense. Y Combinator, like Silicon Valley itself, tends to produce great innovation with a generous pinch of bullshit.