January 19, 2007

I Still Get Excited About Silicon Valley

Living in the Silicon Valley definitely has its down sides. While housing prices are out of this world, and traffic or parking issues can definitely get in the way of a good trip or add frustration to an otherwise positive experience, I still feel a rush when I drive past the headquarters of a company I know, see a gaggle of engineers wearing their company badges, or a license plate frame on the car in front of me that tries to extoll the virtues of Google, Linux, or the latest hardware vendor or .com.

In college, before I got the mobility to drive over the Bay Bridge and down the San Francisco Peninsula, Silicon Valley seemed just out of reach, but I would glom on to anything I could find, whether it was news reports from the San Francisco Chronicle, or Web sites that spilled the details on Yahoo! and Netscape, SGI or Lycos. I would visit the Berkeley Public Library to read biographies on Oracle's Larry Ellison and Microsoft's Bill Gates, and on Sunday afternoons would catch the Silicon Valley News on one of the independent cable channels. I was an outsider yearning to be on the inside.

Then, as my senior year started, I made the leap. I got an entry-level job at a Web-focused startup in Burlingame, and they were generous enough to give me a $2,000 signing bonus to help buy my first car. After taxes, I didn't have all that much, but we got a 1991 Ford Escort GT for $2950, and was finally available to move where I wanted, when I wanted. On my commute to the office, I passed through San Francisco and gawked at the tech-focused billboards, some which bore ticker symbols, in a vain attempt to convince commuters to purchase their stock. On the worst days, I marveled at how sometimes the traffic would stall so badly that those in the cars next to me would be reading the newspaper against their steering wheels, or even shaving with an electric razor. Yuck.

But the real excitement came when I passed beyond San Francisco and got to the Peninsula. Passing Burlingame and on to Redwood Shores and Belmont, the Oracle building complex rose like a phoenix from the Valley floor. The sparkling blue towers were breath-taking - not just because of their beauty, but that they represented the gateway to the Silicon Valley, and a serious challenge to Bill Gates and Microsoft. As I drove further south, I saw signs for Sun Microsystems, National Semiconductor, and scads of smaller tech companies - all of whom said they were hiring, and most of whom said they were pre-IPO. When I drove into Mountain View, all I wanted to see was Netscape headquarters. In Cupertino, it was Apple. Redwood City featured the massive Excite @ Home. Even Milpitas had Cisco. When I went to a movie theater, instead of ads for Wrangler Jeans and Chevy trucks, we saw employment ads from Nortel Networks and startups looking to change the world.

Years later, much has changed. The first dot com crash came and went. Companies disappeared. The traffic problems largely went away, only to flare up now and again, as many hoping to cash in on the gold rush got tired and went back home. Companies merged. Some actually managed to grow and enter the public markets. People I knew at one company moved on to another. And another. And another. Some gave up and tried to be consultants. But the aura of the Silicon Valley, the challenge of out-working anybody else in the world, and delivering technology innovations that change the way people live and do business, didn't go away. Devices got smaller. Devices got less expensive and did more. Web speeds got faster. The engineers and I all continued to gain weight. Time kept ticking.

While I've grown more accustomed to being surrounded by Cisco buildings, and don't follow in awe when I learn that somebody works at Apple, or Yahoo! or Google, the allure Silicon Valley once had for me is still there. Where many geographies have tried to duplicate its unique success, they haven't crossed over. While the technologies and the leaders have changed from year to year, and we've seen bits move from kilo to mega, giga, tera and beyond, I will still drive the extra mile or so to catch a glimpse of Yahoo! headquarters or peek at the vibrant colors of eBay. I'll still look at the parking lots of tech companies and see if the high BMW to Honda ratio indicates that they are doing well. The Valley doesn't just inspire because of its history, it inspires because of its future.

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