Way back before Google and Facebook and even before Apple, eight brainy engineers defected from a semiconductor company to start their own transistor business. Led by the brilliant Robert Noyce, they were the men who made silicon king and who started the movement that became Silicon Valley. If you’re wondering how Silicon Valley came to be, this is how.
Noyce and Gordon Moore invented the microchip and also founded one of the biggest names in the Valley: Intel. Yes, it was a BIG name back in the day and its president, Andy Grove, was a big personality. His strict arrive-every-morning-by-8am rules were legend. I once had a girlfriend who had the perfect way to circumvent this. She’d leave her coat and purse in the car and walk in as if she’d arrived hours ago and had just been to another building. Sly. The roots of Silicon Valley go deeper than indulgent management and frisbee in the halls.
When I got to Silicon Valley in 1984, semiconductors still reigned supreme and within a few years I ended up working for a division of one of the biggest names: National Semiconductor. Tech was still way traditional back in those days. Men and women both wore business suits to the office. We worked long hours in dreary cubicles alongside engineers and sales support staff.
When Casual Fridays came along–we could wear “business casual” to work– it was a big deal. Men could sport Izod shirts and women wore slacks. Whoopee!
Then I moved into the disk drive industry–that was the height of mass storage in those days. (The cloud? Not even conceived of. ) Things didn’t loosen up much at that workplace, though. Except for sales meetings. Oh, those sales meetings! Drink and drugs and the exchange of room keys, yes those WERE the days!
The new TV show, Halt and Catch Fire, tries to recapture those days, and while it’s getting good reviews, the first couple episodes were….boring. The 1980s aren’t far enough in the past to make for interesting period drama, like Mad Men. The clothes weren’t as cool, either–they were stodgy, the furniture was stodgy and if you weren’t part of the shiny, sweaty, drug-fueled Studio 54 disco crowd back then, well, you, too, were stodgy.
Remember the blouses with big bows tied under our chins? Horrible. What WERE we thinking?
“Meh!” to the show. But living it? The mid-1980s into the late 1990s had their own excitement. The Valley was the center of the universe as far as we were concerned and we always felt rooted in the work of the Traitorous Eight, those big brains who started the whole thing.
And then, times changed.
Along with the new millennium came the dot-com boom…
…with 22-year old company presidents and free food and frisbees at work. Every day was Casual Friday and more. While we had been lucky to get reduced rates at a local gym, these new upstart companies tried to outdo each other with amenities like massages at work, in-house yoga and a zen room. It was not a good scene for us old-school tech workers in our 40s and 50s who climbed the corporate ladder one rung at a time, instead of leaping to the top with no career experience.
I was reminded of all this when I recently participated in some research for PayPal at their perfectly modern high-tech campus. Young people strolled the green manicured grounds near a water feature and bridge. I walked into the lobby and saw this:
I marveled at how far we’ve come from the days when Silicon was king and a new king, at that. As a young professional in her 30s working in the most exciting place on earth, I had no idea that the workplaces of the future would be so…
I sat down at a table near the water with two young professional women. Oh, so young and earnest. So bright and professional. They were me, I thought, or rather, I was them all those years ago, before they were even born.
Sitting there with them, I realized that there’s nothing left of our old high-tech world, not really. The Valley moved on long ago and our world would be considered quaint and even irrelevant.
Although it was our generation of workers that built the computer revolution. The world didn’t just begin with the internet, you know.
Most of the time I don’t feel old, but that day, looking around PayPal, talking with these modern versions of myself, I did. I felt old.
I know one day those two women and their peers will be my age. What seems so contemporary and fun about their workplace will be supplanted by something even more modern, although I can’t conceive of what that might be.
Then again, I couldn’t conceive of this, either:
Progress requires change. And no one prepares you for the day when change has outpaced your experience and even your memories.
If you’re interested in old Silicon Valley, I’ve got some reading for you.