Lessons to be learned from history of Silicon Valley


I’m a huge fan of Apple and of the history of personal computer technology and consumer electronics. Thus I really enjoyed and highly recommend Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age by Leslie Berlin. While I found a few minor technical points I could quibble over, the book is extremely well written and based on many interviews with founders and their notes and documents.

If you ever wondered why it seems to be easier to start a company and/or get funded in Silicon Valley than in Boston/Cambridge you will wonder no longer after reading this deelply researched history of the Valley through the stories of several of the key players including:

Steve Jobs, Regis McKenna, Larry Ellison, and Don Valentine are Mike Markkula, the underappreciated chairman of Apple who owned one-third of the company; Bob Taylor, who kick-started the Arpanet and masterminded the personal computer; software entrepreneur Sandra Kurtzig, the first woman to take a technology company public; Bob Swanson, the cofounder of Genentech; Al Alcorn, the Atari engineer behind the first wildly successful video game; Fawn Alvarez, who rose from an assembler on a factory line to the executive suite; and Niels Reimers, the Stanford administrator who changed how university innovations reach the public.

I was especially interested in the story of Bob Taylor, the driving force behind Xerox Parc, the inventors of the graphical user interface, Ethernet, laser printing, and much more. Unfortunately the suits at Xerox never got it and as many people know, Steve Jobs did and commercialized many of Xerox’s breakthroughs with the Macintosh and Apple Laserwriter. The huge differences between the East Coast, risk averse, button-downed hierarchical, stiff-backed culture and the freewheeling, risk taking, experimental and collaborative culture of the West Coast are one of the themes of the book, and Xerox is the canonical example.

The best quote about Bob Taylor was when he was explaining what he did at Xerox Parc: “The researchers don’t work for me, I work for them.” Founders and CEOs should keep this in mind. I always viewed my job as a manager as helping my staff to succeed, but I love Bob Taylor’s attitude. He was not only an incredibly effective manager of the best group of computer scientists every assembled, but was beloved by one and all of them.

Leslie Berlin is Project Historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University. She has been a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences and served on the advisory committee to the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Leslie has been a “Prototype” columnist for The New York Times and has commented on Silicon Valley for the Wall Street Journal, NPR, PBS, the BBC, The Atlantic and Wired, among other outlets. She received her PhD in History from Stanford and her BA in American Studies from Yale.  She is also the author of The Man Behind the Microchip, Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley. Also highly recommended. I can’t imagine a better person to write this book, though I’m not fond of the title as I don’t really see many of the key figures as “troublemakers” – they were inventors, entrepreneurs, geniuses, and yes, disrupters. They were makers more than troublemakers.

Leslie Berlin takes a novel approach to writing history. Instead of a linear, serial history of each company and its protagonist, she interleaves the stories of them all so you get a great view of what is happening during various time periods in the Valley. While it can be a little disconcerting jumping from the founding of biotech and Genentech to the founding of Apple Computer, Inc. and back again, her parallel approach really works to give the reader a 360 degree view of the Valley, and not just of the founders but of venture capitalists and important players like Regis McKennna marketing wizard behind Apple and many other very successful companies in the Valley and elsewhere.

Even though I’ve read just about every book about Steve Jobs and Apple there was a lot I learned, especially about Mike Markkula, who one person called “Steve Jobs personal trainer.” Without Markkula there would have been no Apple Computer. And there’s a great story about how Steve Wozniak finally decided to give up his safe and cushy job at Hewlett Packard to join Jobs in starting Apple. Evidently a friend of his explained to him that as a founder of the company he could remain an engineer and never have to become a manager!

The differences between managers and “individual contributors” are larded throughout the book. Perhaps the best example are the suits from Xerox who berated Bob Taylor for not turning his researchers into managers! Both Wozniak and Taylor fully understood the Peter Principle – every researcher in the computer science division at Parc reported to Taylor – there were no middle managers, period.

Keeping your organization as flat as possible for as long as possible seems to be a key success factor in many Valley companies, a stark difference from the hierarchical command and control model of the East Coast. There are many other lessons and best practices sprinkled throughout the book, but I’m not recommending as manual for founders but as a fascinating history for those curious about the history of the Internet, biotech, the personal computer and the technology we all use every day.

The icing on this wonderful cake of a book is a lengthy bibliography which is well worth skimming even if you never read the book itself.


Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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