Valley of the Nerds

"High school is neither a time nor a place, it's a state of mind."
- Musician, Frank Zappa

Nearly all of us have heard of Silicon Valley. For the geographically uninitiated, the words conjure up a nice peaceful valley, filled with smart people, and tucked away in some vague corner of California. However, the real Silicon Valley is a little different.

For example, Silicon Valley has no silicon as far as we know - unless you count the stuff trucked in to make microchips. For those frequently mistaking the two, there's no silicone either - unless you count the boobs of sunglasses-bedecked trophy wives who cruise around in a large-scale Mercedes or the occasional high-end sports car.

Neither is it a geographical place, except in the broadest sense. First, there's no real valley. It's is a loose description of the southern San Francisco Bay where high-tech companies have congregated. It is a place of cookie-cutter, low-rise office buildings and clogged freeways. Most buildings sit surrounded by acres of parking lots that don't fill up until 11 am and are far from empty on weekends and late at night. There are big, toilet brush-like palms around many to reflect the new age spirit of California. Unfortunately, they look out of place betwixt all the native redwoods and live oak.

Silicon Valley even has its own local annexes. The "I-680" corridor runs nearly 50 miles north and is scattered along its length with high-tech companies who've moved to the burbs. Other companies congregated in San Francisco where there is a section called, "Multimedia Gulch".

But at its most powerful, Silicon Valley is a state of mind. It was the scene of the Great Dot Com boom where every idiot with a hare-brained idea was showered with money by rookie venture capitalists who hadn't yet learned the concepts of profit and loss.

During the height of the boom, high tech workers moved effortlessly from one company to the next. Back then - eons in gigafast Internet time - breathing was a more important job skill than an actual ability to do something useful. Software developers sat for 16 hours a day - typing code like demons and kept awake with massive infusions of gourmet coffee - as they created the next "killer app". They were the masters of the universe…with stock options.

The Valley also ushered in peculiar changes in corporate culture. Gone were the shirts, ties, and pocket protectors of previous geekified generations. In were the green spiked hair, ripped jeans, and shoeless grads and dropouts of nearby UC Berkeley. The venture capitalists all came from more tony Stanford and wore chinos, knit shirts, and Rockports - the newly established fashion of "business casual". No use being uncomfortable as you make your first million they said.

In exchange for the 16-hour days and lack of a social life, companies reformed the corporate experience to provide facsimiles of those things to avoid "useless" time off.

Instead, there were party nights, movie nights, and ice-cream socials. Workers no longer needed to leave work to care for those pesky details of everyday life. Companies offered on-site dry cleaning, car detailing, oil changes, haircuts, and windshield repair. If all that not running around overstressed you, most companies offered chair massages by licensed massage therapists.

No time for exercise? Companies built onsite swimming pools, tennis and basketball courts, and gyms.

Hungry? Endless supplies of free gourmet coffee and soda gushed forth. Companies offered fruit or bagels at least once per week and opened subsidized cafeterias where employees ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner featuring items like Mushroom and Eggplant Ragu over Creamy Herbed Soft Polenta with Parmesan and Chopped Basil.

Then the bust hit.

All those stock options - in some cases paid in lieu of living wages - were worthless paper. When the end came, the spoiled wunderkinder of the Valley did what any rich, spoiled kid does…they packed up their laptops, looked for a Starbucks with a free wifi hotspot, and planned for a year off to cycle around France. Most figured things would rebound as they always had in their twenty-something experience.

When they returned from France - mostly broke, but confident of the next big payoff - many found things had changed. The hare-brained idiots were gone. The 25-year old Stanford biz grads no longer had money to lend (or in some cases, eat with). The car-detailing business had closed and many developers found their formerly high paying jobs had moved to Bangalore where a princely sum is a damn sight less princely than the Valley.

Today, the Valley is a more mature place. Actual adults head most of the companies now. With a glut of workers, they no longer find it cost-effective to offer chair messages and bagels on Wednesday. And, no more six-month paid sabbaticals every five years either. That shit costs money and Dubya and the boys have yachts to buy and dividends to reinvest.

Some things remain the same. People still work 16 hours a day. Now the companies don't watch over their social well-being like a fraternity housemother. Most places told the green hairs to get a haircut, but most drew the line at "business casual" because even CEOs don't like wearing a coat and tie. There's big work these days for business analysts to do cost projections and business cases. Back in the boom days, a developer wouldn't have known what these bean counters were doing if one came along and amortized his ass.

So, Silicon Valley is like lots of other places, neither a time nor a place, but just a (downsized) state of mind.

Truth Told by Omnipotent Poobah, Thursday, March 30, 2006

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