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An outsider’s guide to Silicon Valley

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I’ve recently had opportunity to spend the better part of a week in the San Francisco bay area. I explored, schmoozed, and took notes on the people, the culture and the interactions I witnessed. This trip has been an eye opener for me; it has helped me to understand a lot about the mentality and motivations that drive the people who make the software I use every day.

In Silicon Valley, ideas have value. This, by far, is the biggest take away from the entire trip. It is a dramatic contrast to the culture of my home province of Alberta. Back home, ideas are an inconvenience. Ideas are not something that worker bees are paid to have, and they certainly aren’t paid to express them to the rest of the hive.

The currency of Alberta is labour: the implementation of other people’s ideas. My entire life, I’ve been taught that ideas are delivered by rote learning: you are taught them in schools, read them in magazines, or receive them from someone higher up the food chain. I’ve been lucky to have the occasional client who is interested in my ideas, but as someone who regularly generates a great many ideas I have often felt out of place.

Silicon Valley is different; here, ideas are encouraged from all sides. There is a recognition that everyone can have a good idea, and that these ideas can lead to real money. Ideas have such value here that they are closely guarded; the easiest way to draw quizzical stares is to share ideas freely. Outside of corporate brainstorming sessions, this just isn’t done. The generation of ideas is expected to occur under NDA, or at the very least with a fat contract involved.

Once the shock of wears off and people realize that you have a different viewpoint and are willing to share ideas freely, the notepads, recorders and cameras come out. There’s money to made off your intellectual generosity, and this is an entire culture dedicated to the business of doing just that.

The generation of ideas is key to the survival of Silicon Valley. Novelty is what provides these corporations the momentum necessary to avoid stagnation and eventual death. A culture that treats ideas as currency balks at the mere implementation or refinement of extant concepts; “doing one thing, but doing it really well” leads to boredom, and eventually staff exodus.

Silicon Valley is filled with people who do not necessarily crave being the best. It is filled with people who crave the challenge of new intellectual puzzles. Put enough universities in a confined area, foster a culture of academia and intellectual reverence and you have a multi-million-person idea factory. Once the ideas are past the brainstorming stage however, it is often time to take them out of the valley.

I ran into a lot of folks form the southern US on my trip. I began to realize that there was a very good reason that so many of these folks were present in the valley. They represented the implementers. They are here to take an idea back to a completely different culture. The gentlemen from the southern United States worked closely with their west cost brethren, but they valued above all the art of doing.

In companies that have established a good cadence for bringing products to market a familiar pattern has emerged. Once an idea has proven to have a market, it is handed off to a separate team to implement, refine and slowly evolve. These people glory in perfection; the art of doing a job right. They are not a culture of dreamers and ideologues, they are a culture of engineers. Craftsmen of the highest calibre who take pride in their work, for they believe it is the quality of that work which stands as a testament to their existence.

This is the yin and the yang of the IT world. Implementation is worth nothing without something to implement; novelty is worth nothing if the idea cannot be made to work.

The third leg of the IT tripod were those folks I encountered from the east coast. There were not as many of these folks, but the impression they provided was overwhelming. The take away from the east coasters is that they grok people. They are salesmen of the very highest calibre: charisma and charm, schmooze and cunning.

These folks were in the valley for one reason: to bring completed products to market. Their job is to figure out what the current state of affairs is, figure out how the product can be sold, and then go forth and sell it.

These are no slimy used car salesmen trying to upsell trash for a margin. These are people who look for break points in development where a product can be marketed before entering another round of refinement and evolution. These are people who do numbers; risk assessments and projections, focus groups and polling. They are the social glue that binds the culture of ideas to culture of implementation and prepares the combination for consumption by the masses.

Nothing is so simplistic of course; neither of these cultures is so segregated that one cannot exist without the other. While it is certainly possible to run a successful business confined to either region, the overall cultures they nurture – the everyday subconscious signals that each of us receive from those around us since birth – place a completely different societal value on different skillsets in each of these places.

The cultures we are raised in have a noticeable effect on our ability to take advantage of our genetic predispositions; to recognize and utilize our innate talents to their fullest. Finding the right culture for a given set of requirements – corporately as well as socially – can help us grow as businesses and as individuals.

I now understand how Google went from a single rack of servers to the GDP of a small nation, or how Hewlett and Packard could start a technology revolution from their garage. This realization has real world impacts on a personal scale as well. It is by combining approaches to problem solving that we will see optimal results. Don’t try to force the “one true way” on everyone. Instead, it is worth the time to get to know – and nurture – the natural talents of those you work with.

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