Tag Archives: Silicon Valley

A letter to and about America

While looking at old files, I found a letter, written by a family member in october 1993. At the time, I was living in California. I read it again, loved it so much for personal reasons but also found it so farseeing that I decided to share it here. Hopefully some of you will like it. If you read French, go to the French page, if not forgive my awkward translation…

Tell me, my good friends, what is America? The roughness of the confines, this impossible frontier where humans find themselves by violence stripped of lies, where the truth is revealed? The old southern lands, so carnal, so indolent, so cruel? The devastating wind gusts and hurricanes in the business that are moving people across the country? The Blacks, the Yellows, the Darks, the Goldens and the Indians who open casinos in their reservations, just to take some power from the Whites? The Indians are a faded dream, like Route 66, like the Rocky Mountain train. In Europe, paradoxically, we experience America in a visual mode more than in writing or thinking. Everyone does not read Tocqueville, but then, who is Tocqueville’s successor? There remains the image. Fake images where violence and melodrama reigned, between popcorn and ice cream, the tanned men of westerns, statues of dust and wind, the dazzling comedians of the musicals, Miles Davies, head down, dark glasses, emaciated face, pushing on his trumpet in a corner, excited suffragettes and delusional sodomites. The true and the false mix, merge. The memory stutters. De Niro continues to return to his companions, the steelmakers, on a rainy night, climbing a muddy street lined with small pavilions, in the blue-gray, monstrous and motley decor of foundries; Kennedy collapses again in the back of his big convertible car, under the bewildered look of Jackie; and I still go around Long Island and Brooklyn to approach the arrogant challenge of the Manhattan Towers. Or I fly high mountains, deserts, lakes, endless plains, where the eye hangs, staking the immensity, pressed and tight clusters of skyscrapers, mounds of the day, monuments of glass and concrete in the silence of nights, built to the glory of which unknown dead god.

I watch sometimes CBS Evening News, I see people worry about everything and anything, to the obsession. Haunted by cancer, cellulite, poisoned milk, fast weight loss, tobacco smoke, the nimble hands of men and the eyes of others. I wonder: what has become of proud America? Or did it ever exist only in presidents’ speeches on the state of the Union? What is America? Thoreau and the transcendentalists, Charles Ives, the musician insurer, who has captured better than anyone else the roar of the choral society, the feast and the provincial slowness, the immensity of the lands and the simplicity of the beings? Or Blacks who are perhaps the most American of Americans since they have really lost their roots (Africa is not a place, but a myth and rhythms while emigrants still have families, which in Sicily, which in Korea, which in Mexico, which in Ireland)? Or this “melting pot” that does not mix, but that unites because in the manner of the feudal society, the membership is aimed at people, the sworn faith, requests the individual to the noblest of itself? (Perhaps we should not laugh too much at the Bibles deposited in the hotel rooms, which symbolize the direct and intimate relationship that Protestants establish between man and his creator. Transposed, we perceive the direct relationship, transcendent of all the administrative, legal, institutional mediations that unite the American man to America: God is America. Like God, would it be inaccessible to our intellect?) We find everything, apparently in America. Would it be the store of the creator, La Samaritaine of eternity? Is America out of time? Alice in the land of rubble wanders among abandoned silos, deserted factories, discarded jerrycans, worn tires, rusted bodies, to discover in the spreading fields the unexpected, the surprising, the eternally new. America, pioneering and tired.

