Life in the Valley

By | June 17, 2008

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 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 crèche 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 €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.

26 thoughts on “Life in the Valley

  1. Joe Drumgoole

    Hi Sarah,

    Great news, If I’d known you were back in the market I’d have tapped you for some help with PutPlace :-) Palo Alto is actually the best village in the valley. Check out the Peninsular Diner for breakfast.


  2. Sarah Post author

    Hi Joe, the Enterprise Ireland people were very impressed with you :-) So passionate 😉

    I haven’t downloaded putplace yet, but any day now!! i REALLY need it. Nothing backed up and images all over the place.

    The jet lag is murder though. I’m home since Saturday and still all over the place. Functioning but struggling.

  3. B

    Read anything by Seth Godin. He is a master marketeer. I just finished Meatball Sundae. The yanks love his stuff.

  4. Hugh

    Hi Sarah,

    I was just out in SF for an extended trip – shame I didn’t know you were there, I spent several days in Palo Alto.

    Anyway, you must have been taking some of those mind-bending substances yourself, as it’s only about 50 miles from San Francisco to Almaden… 😉

  5. pete

    Well done on landing such a great job.
    Your description of what you saw there is great, it really captures the scene and atmosphere.
    The signs of economic slowing are worrying though – if things are bad there, I wonder what they’re like in the rest of the US?

    >Theirs is good, but I confess, I’m glad I live in this one.
    Not twee, just a bit sudden and unexplained. WHY are you glad you live in this one?

  6. Sarah Post author

    50? it seems longer? :-) I was going to check that with someone – I should have. Oops :-)

    I think I’m glad I live in this one as things seem…artificial there. Maybe that’s because I’m not used to it but to me there’s something much more comforting (and I acknowledge that’s because I’m just used to it) about our society. We have a class system but people seem closer together. Particularly so in rural areas where I literally stop to chat to the street sweeper about politics. Dublin is ghettoised but even there people seem more in touch with reality. But then…for the software guys in the Valley, that life IS their reality, so I’m not knocking them. And for the most part they are liberal, left of centre, environmentally conscious etc.

    I suppose..Ireland is….grittier? I feel grounded here. But then, I freely admit I’m a pathetic traveller. I like going places but only on the condition that I know precisely where I am going, and when I am coming back :-) I’m a home bird. Sad but true :-)

    Hugh I’ll let you know when I’m out again, just in case!

  7. Electron

    Sarah, It doesn’t make any sense that such talent has to move to California when we are part of a European Union of 500 million inhabitants. Irrespective of what your views are on globalisation, education is paid for by our taxpayers and now a country that doesn’t offer similar social benefits to it own citizens, now befitting from ours. There is a serious inequity here and the more our talent move there, the more it reinforces their system, while it undermines ours.
    The No vote may bring us to our senses and for the first time, force us to become self reliant like Switzerland, where two companies Nestle and Ciba-Geigy have revenues of 100 Billion Euros between them. Forget about the Valley, from now on it’s what we can we do for ourselves that matters.

  8. Sarah Post author

    Two things

    1. People in elites will always gravitate towards the centres of excellence. Nothing you can do about that. The company I work for has people from South America, Europe (inc UK) and all over the US.
    2. It’s not all about a brain drain.

    The Enterprise Ireland people I met told me some great stories of how they utilised the diaspora to attract foreign investment INTO Ireland, When they originally tried to get Intel to move to Ireland, Intel refused on the basis that we didn’t have properly trained people. So the IDA hosted a big dinner for the exiles in Stanford and gave everyone questionaires about their work. Of 300 who attended the dinner, 70 worked with semi-conductors. So they got their CVs, bound them up and sent them to the head of HR in Intel. That persuaded Intel to at least visit the country. Then they put out a call around the rest of the world amongst the Irish community working in technology and got THEIR Cvs and sent them on. The rest as they say is history.

