Leslie Berlin discusses her book about Silicon Valley’s origins, and some little-known yet significant innovators.
For decades, Silicon Valley has been synonymous with innovation. But California’s tech hub has also taken hits lately for the negative aspects of its corporate culture, including sexism, racism and greed. That makes the history of how it developed interesting reading. The stories that have come out of the region are the stuff of legend, and many of them have been captured in a recent book by Leslie Berlin, project historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University. Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age takes a long view and tells tales of some lesser-known innovators. Berlin discussed her book and what she thinks the future holds for the Valley on the [email protected] show, which airs on SiriusXM channel 111.
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Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age by Leslie Berlin
And edited version of the conversation follows.
[email protected]: Your work for the Silicon Valley Archives planted the seed for this book?
Leslie Berlin: Stanford has an incredible archive that collects old papers, video, audio and emails of people and companies all across Silicon Valley. You can’t help but fall in love with the history as you touch the things that these people touched, read what they wrote thinking no one was ever going to see it. Then years later, they decide to give it to Stanford. The magic is very real. It’s so exciting to see that and then try to put what can seem like random bits of information and incredible stories from across the Valley into two covers.
[email protected]: Has Silicon Valley always had this dichotomy of culture?
Berlin: Yes. The same thing that makes a place incredible or a person incredible can sometimes be their blind spot. In the 1970s, you have the same pursuit of innovation and excitement, and also change and doing things that people really felt needed to happen. With the Vietnam War and then Watergate, there was a real sense not only of “we can do this” but “we have to do this,” that the big institutions are not going to protect us. Combine that with the California counterculture that was already here and you get that sort of spirit.
“The same thing that makes a place incredible or a person incredible can sometimes be their blind spot.”
But audacity can sometimes flip to arrogance. Silicon Valley was part of the broader American culture, which at the time was incredibly sexist. In 1974, a woman couldn’t get a credit card without her husband’s signature. Sexual harassment wasn’t even acknowledged as illegal until 1977, I believe. With the good comes the bad, of course.
[email protected]: Your book focuses on some of the lesser-known names of Silicon Valley. Everyone knows Steve Jobs, but what was it about these other people that made you want to write about them?
Berlin: I think it takes nothing away from the people in the spotlight to recognize that, usually just outside that spotlight, there are so many people without whom the other person couldn’t be where they are. I talk about having gone to a party once where the COO of a company with a very famous celebrity CEO was singing a little song. The only lyrics to this song were, “I did all the work. He got all the credit.” I think innovation is a team sport and we need to recognize all the different people on these teams.
The criteria I had was pretty straightforward. I wanted people whose names were not household names, not just for the fun of discovery. How often do you hear about a celebrity engineer? But no engineers, no Silicon Valley. So, I wanted them to be people who weren’t necessarily well-known, people who were important and people whose stories were absolutely fascinating.
I write about Mike Markkula, who owned a third of Apple with Jobs and (Steve) Wozniak, and who was able to parlay his genius into a company at a time when there were dozens of little startups with people trying to build personal computers. It’s Markkula who turned that company into the youngest company ever to hit the Fortune 500.
[email protected]: I don’t know if anybody today associates Mark Markkula with Apple.
Berlin: Yes, it was a really exciting discovery for me. I had written my first book, which was a biography of Bob Noyce, who was the co-founder of Intel, co-inventor of the microchip and an important mentor to Steve Jobs. While I was writing that book, Markkula, who had worked with Noyce at Intel, said, “Hey, if you ever do another book, I’d be happy to help you with it.” I didn’t really think anything of that. Then I started looking at this time period and the early years of Apple and started realizing, “Wait a second. Jobs and Markkula are signing the annual report together. What is this about?” Not only was Markkula so important, but so was that entire generation that had come before — people who worked in the semiconductor industry. If you look at Apple when it went public in 1980, you had the president, the chairman of the board, the VP of manufacturing, VP of HR, the chief legal counsel, VP of sales — all of their first important investors were all former chip people.
“Silicon Valley was part of the broader American culture, which at the time was incredibly sexist.”
Suddenly, something that Steve Jobs said in his 2005 commencement address at Stanford made so much sense to me. He talked about how when he had been fired from Apple, he felt like he had dropped the baton that had been passed from David Packard to Bob Noyce to him. I thought, “Wow. This is a real thing, this generational hand-off is a really important part of understanding what makes Silicon Valley tick.”
[email protected]: You talked with Allan Alcorn. He created Pong, which was one of the first commercial video games. It was so simplistic when you think about it now, but that game was transformational.