I say this to myself, but maybe I’m wrong. The ambiguous attitude that we Old Europeans have towards America is rather a parent-child relationship that combines ambition, hope, expectation and disappointment, surprise and misunderstanding, rapture and exasperation, tenderness and anger. Recognition, ignorance. A new being has come out of us, which prolongs us but which is not ourselves and whose destiny escapes us. America, America, the dream of the emigrant, but also in some way our dream to all of us. The new Jerusalem or the new Babylon. Something strikes, if one tries to fly over the centuries. The other side. The other side of the hills, the other side of the mountains. We are people of little witnesses, of limited horizons. Who have often quarreled, fought, gorged from valley to valley, from castle to castle, from village to village, from country to country. Less to take, if not rapine, less to enlarge than to establish a place, a domain, a territory as part of oneself, from which the other will be excluded, tolerated at best, always in an extraneous situation. And suddenly, these Lilliputians are leaving. Do you realize, my friends, what such a departure represents? It is not exactly a question of travel, of the traveler’s curiosity – there has always been Herodotus, Marco Polo. No more the trade or the wandering that follows the path of exchange. Demographics, economics, politics of the powers, religion can nourish the motivations and satisfy the historian. Still, there needs to be a higher determination that guides choices. How to name it? The call of the unknown, the will to force the destiny, the ability to face the mystery? We are lacking beings, says the philosopher. Beings of desire. To miss is to have the desire of something else, which can not be defined since one has a negative idea of it. An incredible audacity: to deny the present to open oneself to the mystery. Standing, eyes open on the horizon. To confront the immensity of the ocean and its fury, to approach lands as vast as the sea, to sink deep in immense forests, shadow cathedrals swarming with a strange life, to follow the trace of the sun in the mirages of gold of the desert, to discover bizarre, incomprehensible, wild manners, and peoples more numerous than grains of sand on the beach. But above all to be in front of the excess in the excess without yielding. And to stay, or to come back, with in the head, the distant little world, so far away, left so long ago, whose tiny outlines slowly become numb in the sleep of remembrance. What was at the heart of this obstinate will? Perhaps the secret trace of a very long memory. After all, each of us goes down more or less from distant invaders. Celts, Franks, Germans, Goths, who were our ancestors? And have we kept in the recesses of our desires the imprint of these ancient migrations?

Asia, Africa, America, all these continents were not equally offered to the coming settlers. Asia, Africa, worlds too full already or natures too difficult, too hostile. There remained America, and particularly North America, with a cowardly occupation whose Atlantic coast, at the 40th parallel, was not altogether so exotic for Europeans. The spirit of enterprise of Protestants did the rest. One could build a New England and imagine that one would reproduce while purging it in a sort of Virgilian dream the old mother Europe. What is America then? Viewed retrospectively, it can appear as the development of a simple historical conjuncture, as the fruit of chance and necessity. Or would one say such was the fate inscribed, almost from all eternity, on this piece of continent? Why do I think that, thinking of America, I have the feeling of an infinitely old reality and an unfinished promise? In this sense, if America stems from a destiny, this destiny is always to come, always remains an opening on the unexpected.

This for example, which is about understanding. We Frenchmen have the religion of a well-conducted text, according to the order of the reasons: we like a well-conducted reflection and what is more amiable than to go from the idea to its consequences; we are legislators of writing. American pragmatism tends to advance general ideas that are supported by the analysis of facts. [I put this in bold, it was not in the letter.] This does not free them from prejudices, but gives them a powerful mobility and protects them against the excess of systems. But I believe that in the intellectual crisis that we are going through, we will not be able to find the way if we do not find a satisfactory understanding of the multiple and multiplicity, which is blocked, or at least thwarted, by the need for a unitary interpretation, a deeply rooted need as it comes from Christian theology and its Hebrew antecedents. Because America is essentially multiple, because the unitary is at home only the means to associate and coordinate these multiplicities in the faith in America and the faith in the individual, perhaps the novel thoughts will come from across the Atlantic. And as usual, we will systematize them. For the pleasure of order. Eternal youth of America? But what is America?

Forgive me for writing to you so late. (I hope this overloaded letter will come to you.) Thank you for giving me some news. So few people do it. But I am a bad letter-writer. I run after the money that runs after clever evils and I miss the time.
I kiss you,
Georges, October 2, 1993.

The Code – Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America – by Margaret O’Mara

About 15 years ago, I was challenged by a colleague, who knew my passion about Silicon Valley, about why the region should survive and lead for the years or even decades to come. I had just arrived at EPFL and now that I am leaving this place where there are many people I love, I could give the same answer to my colleague: the talent and capital gathered there, with an expertise which seems to be never lost and an appetite for experiments and risk with not too much fear of failure, at least no stigma, are reasons why Silicon Valley has a bright future. Yes it has many drawbacks and weaknesses, but even when there is a major crisis, there is stil, whatever we think, enough diversity to continue to strive.

Margaret O’Mara probably thinks the same. At least she has written one of the most comprehensive history of the region and describes brilliantly all its strong and weak, positive and negative attributes.

The Code
Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America
By Margaret O’Mara

You have to think of it like a horse race, Morgenthaler would explain. That’s how the high-tech game worked. The horse was the technology. The race was the market. The entrepreneur was the jockey. And the fourth and last ingredient was the owner and trainer – the high-tech investor. You could have the best jockey, but if he rode a slow horse, then you wouldn’t win. Same thing if you have a fast horse but a terrible jockey. Great technology without good people running the shop wouldn’t get very far. And the race had to have good stakes. Riding a fast horse to win at the country fait wouldn’t reap many rewards, but the Kentucky Derby was another matter indeed. So it went with the market. These needed to be customers and growth, not saturation. [Pages 11-12] (You can check the Computer Museum archive about Morgenthalerhere (as a pdf).)