    John Hartnett and Conrad Burke agreed that a hugely important factor in Ireland’s technology success is the fact that so many HAD to emigrate. It gave them fabulous international experience which they could then bring home. Conversely, people like Hartnett began their careers working for US tech companies in Ireland and used that as the bounce to succeed abroad. Now Hartnett is on the ITLG (Irish technology leaders group) which advises Irish start-ups in the Valley on how to get VC money etc.

    So the point is, you can’t see it in terms of “we should stay at home”. Its a cycle with huge rewards.

  9. john

    Sarah this is a wonderful article-rich in imagery. Your mention of flower power reminds me of the great song Let’s go to San Francisco (The Flower Pot Men) That group was actually English. It brings to mind great Californian groups such as The Beach Boys, The Doors,The Byrds,Iron Butterfly-great exponents of psychedelic rock. Who can forget the Eagles and Creedence Clearwater Revival? And of course the late Jeff Buckley was Californian. California has traditionally bubbled with musical creativity. I suppose some of this must translate to computers.
    The pleasant climate is conducive to work.

  10. John Dinan

    Just came across your great description of SV & the quietness/ politeness/ etc of it. I worked for Disney in the late ’80s and the ’emphasis’ on being nice to people (ie. visitors) was high pressure stuff. Yet African Americans and Mexicans were limited to menial tasks… not very nice. For me the Truman Show rings true for a lot of California.
    Great blog BTW.

  11. Electron

    Sarah, the story about how intel was convinced to come here is famous – that, however, was then, but by now we should have grown up and become less dependant on IFI. It seems ridiculous to have to locate an Irish led software company outside of Ireland – a sales office perhaps, but a head office? There must be something seriously wrong with our approach to start ups here. I use specialised software in my products and I get it done by specialists in Australia, France and the U.K. – I don’t have to move to any of these locations, in fact, I’ve never met any of them, and I sell into all of these countries and many more including the US and Canada – the products are assembled in China – now that’s globalisation as it should be.

  12. B

    Our approach to start ups here is to tell them to F off.

    I have been involved im multiple start ups but you may as well be talking to the North Korean government. We spend SIX years trying to expand one company but were told that the village of 60 people nearby wasn’t demanding broadband so we couldnt have it. We got it about 2 weeks ago. Business is now doubled. We were told to move the business closer to the exchange. We told we couldn’t because ships have terrible difficulty on roads and we could not alter the geography of the country to suit Eircom.

    We are not looking for hand outs or special treatment. We just want to run a business. The State makes it as difficult as humanly possible. Don’t even get me started on Intrastat returns.

    I am unapologetic in lambasting the State because they are absolutely useless unless they are self serving. People tell me to move or I am anti Irish but I am involved in four businesses here and I fight hard for every inch. It should not be so difficult but it is.

  13. Electron

    Another point – Messrs Hewlett and Packard wouldn’t have got so far so fast but for WW2 – their little oscillator got a great boost and there were other military contracts too. All these miracle companies got hidden boosts from state contracts – the requirement for microprocessors grew out of the need for quick retargeting of missiles during the cold war. Maybe a yes vote to Lisbon would have propelled Ireland into the arms business – the universities wouldn’t have a problem with research funding then. When I was a boy, my first job was with a defence contractor during the cold war – they always had a full order book and the prices were multiples of those charged for commercial units. Keeping it brewing was good for business.

  14. Sarah Post author

    Yes Electron. The US Navy had their main R&D for electronics (in Sunnyvale I think) and for a long time only the military funded technology research. So Stanford became the first source of civilian capital for research. Then the whole Sand Hill Road thing took off and acted as a magnet. So the whole thing developed..organically is the word. Ireland has produced some good companies, e.g. Iona, but there’s no use complaining about the whole Silicon Valley thing. All we should do is leverage it to our benefit as best we can…
    oh and as for HQ.
    The Company I work for is not Irish, it just happens to be run by an Irish guy.
    The guys I meet going out on the plane work for Irish companies with an US office (and their VCs are out in the US) or for American companies with offices in Ireland.
    It cuts both ways!

