Tag Archives: Immigrant

Smasher, another Silicon Valley mystery

Smasher is the second Silicon Valley thriller from Keith Raffel that I read. After reading dot.dead, I found this one more complex, and certainly as interesting. A mixture of a traditional thriller where the hero’s wife is smashed by a car, together with a good start-up story where the leader in the field is trying to smash the hero’s company and an academic story of intense competition between researchers in the physics field of [smashed] particles. Hence the title Smasher.

I already mentioned novels about start-ups or Silicon Valley (dot.dead, but also The Ultimate Cure). I have never mentioned though Po Bronson (I loved The First 20 Million Is Always the Hardest) or Michael Wolff (Burn Rate). I have not read (yet) Kaplan’s Start-up. On the academic side, there is Small World by the great David Lodge which I have not read (either…) There are of course many essays on the start-up or academic worlds (I mentioned many in my past posts in the must read category) but there are clearly not so many novels based on these worlds,

Raffel loves to take inspiration from real individuals in Silicon Valley. I had played at recognizing a few in dot.dead. Here it is less obvious; the academic smasher is a mixture of Feynman and Gell-Man. The start-up smasher looks more like Larry Ellison with his dark suits and love for Japanese architecture. But there is a little from Steve Jobs as well. The other characters existed in the first novel. I will not talk about the story and only shortly about the particle physics. I will say more about the start-up and broader Silicon Valley context. Smasher talks of Quarks and quirks, of Murray Gell-Man who got the Nobel prize for their discovery and of SLAC, the Stanford Linear Accelerator (a small CERN). You may identify SLAC both on the map and picture below.

There is indeed a link between particle physics and the start-up world. Raffel reminds us that the World Wide Web was invented at Cern thanks to Tim Berners-Lee. Slac had other spin-offs, but this is another story. Slac was also a home for the Homebrew Computer Club (see [1] and extract from page 214 below)

Smasher is also about women and science. “Stanford was on a campaign to recruit female undergraduates, Ph.D. candidates, and faculty to the natural sciences. My mother’s late aunt had been the first woman in the physics department back in the 1960s. In an effort to honor her and to appeal to what was still the second sex in the realm of natural sciences, the university was naming its particle physics lab after her. I’d lived in Palo Alto all my life and couldn’t recall a building, library, school or academic chair at Stanford labeled with a name except in return for a donation of dollars, euros, yens, dinars, or other convertible currency. So maybe Stanford was really serious about recruiting women.” And the invited professor for the ceremony adds: “We all follow in the footsteps of our predecessors. When I was a girl in France, I wanted to be Marie Curie. After two years as a graduate student at Stanford, after two years of hearing about her legacy, I wanted to be your great aunt.” (Page 12)

What may not be realistic is that this French professor smokes Gauloises (page 213). I know I left France a long time ago but I doubt professors still smoke them! It is pure work of fiction of course but Raffel adds in his acknowledgments that he found inspiration in Rosalind Franklin‘s life. A sad story which shows the complexity of being a woman in science or high-tech

A funny (sorry for the jump for sadness to humor) quote and apparently true [2] on the academic world is Clark Kerr once said his job as president of the University of California was to provide football for the alumni, sex for the students, and offices for the faculty. [The physics and Nobel prize professor] sanctum was twice the size of the [professor of English literature]’s but only a third the size of the business school professor [who is on the board of the hero’s start-up].” (Page 34)

It is also about VCs and term sheets. “VCs, bah. When you had no need for their money, investment offers would cascade over you like a tropical waterfall. When you could use a capital infusion – like now – the money flowed like water in a wadi, a riverbed in Sahara. In other words, it did not.” (Page 20)

“I drove west of Sand Hill Road. This was familiar territory, the Vatican of venture capitalism. In the bubble days of the late 1990s, office space on Sand Hill was the most expensive in the world. Here’s where the founders of Google, eBay, Amazon and Cisco had come, hat in hand, seeking the dollars required to turn the base metal of their dreams into stock market gold.” (Page 41)