The flow wasn’t about transfer of technology, it was about talent – about people who moved back and forth from the labs of Stanford to the offices of its research park to the ramshackle warehouses and prefab office buildings that began stretching southward down El Camino Real. Everywhere else in the 1950s, academia was a true ivory tower, surrounded by impregnable walls between town and gown, between “pure” research and business enterprise. At Stanford, those walls dissolved. [Page 32]

“Inventions come from individuals,” observed Regis McKenna, “not from companies.” [Page 152]

“Good ideas and good products are a dime a dozen,” [Arthur Rock] later explained. “Good execution and good management – in a word, good people – are rare.”

More controversial maybe is John Doerr’s comment: Much later, one of the regions most successful and influential VCs, John Doerr, got in hot water after admitting that a major factor guiding his decisions was “pattern recognition.” The most successful entrepreneurs, he found, “all seem to be white, male, nerds who’ve dropped out of Harvard or Stanford and they absolutely have no social life. So when I see that pattern coming in”, he concluded, “it was very easy to decide to invest.” [Page 76]

After HP went public in November 1957, fortunes rose along with its share price. Yet from the start, the two founders consciously presented their firm as a business concerned with higher and better things. “I think many people assume, wrongly, that a company exists simply to make money,” Packard once told HP managers. “While this is an important result of a company’s existence, we have to go deeper to find the real reasons for our being.” Nonhierarchical, friendly, a change-the-world ethos paired with an unflagging focus on market growth and the bottom line – HP created the blueprint for generations of Silicon Valley companies to come. [Page 33]

The missile maker, the entrepreneurial university, the distinctive business sensibility, the professional networks, the government money, the elite (and homogeneous) workforce: many of the key ingredients were coming together in Palo Alto by the middle of the 1950s. [Page 38]

O’Mara combines anecdotes, stories and economic trends. For example, more than 500 companies went public in 1969. Only 4 did in 1975. […] in 1969, the national venture capital industry had raised more than $170 million in new investment. In 1975, it raised a paltry $22 million. What’s more, only one venture investment in four went to tech companies. [Page 158]

She shows there were thousands of similar (and unknown) companies to the one which became phenomenal success. In parallel to Apple, there had been ProcTech (or Processor Technology), IMSAI, Cromemco, Xitan, Polymorphic. Vector Graphic, with an initial $6’000 investment in 1976 reached 4’000 units and $400’000 in sales in 12 months, and $25M fiver years later. By 1977, there were 50,000 personal computers in use. [Pages 144-6]

(A side comment about a book I did not know of: The Innovation Millionaires: How They Succeed by Gene Bylinsky (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1976.)

She also clearly illustrates the role of public intervention and support. One story I did not know about is how much John Doerr was involved in fighting proposition 211 in 1996. It shows that despite the general view that Silicon Valley has no interest in politics, on the contrary, many individuals and institutions are much more interested than generally thought. (See Proposition 211 ) [Section The Litigator – Pages 333-8]

Similarly, the complexity of things is illustrated with Peter Thiel, a famous Libertarian, a strong advocate of weak states and of President Trump: he is the (funding) founder of Palantir, a startup which most revenues at least early in its history, came from the government… [Pages 384-7]

But culture is never far. When Russian president Medvedev visited Silicon Valley in 2010 to try and understand the region’s secrets, he concluded that there simply wasn’t enough appetite for risk. “It’s a problem of culture as Steve Jobs told me today. We need to change the mentality.” [Page 388]

So Silicon Valley’s success does not stop… “By mid-2018, Facebook had made 67 acquisitions, Amazon had made 91, and Google had made 214.” [Page 391] Let us remember tough that in the GAFAM group, 2 companies are not based in Silicon Valley, showing how powerful the region is, just in terms of perception! Let me just add here an old post about startups M&As: Cisco A&D published in 2016.

It is also from an architectural standpoint as mention on Page 392. With the new Facebook building in 2015, or Amazon biospheres and Apple Park.

And there is a lot of money made. Google has a few years after its IPO more than 1’000 employees or former employees with a $5M wealth including an in-house massage therapist. [Page 392]

As a conclusion of my reading, a final quote:

“As wealth grew, so did the mythos around how Silicon Valley was able to generate one innovative company after another. It was about allowing risks and not penalizing failure, they’d say. It was about putting engineering first – finding the best technical talent, with no bias about origin or pedigree. It was about that “pattern recognition” so fatefully identified by John Doerr, looking for the next Stanford or Harvard dropout with a wild but brilliant idea.

