PBS recently aired a really great documentary on the history of Silicon Valley. The show focuses on Robert Noyce, and his journey to founding Intel. Immediately after watching the documentary, I was in awe. A group consisting of Noyce and seven other brilliant engineers was essentially responsible for inventing and commercializing the integrated circuit, the foundation for almost all all modern electronics. They managed to make this industry-changing invention within the span of four years, transforming the environment around them into a hotbed of innovation. In many ways, Noyce and his team founded Silicon Valley.
Today’s Silicon Valley embodies many of the principles Noyce introduced: knowledge trumps hierarchy, a handshake is as good as a contract, and employees should participate in the success of a company. These principles weren’t prevalent before Silicon Valley. Rigid hierarchies were the norm, employees were expected to stay at a job for 30 years, and most of the time, the employees of the company were not vested in its success. Silicon Valley is an amazing place to work in large part because of this culture that Noyce created.
One of Noyce’s principles which unfortunately hasn’t endured is the culture of bringing together extremely talented academics to build really important products. Most of today’s “hot” Silicon Valley companies are founded by college dropouts who while smart, don’t have any special knowledge or talent beyond knowing how to write code, aren’t the “best of their field” like Noyce was, and just want to get rich quick. It feels like Silicon Valley is defined by “The Social Network” – start a website or write an app, drop out of college, and become a millionaire overnight.
Noyce and his team were first focused on building technologies to defeat the USSR (the transistors first made their way onto missile computers). After this, they focused on inventing a new technology which would make the world vastly more efficient (the integrated circuit), by allowing rote computations to be performed easily and cheaply. What problems is Silicon Valley focused on today? How to broadcast 140 character messages to the world? How to compose silent video clips? How to share pictures for 10 seconds to your friends? This is downright depressing compared to what Noyce built.
I sincerely hope that Silicon Valley will have a renissance and start developing “real technology” again. I hope that physicists, chemists and truly brilliant engineers will rule the Valley, instead of college dropouts.