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Silicon secrets: ‘fresh air and fun’

A new book by Silicon Valley insider Deborah Perry Piscione reveals why it’s the high-tech innovation capital of the world. 

Google's HQ in Mountain View, Silicon Valley, California

Google’s HQ in Mountain View, Silicon Valley, California

Warm weather, wealth, wine and a sense of playfulness are some of the ‘secrets’ revealed. Tracing the roots of the southern Californian hotspot from the founding of Stanford University and the early days of military-driven experiments in computer systems, the author depicts a complex ecosystem that relies on personal connections and individual creativity.

For example, Stanford is no ordinary university but was specifically built to link scholarly research with business needs. Jane and Leland Stanford endowed the institution in memory of their only son, who died young. Leland declared that his new method of higher education would ensure ‘personal success and direct usefulness in life‘.

In other words, it was the opposite of the ivory tower, Ivy League East Coast or Oxbridge model. This was to be a university that engaged with the workplace, brought in business leaders and sent out students to solve real-life problems.

Today, says Barbara Perry Piscione, this trend continues – and even freshers can be approached by local high-tech companies looking for the next Facebook or Google (both corporations came from brainwaves experienced by students on campus). This attitude has trickled down to local schools, too. The book quotes the success story of Anshul Samar who whilst still in fourth grade invented a chemistry game called Elementeo which attracted Amazon and the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Museum. That first generation of the game has now sold out. Samar is making money from the second generation and studying at Stanford.

Google

Piscione cites Google as an exemplar of the perfect Silicon Valley workplace. ” They’ve done away with those East Coast hierarchies” note the author approvingly. She is a journalist who previously worked in New York and found those hierarchies restrictive and old-fashioned. She praises Google’s flat management structure and considerable workplace perks. For example, workers get to spend twenty percent of their time away from their jobs pursuing a hobby or individual project. They get free organic food on campus, gyms and trainers, masseurs and spa treatments. The concierge will take their clothes to the dry cleaner and their car to the Google garage. Commuting is easy on a Google shuttle bus, even if you live in San Francisco thirty miles away. There is childcare and pre-school and care for elderly parents, all on site. When you die they pay your surviving partner half your salary for ten years, and each of your children gets one thousand dollars a year until their graduate. With all this on offer, working for Google is not just a job but a total lifestyle choice – which some critics have likened to a cult. It is the reason for the nickname ‘the chocolate factory’ – a reference perhaps to the British Victorian philanthropist factory owners Rowntree and Cadbury, who built model villages with every convenience provided to ensure a docile and hard-working workforce. Google campus at Silicon Valley is also akin to Roald Dahl’s chocolate factory, as portrayed in the movie starring Johnny Depp – a fabulous place that is almost too good to be true. But for Deborah Perry Piscione this is the key to Google’s world domination, and a model she insists is necessary for a company to truly embrace innovation.

Author Deborah Perry Piscione

Author Deborah Perry Piscione

Silicon Britain?

So – could we re-create Silicon Valley in the UK, or elsewhere? The book considers attempts to do just that in China (‘too government-dominated‘), Israel (‘promising‘) and Chile (‘positive first steps‘). When it comes to London’s Silicon Roundabout (re-branded as Tech City) she is lukewarm. And another visiting American journalist Katie Fehrenbacher writing in Tech City News finds it hard to believe that the charming, polite and reserved British people she meets in the techie startups around the Old Street roundabout in the East End will ever really make the grade as entrepreneurs.

The average American entrepreneur in Silicon Valley I meet is so cocky, aggressive and obsessed with their startup vision that they can be rather off-putting.But I think they need those crazy qualities to survive in such a harsh environment as Silicon Valley. The moment you stop believing you’re going to be the next Mark Zuckerberg is the moment when you’re not.In comparison, a lot of the British entrepreneurs are rather lovely – charming and humble. Hopefully “the nice guy” and that British charm can still make it through the startup grind.”

So despite the fact that successive Labour and Conservative-Liberal Democrat governments have invested heavily in Silicon Roundabout, and East London benefited from big investment around the London 2012 Olympic Games perhaps we Brits are just not made of the right stuff, huh?

Undaunted, Tech City is launching 500 new apprenticeships in summer 2013 with courses at Hackney Community College for young trainees in computer science, web design and digital media.

Deborah Perry Piscione stresses that the climate also has an impact. London’s cold damp weather does not lend itself to a health early-morning run and its rush hour causes stress because all workplaces start and end their day at the same time. She believes we should adopt a more flexible, Google-style approach to timekeeping: “If you’re not feeling creative, you should take the afternoon off. Work until the work’s done – don’t watch the clock.” She is disparaging about New York’s long-hours culture “You should not be defined by how many all-nighters you can pull in one week”.

 

Techno-bubble

For a book about the place that has become the technological driver of our age, Secrets of Silicon Valley’ says remarkably little about technology.

It notes that the creative fervour of students, academics and inventors ebbs and flows in what Piscione calls ‘bubbles’ where a new technology, platform or idea captures the imagination of the public and the investors (who all have HQs strategically placed in the Valley). When each new bubble bursts, there is a less intense period of activity until the Next Big Thing comes along. In the book she does not make any predictions about what this might be…but interviewed for Future Intelligence, Deborah Perry Piscione guesses the new wave of innovations will emerge in two areas: clean tech – sustainable energy solutions – and bio-tech – applications that fuse silicon-based computational power with actual human flesh. Hear the interview with Deborah Perry Piscione.

One thing seems certain and that is that the secrets of Silicon Valley are as localised as the characteristics of a Napa Valley wine – expensive and intoxicating, best enjoyed in the Californian sunshine.

 

Secrets of Silicon Valley by Deborah Perry piscione is published by Palgrave Macmillan priced at $27.00 or £17.99 ISBN 978-0-230-34211-8.