Raffel has a few notes on Silicon Valley culture:
“The value of Silicon Valley company wasn’t in inventory or patents. It was in the brain of its employees.” (page 33)
“I had learned in the Valley that no more than two people could keep a business secret and that only worked if one of them was dead.” (Page 45 )
“Under an NDA? I asked. Non-disclosure agreements didn’t usually do much good in the Valley, which was built on loosey-goosey dissemination of intellectual capital, but having one couldn’t hurt. We had a raft of patent applications pending on the technology, but if they stole what we had, we would be defunct by the time we won any lawsuit.” (Page 94)
“Ron Qi, the inventor [of the technology incorporated in our product] and now head of engineering looked down as if examining the polish on his shoes. The other three around the table, Samantha Maxwell, our Korean-born MIT-educated marketing genius; Ori Mohr, the ex-Israeli paratrooper and kick-ass head of operations, and Bharat Gupta, the CFO, all moved their eyes back to me.” … “I saw Ron, who’d been brought up in the more deferential milieu of Taiwan…” (Page 44) [Immigrants again]
“I asked the engineers how the tweaking of the product was going, the sales rep what I could do to help them close their big deals, and the bean counters how much work was left to close the books for the latest quarter. What I heard from them was unfiltered by the vice presidents who reported to me. (The business professor) had told me that I could ask any employee anything but I could only tell my direct reports what to do. Managing the others was – who’d’ve thunk of it? – the jobs of their managers. As I popped into offices or cubicles, I was following the footsteps of the Founding Fathers of Silicon Valley, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, who advocated MWBA – management by walking around.” (Page 102)
“Thirty minutes later, I walked into a building named after Robert Noyce, one of the “traitorous eight” whose departure from Shockley Semiconductor loomed as large in Valley history as the exodus from Egypt did in the Bible. One of the founders of both Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel, Noyce was the co-inventor of the microprocessor, the electronic brain that ran everything from cell phones to server farms.” (Page 194)

A few more things on the academic world:

“It seems that the only way for a Stanford professor to win prestige is to start a successful company.
– Americans may not be interested in how the universe is made. I can tell you though, in Silicon Valley, they definitely want to know how money is made.
A researcher at CERN wanted to share information with others physicists. He invented a language to send it around and we ended up with the World Wide Web.
– Of course you would know our wonderful Sir Tim. […] The computer nerds at SLAC in the early 1970s hosted meetings of what they called the Homebrew Computer Club [1]. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak came.” … “And from that came Apple Computer and the whole PC industry. So you’re saying Silicon Valley wouldn’t be much without the physicists?”
(Page 214)

as well as

“I caught sight of a new photo over the desk. His head flanked by two earnest student types. He followed my eyes. “Another sign of my vanity.” Sergey Brin and Larry page developed their search algorithm as Stanford grad students and, of course, started their company to exploit it. Stanford got shares in the venture in return for their ownership of intellectual property.
– And how many millions did that piece of Google add to the university coffers?
– Three hundred and thirty six”
(Page 218)

Smasher is certainly not about literature, but it is (really) entertaining; nor does it belong to the category of the mystery masterpieces. Raffel does not have the genius (or experience) of James Ellroy, or even George Pelecanos and Henning Mankell but he is a real pleasure to read, I appreciate his talent, imagination and his interesting description of SV culture, history and dynamics.