Of all those assertions, Doerr’s slip-up came closest to the heart of the Valley’s secret. “West Coast investors aren’t bolder because they are irresponsible cowboys, or because the good weather makes them optimistic”, wrote Paul Graham, founder of the Valley’s most influential tech incubator, Y Combinator, in 2007. “They’re bolder because they know what they’re doing.” The Valley power players knew tech, knew the people, and knew the formula that worked.

They looked for “grade-A men” (who very occasionally were women) from the nation’s best engineering and computer science programs, or from the most promising young companies, and who had validation from someone else they already knew. They sought out those exhibiting the competitive fire of a Gates or a Zuckerberg, the focus and design ascetism of Kapor or Andreessen or Brin and Page. They funded those who were working on a slightly better version of something already being attempted – a better search engine, a better social network. They surrounded these lucky entrepreneurs with support and seasoned talent; they got their names in the media and their faces on the stage at each premier conferences. They picked winners, and because of the accumulated experience and connections in the Valley, those they picked often won.” [Pages 399-400]

The Ideology of Silicon Valley by Fred Turner and Jean-Pierre Dupuy (among others)

Excellent issue of the famous French review Esprit on The Ideology of Silicon Valley. You’ll find contibutions by Emmanuel Alloa, Jean-Baptiste Soufron, Fred Turner, Shoshana Zuboff, Antonio Casilli and Jean-Pierre Dupuy.

I was especially struck by the surprising interview with Fred Turner: Do not be Evil. Utopias, borders and brogrammers. This is in fact a translation from LogicMag, which you can find here: Don’t Be Evil. It is really worth reading! It is his explanation of the roots of Silicon Valley that surprised me the most and how they still influence today this region which in the end is not very ideological, even if the other authors have different points of view.

For example: “It owes its origins to 1960s communalism. A brief primer on the counterculture: there were actually two countercultures. One, the New Left, did politics to change politics. It was very much focused on institutions, and not really afraid of hierarchy. The other—and this is where the tech world gets its mojo—is what I’ve called the New Communalists. Between 1966 and 1973, we had the largest wave of commune building in American history. These people were involved in turning away from politics, away from bureaucracy, and toward a world in which they could change their consciousness. They believed small-scale technologies would help them do that. They wanted to change the world by creating new tools for consciousness transformation.” Then on the influence today: “It varies depending on the company. Apple is, in some ways, very cynical. It markets utopian ideas all the time. It markets its products as tools of utopian transformation in a countercultural vein. It has co-opted a series of the emblems of the counterculture, starting as soon as the company was founded. At other companies, I think it’s very sincere. I’ve spent a lot of time at Facebook lately, and I think they sincerely want to build what Mark Zuckerberg calls a more connected world. Whether their practice matches their beliefs, I don’t know. About ten years back, I spent a lot of time inside Google. What I saw there was an interesting loop. It started with, “Don’t be evil.” So then the question became, “Okay, what’s good?” Well, information is good. Information empowers people. So providing information is good. Okay, great. Who provides information? Oh, right: Google provides information. So you end up in this loop where what’s good for people is what’s good for Google, and vice versa. And that is a challenging space to live in.”

Jean-Pierre Dupuy in “The New Data Science” brilliantly explains there is no data science. Science is about causes, data are more about correlations which can not really help in predictions (I hope I understood his message!). Let me quote one sentence: “The ideology that accompanies big data, meanwhile, announces the advent of new scientific practices that, putting the theoretical requirement in the background, endanger the advance of knowledge and, more importantly, undermine the foundations of a rational ethic.” Really brilliant!

Steve Jobs in Paris in 1984

My friends at INRIA just mentioned to me a short but great interview of Steve Jobs by French Television in 1984, when he was asked if France could have similar start-ups to Silicon Valley. Here is his answer:


Even if you hear more the French translation, you can hear his voice too:
– Research level is good but concrete applications seem to be a problem, and this is an important step for innovation
– This is coming from a lack of companies ready to try
– The risk is seldom taken by large corporations, but by small ones
– You need many small firm with talented students and venture capital
– You also need champions you take as models, that enable saying “innovation is this”
– There is a more subtle problem, a cultural one: in Europe, failure is serious. If you fail in Europe right after university, it follows you for ever. In the USA, we keep failing all the time.
– What you also need is a solid software industry, because software is the new oil. You need hundreds of small firms and then you can dominate an industry.
– You need talented students, a good understanding of technology and encougare young people to create small firms.
– It’s all about private initiative. Big companies should not interfere, neither the government should. We should let entrepreneurs own it.

