Note: one of the ones that I had to let a few days pass before I could post it as I didn’t really like parts of it – especially the end – it seemed twee. Jet lag is the excuse. Still, already a couple of people said they enjoyed and emailed me. So for the record..here it goes…
I have a secret life. You may know me as a domesticated, rural housewife and while this is true, for the past year I have also tasted the life of an international software executive.
Last summer an old friend from college rang me from Palo Alto in California. He was starting a software company and wanted me to do some work for him. I tried refusing but he wasn’t going to be put off. “How long does it take to write a column?” he demanded. “Er, a day,” I replied. “And what you are doing the rest of the time? The boys are in a crÃ¨che aren’t they?”
“Well, only part time,” I defended, “and I have the house to manage. And the garden. I’m really very busy.” “Yes, very busy Sarah.”
A contract arrived which informed me I had just been appointed as a “Strategist to the CEO” of a fledgling company. That means I help him plot stuff, as he says himself. Fortunately, this plotting requires my presence in sunny California from time to time and on each trip I am amazed at the number of other Irish technology people I meet on their way to “the Valley”.
Silicon Valley is the name given to the southern suburbs of San Francisco that run about 150 miles down to the quiet town of Almaden where IBM has its research centre. At its heart lies Stanford University in Palo Alto, surrounded by the offices of many of the world’s greatest technology companies. It’s the undisputed global capital of high-tech. How did this happen?
Everyone’s got a theory. Some say that the DNA of Californians is embedded with the adventurous spirit of the first settlers here – the ones who followed the Gold Rush. John Markoff, a New York Times journalist, has argued in his book What the Dormouse Said that the mind-expanding virtues of drugs helped too. In California in the 1960s, hippies + acid = flower power. PhD graduate hippies from Stanford + acid = modern-day computing. Stanford graduates such as Messrs Hewlett and Packard set up here in the 1950s and within twenty years Xerox were inventing many of the technologies we use in every day computing.
Throw in the Venture Capital industry and soon the Valley filled with enormously rich geeks.
Irish people pop up everywhere in this unlikely environment. On the flight out, engineers and middle-ranking executives sit at the back of the plane while up the front there are the likes of Niall O’Connor from Limerick, the chief information Officer of Apple.
Other leading lights are John Harnett, also from Limerick,at Palm; Tony Redmond the chief technology officer at Intel, Brian FitzGerald at Intuit and Conrad Burke of Innovalight, a solar-energy start-up. The Irish have a history of emigration but from the mid-1980’s we started to churn computer engineers instead of civil engineers out of our universities. That’s when we stopped building skyscrapers and tunnels and started building semi-conductors and cutting edge software.
With all those stock options, Silicon Valley is a rich place. I stay in a hotel in Palo Alto and walk around to the office each morning, slowly adjusting to the fact that I am supposed to smile and greet fellow pedestrians and joggers. The tree-lined streets are perfumed with flowers and weirdly quiet. They have so much space here that buildings are low rise, mostly only two-storey and the noise of their huge cars is lost into the atmosphere.
The serenity is catching : I become conscious of my foot fall. People speak quietly, even the children. It’s beautiful, but surreal. You can’t help wondering if all the loud, crazy people have been rounded up and shipped into San Francisco.
The signs of an ailing economy are evident though. When I pop over to the Stanford Shopping Centre, there’s hardly anyone there. Hardly any staff either.
Hilary Keane works for Enterprise Ireland in their Palo Alto office, helping Irish software start-ups work on their pitches to the venture capitalists. She lives in the city and commutes to the Valley each morning. She pays $75 a week now to fill her 2 litre car, the smallest she could buy when she moved out here. Before you didn’t notice the price and now you do.
The result is that like in Ireland people are getting cautious though due to the software billions, this part of the US is suffering least.
In our little company there are about 25 staff, over a dozen of whom have PhDs. Attracted to Stanford from all over the world, these are some of the smartest people on the planet. Lunch is ordered in every single day. Huge fridges burst with snacks and drinks. Bowls of strawberries and muffins lie around the rest area.
The company pays for a personal trainer and gym membership for everyone. A doctor calls round each Friday, after the weekly barbeque, to see if everyone’s in good health. Employees drift in an out at times that suit themselves.
When I observed this behaviour first I was appalled and took my CEO friend aside. This was disastrous! His company would never succeed if he wasted money like this and didn’t crack the whip. He laughed. This is the way it works out here. You have to be nice to people.
Well if that was the case, he could be nice to me. I wasn’t going to fly home in the back of the plane. I summoned up the audacity to ask for business class travel and was granted it without hesitation. Knowing the cost of the ticket was over â‚¬2000, which is about $5 million given the current exchange rate, I had to walk around for 15 minutes afterwards chanting “I’m worth it. I’m worth it. I’m worth it”.
But am I worth it? What on earth was I expected to do amongst these doctorates and luminaries. Within minutes of my arrival it all becomes clear. They may know something about computers, but I know a thing or two about people. All the fancy programming in the world won’t convince people to use their product and they need me to figure out how to tell people what they do. I am a devotee of the Internet and email but nothing can replace coming out here and looking them in the eye. When you’re in the same room as someone, one look can explain far more than a phone call or email.
Officially then my job is to develop a communications strategy which simply means working out how to talk to people.
I’ve got a PhD in talking alright, and I appear to have talked my way into the American Dream. For the moment it is still a dream though. Then I tap my shoes and wake up back in Enfield. I have the best of both worlds. Theirs is good, but I confess, I’m glad I live in this one.