[1] Homebrew Computer Club: “One influential event was the publication of Bill Gates’s Open Letter to Hobbyists, which lambasted the early hackers of the time for pirating commercial software programs.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homebrew_Computer_Club. Another site is Memoir of a Homebrew Computer Club Member

[2] Another legacy was his wit—after writing a serious book “The Uses of the University”, Kerr surprised an audience with this riposte–“The three purposes of the University?–To provide sex for the students, sports for the alumni, and parking for the faculty.” From http://content.cdlib.org/view?docId=kt687004sg&chunk.id=d0e21648&brand=calisphere&doc.view=entire_text

America and entrepreneurship

Nearly 3 years after my unusual post about Obama, here is a post slightly related. Before digging into the topic, I have to admit I have a huge respect for the American president. Even after watching George Clooney’s The Ides of March and the disappointment expressed by many people, I am intrigued and fascinated by his track record. I should add for the anecdote that I was in Washington in October 2009 when he was award the Nobel Peace Prize and in Silicon Valley in September 2011 when he pronounced his recent speech to the Congress. I also quite liked the Titan Dinner.

The White House recently published TAKING ACTION, BUILDING CONFIDENCE and the second initiative is about entrepreneurship. It is worth reading these dense 6 pages and among other things, it is striking to notice that the USA, “the most entrepreneurial nation on earth” [page 17] is extremely worried about an “increasingly unfavorable environment” and a “fallen optimism”. For these reasons, the report suggests 12 initiatives to “help spur renewed entrepreneurship”. (They are listed at the bottow on this post)

Here is my simplistic vision of the proposals:
– a few are about lowering the barriers, i.e. “changing the Rules”, what I tagged with an “R” below.
– a few more are about enabling more money and investment towards start-ups, tagged with an “M”.
These are classical measures, important and necessary.

What I found very interesting are the other ones:
– three are about Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer, a sign that the patent system might be in trouble
– even more interesting, the last three are about the People, the Talent. They mention the Immigrants and the Mentors.

These are great advice, that we should also look at very seriously in Europe!


Click on the picture to enlarge

Win the Global Battle for Talent
Some of the most iconic American companies were started by immigrant entrepreneurs or the children of immigrant entrepreneurs. Today, however, many of the foreign students completing a STEM degree at a U.S. graduate school return to their home countries and begin competing against American workers. A significant majority of the Jobs Council calls upon Congress to pass reforms aimed directly at allowing the most promising foreign-born entrepreneurs to remain in or relocate to the U.S.

Reduce Regulatory Barriers and Provide Financial Incentives for Firms to Go Public
Lowering the barriers to and cost of IPOs is critical to accessing financing at the later stages of a high growth firms’ expansion. A significant majority of the Jobs Council recommends amending Sarbanes-Oxley and “rightsizing” the effects of the Spitzer Decree and the Fair Disclosure Act to lessen the burdens on high growth entrepreneurial companies.

Enhance Access to Capital for Early Stage Startups as well as Later Stage Growth Companies
The challenging economic environment and skittish investment climate has resulted in investors generally becoming more risk-adverse, and this in turn has deprived many high-growth entrepreneurial companies of the capital they need to expand. The Jobs Council recommends enhancing the economic incentives for investors, so they are more willing to risk their capital in entrepreneurial companies.

Make it Easier for Entrepreneurs to Get Patent-Related Answers Faster
There are concerns among many entrepreneurs that, as written, the recently passed Patent Reform Act advantages large companies, and disadvantages young entrepreneurial companies. The Jobs Council recommends taking specific steps to ensure the ideas from young companies are handled appropriately.

Streamline SBA Financing Access, so More High -Growth Companies Get the Capital they Need to Grow
The SBA has provided early funding for a range of iconic American companies. The Jobs Council recommends that the Administration streamline and shorten application processing with published turnaround times, increase the number of full time employees who perform a training or compliance function, expand the overall list of lending partners, and push Congress to fully authorize SBIR and STTR funding for the long term, rather than for short term re-authorizations.

Expand Seed/Angel Capital
The Jobs Council recommends that the Administration clarify that experienced and active seed and angel investors should not be subject to the regulations that were designed to protect inexperienced investors. We also propose that smaller investors be allowed to use “crowd funding” platforms to invest small amounts in early stage companies.