Berlin: It absolutely was. We’re talking about a time when people didn’t have computers in their houses. When you had a screen, you were looking at either a slide, one of those transparencies that people used to have at their jobs, or a broadcast by the television networks. The notion that you could do anything on a little box in front of you at home, and what you did affected the movement you saw on the screen, was astonishing to people. Even back in the arcades, this was crazy to people. One of the founders of Atari told me that he used to get people asking him, how did the networks know that you had turned a knob that would change what you saw on the screen?
[email protected]: You also talked with Sandra Kurtzig, who was one of the first female entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.
Berlin: Larry Ellison tells a story about trying to raise money for Oracle, going around with his two co-founders to venture capitalists and not only being rejected, but he says they would check his briefcase to make sure he hadn’t stolen a copy of Businessweek. This seemed like such a crazy idea.
Silicon Valley was all about hardware at the time, and here comes Sandra Kurtzig not only doing software [as the founder of ASK Computer Systems], but a woman. People thought she was selling lingerie when they heard that she was doing software. She built this entire company from her kitchen table, outside the existing networks in Silicon Valley.
[email protected]: What has she said about the culture in Silicon Valley?
Berlin: I was just talking with her about this the other day. She was saying that the opportunities for women now have never been greater, and companies that really look at the very solid research that shows the value of diversity are the companies that have been more innovative and creative in their thinking. I think that Sandy is a very practical person, and that’s something that comes across not just about her, but everyone in this book. She took the situation that was handed to her and turned it into what she needed it to be.
[email protected]: I’d be interested to get your opinion on the immigration issue and how it has affected Silicon Valley over the years.
[email protected]: Silicon Valley has always been built by people who weren’t born here. In the beginning, it was people coming from other parts of the United States. But by the 1970s, the percent of the population that was born outside of the country was already about double what it was in the rest of the United States. Now we’re at the point where two-thirds of the people working in science and technology in the Valley today were born outside the U.S. More than half of the so-called unicorn companies that are privately held with a valuation of a $1 billion or more have someone born outside the U.S. as a founder or co-founder. You don’t have Silicon Valley without immigrants.
There are things we need to be working on. I think there has been some pretty good evidence that the H-1B visa system is not being used exactly the way it was intended. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that no immigrants, no Silicon Valley.
[email protected]: The companies of Silicon Valley are also dealing with tough financial and regulatory issues here and abroad that affect not only them, but the regions they are in.
Berlin: Yes, that’s absolutely right. A lesson that has come out again and again is that these companies and founders are often surprised by how huge what they started out to do has become. I open the book with a quote from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ where Indiana Jones and Sallah are talking, and Indy says, “I’m going after that car.” Sallah says, “How?” Indy says, “I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go along.” That has really been part of what’s happened in Silicon Valley for a long time. When you’re dealing with very big companies that are doing this, it looks really different than when you’re dealing with a scrappy little startup.
“Silicon Valley has always been built by people who weren’t born here.”
[email protected]: What’s the opinion of the tech movement now? Silicon Valley is still the hub, but we’re starting to see more innovation pop up in different places, including Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Austin.
Berlin: Seattle is a great example. It’s another huge tech region. But everything you’re pointing to shows the shift to software. It used to be you had huge factories in Silicon Valley to build this stuff. Now that we’ve moved much more to software, people with a computer and an internet connection are able to innovate. That said, I think what has continued to make Silicon Valley the hub of the wheel is that there is just a finely tuned ecosystem that came up around high-tech. This was an agricultural region before tech came here, so they were able to custom-build a business environment. At this point, we’re dealing with almost 75 years of perfecting that environment that’s really worked to Silicon Valley’s advantage.
Of course, it’s really hard to disentangle the tech from everything else because it’s underpinning everything else. We have been seeing whole areas of the world that are devoted to different parts of the tech economy and that is just part of globalization.
[email protected]: Any concerns of a tech bubble?
Berlin: It’s a cyclical economy. It has gone up; it’s going to go down. It has happened again and again. To me, the real threat to Silicon Valley would be some sort of immigration restriction. That’s what I would worry about.
[email protected]: Is there still room for Silicon Valley to keep growing?
Berlin: As somebody who lives here, I sort of look around and think it’s very, very crowded. I think, “Oh, I don’t know how much more the system can take.” But then I go back and look at 2001, when they were saying there’s no room for growth.” Or you look in the ’70s, and there are emails saying, “It’s the end for Silicon Valley. Too crowded. Too expensive. No room for innovation. Silicon Valley comes to an end.” I don’t know how it keeps going. It does just keep going.
Article by [email protected]