Thirty-five years later, is the situation different? And if he was still alive, would he say the same things? I let you judge …

Steve Jobs: “Just Ask”

It’s a famous story for Silicon Valley and Steve Jobs fans. But I had never seen it told by the founder of Apple himself. It shows not only what an entrepreneur is but also the openness of the region at the time and probably still today… It’s nice and short… Watch it.

“I never found anybody that did not want to help me if I asked them for help”

Thanks to the student who gave me the link! 🙂

Silicon Valley 2018 : The Libertarians Have Replaced the Hippies

While Trump and Harari were in Davos, I visited Silicon Valley for the nth time. Even more than during my last trips in 2014 and 2016, I could feel the gap that has been created between the Silicon Valley that I discovered and loved in the late 80s and the one that exists today (and that I still love).

As one of my interlocutors mentioned, the Hippie generation – which Leslie Berlin describes in her Troublemakers and which until Brin and Page tried to democratize technology – has been replaced by the Libertarian self-interest of social networking that even Reid Hoffman will have a hard time to balance (see It’s time to change the culture of Silicon Valley). The skyscrapers climb in San Francisco, the poor had to leave or live in tents all over the bay, the venture capital funds do not perform as one might think, the unicorns might disappear one after the other, it takes 3 hours to drive from Berkeley to Palo Alto at 6am, one finds more founders than entrepreneurs according to Leslie Hook, and even Steve Blank is looking at a little less at startups and focuses more on innovation of government organizations.

This is a bit the “Querelle des Anciens et Modernes” and I am not sure Steve Jobs would pass the baton to this new generation when he said in 2005 [death] clears out the old to make way for the new. Some think that Silicon Valley is reaching its limits, but AnnaLee Saxenian said the same thing … in 1979. Will we live old enough to have the answer?

Silicon Valley, 20 years ago

Twenty years ago, I entered the VC and startup world. What an anniversary! It was fun and exciting. I would have forgotten it if I did not have a lunch two days ago with people from Logitech. When we talked about Logitech offices in Silicon Valley, I told them I had a document from Businessweek which showed that Logitech was considered as Stanford’s Progeny.

I had to find that document and it was fascinating to go through this 50+ page special issue of Businessweek dated August 18, 1997 and entitled: Silicon Valley, The People, the Deals, the Culture, The Future – How it really works. So let me go through it again.

First the cover. This is a nice little quizz. How many people do you recognize? The answer is at the end of the post.

Second, the table of content. It could be the same today. So things have not changed so much. For example, the migrant factor; the craziness of the area, because of cost, stress; and the invisibility of women, this “subtle sexism every day”.

Third, the recurrent question of why the efforts to duplicate Silicon Valley have all failed…

There are the classical arguments: local governments offer tax incentives or small investments but have no hand in inventing or commercializing technology. And there is an interesting piece: Even private efforts to clone the Valley have fallen flat. Terman, the father of Silicon Valley, was hired in the 1960s to recreate the magic in New Jersey and Texas. He focused on establishing strong research institutions, like Stanford, that could provide a petri dish for bright ideas. But Terman was hired by large organizations, including Bell Labs and Texas Instruments Inc., and few company men were willing to chance a startup. ‘He failed, in part, because he overestimated the importance of academia and in part because he was hired by large companies with no entrepreneurial traditions.’

Finally, what are the lessons learnt? Well known and still valid today…

If you want the pdf, just ask me. This would be a private gift. Whereas putting the full document onlien would be copyrigth infrigement…

Answer to the quizz: A dozen of the Valley’s brightest stars: (top row, left to right) Larry Ellison, Oracle; Marc Andreessen, Netscape; Andy Grove, Intel; Al Shugart, Seagate Technology; Gordon Moore, Intel; John Chambers, Cisco Systems (bottom row, left to right) Steve Jobs, Apple Computer, Pixar; Scott McNealy, Sun Microsystems; John Doerr, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers; Larry Sonsini, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati; Lew Platt, Hewlett-Packard; Jim Clark, Netscape.

The top US and European (former) start-ups in 2017

Since I published my book in 2007, I have regularly been doing the exercise of comparing the largest US (former) start-ups and their European counterparts. You can look at my data in 2016 in The top US and European (former) start-ups in 2016. Here are my update lists:

Things have not changed that much. Yahoo is out. Rovio is in…