Make Small Business Administration Funding Easier to Access
The SBA has provided early funding for a range of iconic American companies, including Apple, Costco, and Staples. The Jobs Council recommends that the Administration streamline and shorten application processing with published turnaround times, increase the number of full time employees who perform a training or compliance function, expand the overall list of lending partners, and push Congress to fully authorize SBIR and STTR funding for the long term, rather than for short term re-authorizations.

Enhance Commercialization of Federally Funded Research
The government continues to play a crucial role in investing in the basic research that enables America to be the launchpad for new industries. The Jobs Council recommends that the Administration do more to build bridges between researchers and entrepreneurs, so more breakthrough ideas can move out of the labs and into the commercialization phase.

Address Talent Needs by Reducing Student Loan Burden and Accelerating Immigration Reforms
A large number of recent graduates who aspire to work for a start-up or form a new company decide against it because of the pressing burden to repay their student loans. The Jobs Council recommends that the Administration promote Income-Based Repayment Student Loan Programs for the owners or employees of new, entrepreneurial companies. Additionally, we recommend that the Administration speed up the process for making visa decisions so that talented, foreign-born entrepreneurs can form or join startups in the United States.

Foster Regional Ecosystems of Innovation and Support Growth of Startup Accelerators
There is a significant opportunity to build stronger entrepreneurial ecosystems in regions across the country – and customize each to capitalize on their unique advantages. To that end, the Jobs Council recommends that the private sector support the growth of startup accelerators in at least 30 cities. Private entities should also invest in at least 50 new incubators nationwide, and big corporations should link with startups to advise entrepreneurial companies during their nascent stages.

Expand Programs to Mentor Entrepreneurs
Research consistently shows that a key element of successful enterprises is active mentorship relationships. Yet, if young companies do not have the benefit of being part of an accelerator, they often struggle to find effective mentors to coach them through the challenging, early stages of starting a company. Therefore, the Jobs Council recommends leveraging existing private sector networks to create, expand and strengthen mentorship programs at all levels.

Allow University Faculty to Shop Discoveries to Any Technology Transfer Office
America’s universities have produced many of the great breakthroughs that have led to new industries and jobs. But too often, research that could find market success lingers in university labs. The Jobs Council recommends allowing research that is funded with federal dollars to be presented to any university technology transfer office (not just the one where the research has taken place).

They Made It !

They Made It! by Angelika Blendstrup is another book made of interviews of Silicon Valley actors. I had talked in the past about In the company of Giants, Once You’re Lucky, Betting it All, Founders at Work, but this one as a different angle.

The focus is about immigrants as the subtitle indicates: “How Chinese, French, German, Indian, Iranian, Israeli and other foreign born entrepreneurs contributed to high tech innovation in the Silicon Valley, the US and Overseas.” And the lessons are quite interesting.

The author summarizes on page 260 some characteristics of the people interviewed:
– High intelligence, often coupled with a great educational background
– A willingness to work hard, focus, determination and perseverance
– A vision for success in their professional careers and personal lives
– Curiosity and passion
– Love of family and a dedication to supporting it
– An often uncanny insight into themselves and others
– Belief in themselves
– Openness to emotional and intellectual growth
– A tolerance for, even a love of, risk and the ability to (quickly) recover from failure
– An appetite to collaborate
– Humility
– A desire to give back to society

I was particularly stricken by stories of people who moved and left everything behind. There is an element in entrepreneurship that someone told me this morning about: entrepreneurs know that they may lose everything (house, family) and they might not been afraid of such risks, sometimes because they have experienced it already and they know they can recover from it. This explains the passion, the dedication, and the ability to try.

Interviews after interview, you read about values, leadership, and openness to diversity, breaking barriers. I may not have learnt many new things but I liked the book very much, maybe just for the reason that it is another great illustration of what Silicon Valley values are and why immigrants have been so critical to the region.

Final detail, I did a simple analysis of origins of people interviewed:
France: 7
Israel: 5
India: 5
China: 3
Taiwan: 2
Iran: 2
Germany: 2
ROW: 5
Interesting to notice that France is highest despite it is not known for its entrepreneurship culture…