A Korean publication has asked me to pen a column that offers an insider’s view of Silicon Valley.
No question, the business of technology has been globalized with innovation coming from all parts of the world. At the same time, I think it’s fair to say that Silicon Valley, this strip of land that stretches roughly 40 miles from San Jose to San Francisco, still represents the nexus of the technology industry.
My kick-off column reflects on my time in Silicon Valley. Here’s the English version.
I moved to Silicon Valley in 1981 two years out of college.
Have you heard the saying, “It’s better to be lucky than good”?
I was lucky in the sense that I moved to Silicon Valley because of the vibrant culture, the raw beauty of the area and a climate that rarely gets too hot or too cold. Little did I know that my new home was about to change forever when IBM released this product called the Personal Computer on August 12, 1981.
Naturally, I didn’t make much of the news at the time. My brother has described my technical acuity as “mechanically declined.” Needless to say, I wasn’t tracking the tech scene.
But that soon changed.
A publication called the Corporate Times asked me to write articles from the transcripts of the editor-in-chief interviewing the movers and shakers of Silicon Valley. In a sense, these ghost writing assignments vicariously pulled me into the technology world. I didn’t know where this was going – keep in mind this is when Nolan Bushnell’s Pong was the avant-garde of video games – but I knew I wanted to be part of it.
My writing for the Corporate Times led to a job with a boutique PR agency focused on the tech industry. Here, I got my first taste of the big time, working on the Philips and Sony collaboration that produced CD-ROM technology. I know it sounds quaint today, but the idea of plopping roughly 600 megabytes of storage on a single plastic platter was mind-blowing back then.
Consider this for a moment. Bill Gates, THE Bill Gates, thought CD-ROM was so important that he personally created and promoted a conference to get the fledgling technology off the ground. Called the Microsoft CD-ROM Show (Mr. Gates didn’t exactly have a way with words), it showcased a range of companies and products including Microsoft’s very own Encarta, an encyclopedia on disc.
My involvement with Philips and Sony also offered up a lesson that has stayed with me to this day –
To understand situations, you need to probe below the surface.
Here’s what happened.
As you might imagine, there’s an enormous amount of documentation in a submarine, all of which resided in paper form in the mid 1980s. Philips had shown the U.S. Navy how it could transform all those binders of paper into searchable digital data on CD-ROM. After more than a year of demonstrations, the final step to closing the sale required signoff from the individual submarine commanders. Everyone thought this would be a fait accompli with the benefits so clear.
Instead the project hit a stalemate.
It turns out that the specific rank and compensation of each submarine commander was partly determined by how much the commander’s submarine weighed. Transferring the tons of paper documentation onto CD-ROM would reduce the weight of the submarine. In the eyes of the commanders, this “weight loss” was a negative, since it would reduce their prestige. Consequently, they wouldn’t sign off on the project.
You can’t make this stuff up.
After four years at the boutique PR company, I decided to strike out on my own and launched The Hoffman Agency in 1987.
Again, the adage “it’s better to be lucky than good” came to the fore.
Shortly after starting the Agency, HP decided to place all of their mini computer documentation on CD-ROM – fortunately, HP did NOT have the submarine complex with weight – and wanted to hire a PR company with a deep understanding of CD-ROM technology. We landed a major name on our client roster – HP – and were off and running.
Reflecting on the tech industry over the past 10-plus years, it’s been amazing to see the twists and turns in creating an industry that not only drives the global economy, but also impacts our daily lives.
For me, the symbol that the industry had moved from adolescence to the awkward teen years came from the Intel Pentium fiasco in 1994. This is when a mathematics professor publicized a fairly obscure flaw in its Pentium processor. Now, this in itself isn’t unusual. Bugs appear in software and hardware all the time.
What made this happenstance so noteworthy is how Intel reacted. Rather than come clean and offer a solution to right the ship, Intel told the marketplace they shouldn’t care about such a trivial issue. In classic engineering language, Intel explained with a certain amount of contempt that the typical user would find an error in the chip’s calculations once every 27,000 years, so let’s move on.
Not the right response.
The resulting firestorm brought Intel to its knees. Finally Andy Grove himself issued an apology, rolling out a program that allowed all Pentium users to replace the flawed chip at no charge. The fiasco showed that the world now perceived technology as part of their lives, not an esoteric backwater.
I think the dot-com debacle is an equally revealing symbol.
What a crazy and weird period. We literally had the CEOs of startups parading through our offices on a daily basis with a same mandate: Get me to an IPO as soon as possible. It was ALL about money. No one was talking about building great companies or products that addressed customer pain points.
I think what often gets lost in this saga is what happened after the meltdown. The world, the tech industry and Silicon Valley kept going. Sure, the following couple of years were tough, but the spirit of innovation resurfaced and kept accelerating to where we are today.
That’s what I hope to achieve with this column.
To share Silicon Valley’s spirit of innovation with you from an insider’s viewpoint.