  15. Jeff Beck

    Great article. Just a few quick comments. Tony Redmond is not the CTO if Intel. I think he’s a director at HP in Palo Alto.
    John Hartnett, Conrad Burke, ITLG are a really great group. They have a website but I cannot remember the URL. Best to do a Google on them if you want to set up shop in Silicon Valley.
    – Jeff

  16. Gerry

    well you might as well get it right. He is a VP at HP Services not the CTO of HP. Not that a $17BN organisation is something to be sniffed at, don’t get me wrong.

    Electron, the valley is a huge talent pool and an incredibly fertile place for the exchange of ideas and for meeting and hiring the brightest minds on the planet. You don’t have to be there, but it helps. I have never quite got why Irish businesses tend to open sales offices there though or why EI encourages it. If you are only selling to other IT organisations then you have missed your market a bit. Sales people are among the least likely to benefit from being there.

    There is also an argument that it tends to restrict thinking. For example VCs jump on the ‘next big thing’ and direct investment at it (social networking currently) and away from what might actually be better ideas. There are assumed truisms also that rarely get challenged (google owns search, MS owns the desktop, Oracle owns the server etc) so the challenges to these orthodoxies (Ubuntu, Firefox, MySQL) get developed outside the valley.

    Ireland has a pretty poor talent pool and getting worse if it can’t attract migrants. You can get around this by remote working as you demonstrate but the face to face cross fertilisation is not there and this is evidenced by the complete failure of any Irish companies to emerge and survive on a global scale despite 20 to 30 years of domestic and foreign investment.

    the UK is similar. I can only think of Sage which is largely a domestic success story anyhow and insignificant globally. Yet the valley churns out $1bn organisations almost annually it seems and makes it look easy whereas the evidence from everywhere else is that it is extremely hard. That’s special and ambitious people will want to go there.

  17. Sarah Post author

    I think the reason EI urge a presence in the Valley is for VC purposes.

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  19. Robert Stinnett

    Oh my, heaven help us all if a company is nice to its employees. By golly, they need to stop all this employee-friendly stuff and immediately institute draconian, turn of the century work conditions. Because WE ALL KNOW that productivity only occurs between 8AM – 5PM, and only when the boss is watching over you. Anything you do after those hours, even if it earns the company millions, is “luck” and shouldn’t be counted.

  20. Jeff g

    Well, you certainly have your work cut out for you. The product is a massive POS after having been reviewed by thousands on Cnet, TEchnow, Digg & Reddit ect…. I personally used it and it couldn’t even find its own name and forget about safe surfing. Sorry you got roped into this as I don’t think even PR could pull this thing out of the toilet. Bad software is bad software. Unfortunately, those at the top will get the blame but hey, this is the Valley and everyone knows it takes a few failed models to find the giant.

  21. Mike

    its only about 50 miles from San Francisco to San Jose. And there is no town of Almaden.

  22. Bob McClean

    I’ve only just found this article (via a Cuil bashing story in The Register) and I have found it fascinating and annoying in equal measure. Fascinating because who doesn’t enjoy looking over the garden fence to see what the wealthier, cooler (cuiler?) neighbours are up to now? Annoying, because as part of a small group of guys who raised €8millon Euros of VC money in Dublin circa 2000, I never got to have as much fun frittering it away.

    In fact we didn’t fritter it away – we pretty much did everything we said we were going to do, including running out of money, but that’s another story.

    I have no doubt that the culture of freedom, relaxed working practices and putting an emphasis on fun in SV startups and tech companies has engendered a fair degree of innovation and creative thinking. I just wonder though, have the vast amounts of VC cash swilling around the area for the last few decades masked the fact that the same level of innovation could have been developed in other ways. Sometimes it seems that the first creative idea a SV startup CEO has is “how do I burn all this cash in a new way”.

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