Tuesday, December 03, 2013

A utopia, in her eyes

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, places, technology

Did you ever talk to someone who was full of excitement about something that didn't excite you at all? That is how I felt during and after reading Secrets of Silicon Valley: What Everyone Else Can Learn From the Innovation Capital of the World by Deborah Perry Piscione. It is odd; Ms Piscione is a good writer, she is passionate about her subject, and Silicon Valley is truly a marvelous place and state of mind. I'm not sure why it leaves me underwhelmed (not cold, mind you, but not all warm-n-fuzzy either).

I scarcely remember my early childhood in California, but I do recall the decade or so I lived there as an adult. I spent most of that in Orange County, arguably the next-best utopia after Silicon Valley. But, not liking the crowds, and preferring not to spend half a million bucks for a bungalow, I left for less populated places. I suppose I'd have enjoyed going to Stanford rather than Cal Tech (where I worked but did not matriculate) or Cal State (where I did matriculate, and graduate). I have a ton of friends there, in San Jose and Los Altos and nearby places. But I have a bigger ton of friends now, here, in the southern and western suburbs of Philadelphia. Not exactly a Silicon anything, but it is where I've spent the longest stretch of my life yet, coming up on 20 years. I've retired here, so I reckon another 20 is in the works, God willing.

But we are supposed to be talking about Silicon Valley. The core of its appeal is twofold: Stanford University and nearly perfect weather. (Aside: depends on how you define 'perfect'. I prefer enough rainfall so water doesn't have to be imported.) The ideals set forth at the University's founding and further developed over the decades since have resulted in a nearly perfect climate for entrepreneurship. Somehow, the California legislature agreed, and onerous laws seen in other US states do not exist there. However, when you have a lot of money chasing the usual amount of goods, prices rise. Land along "Investors' Row" on Sand Hill row can cost up to $144 per square foot (the land, not the structures), or nearly $6.3 million per acre. And I thought land was high here, at a quarter million an acre! Imagine paying $750,000 for a 5,000 sq ft lot. And there is no house on it yet! (I live on a 16,000 sq ft lot, valued at $90,000, under a house of modest value, say twice that of the land.) Of course, Sand Hill is commercial, but commercial real estate in this area isn't much over 30% more than residential, for undeveloped land. I certainly hope residential land there is less than a million for a ¼ acre lot!

Well, I suppose if I'd become an internet millionaire, I wouldn't complain about such prices. The amenities are surely attractive. You really can water ski or surf in the morning and snow ski before nightfall. The eateries are nonpareil. There is usually enough gentle wind, in the right direction to keep SF smog going somewhere else. (Another aside. Traveling westward some years ago, as we descended to land in Salt Lake City, I saw it was smog-bound. Flying out westward an hour later, I saw that the smog was flowing through the mountain passes from the west. It covered all of that part of Nevada we flew over. Then I saw it coming over Cajon Pass and others as we approached LAX. It was LA smog, covering a third of the country! SF smog can get as dense, but is not nearly so voluminous.)

The key to Silicon Valley's success is the mind set. Based on the Stanford ethos – if the school wants a student, its huge endowment ensures they can attend for free, but if they don't want you, all the money in the world won't get you in – there is an egalitarian spirit there that ensures almost anyone with an idea to pitch can get some attention, however brief, from a venture capitalist or investment angel. Your idea better be good, but you won't get brushed off just because you don't have a PhD from, say, Georgetown or Harvard, which is what it takes to get to talk to a VC in DC or NYC.

It takes three kinds of people to make a venture a success: Openers, those with the good ideas and a fair notion of how they might be carried out; Closers, those who know how to complete a task once begun; and Producers, the ones you can hire who will hit the ground running and take the Opener's idea and ideals, and develop them to the point that the market-oriented Closers can induce folks to part with cash. A Silicon Valley culture brings these together in abundance, and provides the mental framework in which they can work together without mutual antagonism.

That last phrase is why Bill Gates is a hero of mine, and Steve Jobs is not. Jobs was a jerk, and managed to antagonize, or exile, everyone who didn't agree with him about nearly everything. Bill Gates knows that if two people agree on everything, one of them is redundant. He hired for variety as much as for talent. Though Microsoft is based in Seattle rather than San Jose or thereabouts, it has connections there, and it embodies the Silicon Valley ethos. It is nice to have the surf-n-ski climate and so forth, but it is the quality of mind and openness to the tremendous variety of human thought, that makes an enterprise successful.

Now, that excites me more than the rest, and deserves stronger billing in this book. So, underwhelmed I may be, but I declare it is a book well worth reading, particularly by anyone who might wind up in the Valley someday, or is there but directionless, or someone in one of the other places seeking to replicate its success.

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