Monday, January 25, 2016

The Talented Silicon Valley

The Silicon Valley is not an institution, which tend to be rigid. There have been several attempts to clone the Silicon Valley as an institution, for example, Sophia Antipolis in France and Tsukuba Science City in Japan, but they have not been successful, at least as compared to the impact on society that the Silicon Valley has.

The Silicon Valley is a biotope, which is relentlessly evolving. If you want an economic force like the Silicon Valley, you have to create a habitat for your own ecological system.

If we look at Silicon Valley's evolution, it started with first class educational institutions like Stanford University (est. 1891, motto "die Luft der Freiheit weht" freely following videtis illam spirare libertatis auram) and UC Berkeley (est. 1868, motto "fiat lux"), available capital, and intrapreneurial professors like Frederick Terman (1900–1982), who is credited (with William Shockley) with being the father of Silicon Valley. Terman's doctoral advisor was Vannevar Bush and his notable students included Russell and Sigurd Varian and the HP triad William Hewlett, David Packard and Bernard M. Oliver.

People are the living beings in the Silicon Valley biotope. The brightest minds are attracted and nurtured. Attraction is not accomplished with money, but the recognition and grooming of talent, where people are selected only on the basis of their ability to create insanely great products and are nurtured to fulfill their intellectual potential. In the Silicon Valley, people do not try to predict the future: they have the passion for building it.

Nurturing takes place through an intellectual climate where ideas can flow freely and people see each others as challenging colleagues rather than enemies, even when they are competitors. The open flow of ideas happens through myriad conferences, seminars, meet-ups, dojos and incubators, and even cafes. For example, adjacent to the Samsung R&D building is the famous Hacker Dojo, on the site of HP's first building (Redwood Building on 395 Page Mill Road) is the AOL incubator, and on University Avenue SAP has transformed the New Varsity Theater into Hana Haus.

For an individual, it might not be a tragedy when they are employed below their intellectual potential. The ability to accomplish tasks much faster than their co-workers will yield some freedom and allow for less supervision of their work. However, the intelligent people will be missing in important functions in a company. The society as a whole develops a problem when less intelligent people have to step into senior management positions. Fulfilled potential is called talent, and the Silicon Valley is good at developing talent through mentoring.

Last but not least, this open intellectual climate and talent development make any work very productive and efficient, because when you need to know something, you know whom to ask. You do not have to spend days googling the Internet for an answer that may be incorrect. You get your answer immediately— maybe when it is complex, at the cost of a coffee or a beer.

This is life in the biotope. A characteristic of the ecosystem has always been its rapid evolution. During the cold war and the quest to outbrain the Russians, high-risk research was possible because the government agencies paid cost plus and it was not necessary to worry about commercializing products for the consumer market. When world politics changed, institutions like SRI, IBM Almaden, Xerox PARC, SLAC, HP Labs and NASA Ames eclipsed, but the brains wandered down the road to new institutions, taking with them expired patents and deep knowledge. In the Silicon Valley, the talent is preserved.

While in Rochester the scientists who invented digital photography were lost to humanity when Eastman Kodak faltered and then faded, their colleagues at HP Labs just modified their commute from Palo Alto to Cupertino and are still working on the iPhone camera and imaging system. Few know that Siri was born at SRI and is now evolving at Nuance in the skilled hands of PARC alumni. Maybe, Google could start a self-driving car project due to the available engineers who built navigation systems for submarines.

In fact, the less than thousand scientists who have worked at PARC in its first 20 years, have created the largest pot of wealth in Silicon Valley, as documented by Henry Chesbrough, the executive director of the Center for Open Innovation at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. A beautiful example of ecological brain recycling! The Silicon Valley is a biotope that promotes talent.

A group of leading color science researchers congregated in the Silicon Valley to openly ponder about the future of color science

Update: a related article just appeared in the HBR: Renaissance Florence Was a Better Model for Innovation than Silicon Valley Is [paywall]