Geo Week News

February 7, 2013

Jumping Ship

Silicon Valley

I am a sucker for documentaries and all things tech so I couldn’t resist watching the PBS Series American Experience when I saw that the episode was on the creation of Silicon Valley. I already knew most of the story but I had underestimated the effect that these developments had on the type of careers we all have today. Obviously, the integrated circuit and microprocessors are necessary for everything that we do but I am speaking about the culture of the workplace(s) in which we find ourselves.

Every year I am on the receiving end of 150-200 business cards. However, I’d wager that fully a third of them are from people I already know who are providing their new contact information as they are now working with a new firm or in many cases striking out on their own. As a business owner I had always taken a negative view of this. What I saw was a lot of wasted time and energy spent looking, interviewing, hiring, and training new employees. This documentary reminded me what it was like back in the “good ole days.” Back when you started working for a company with the expectation that you would be there for the next 30 years or until you decided to retire. The level of entrenchment and hierarchal structures enforced a class system that discouraged risk taking and innovation. Trying to find a new job mid-career left potential employers with the impression that something had gone wrong in your past or you would still be with your former employer. All of that changed when a group of eight engineers left Shockley Semiconductors to form their own company, Fairchild Semiconductors.

Over the next 20 years these men developed a new type of business culture. Their culture was a direct response to the East Coast type of business culture that then dominated technology companies up until this period. Due to events at Shockley Semiconductor they had come to the conclusion that smart, well trained employees have just as much potential for good ideas and innovation as those in upper management. In effect, a culture that promoted “openness over hierarchy, risk over stability, and innovation over the tried and true.” Over time, this became what we think of as the Silicon Valley way of operating. Profit sharing, stock options as employee pay and the practice of a competitive meritocracy all came out of Fairchild Semiconductor; as did more than 100 new companies that were spun off by former Fairchild employees. These included companies like AMD and Intel.

Check this out:


So, here we are today reaping both the rewards and headaches of this culture. No one expects to put in 30 years or retire from their first employer anymore. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think many of us expect to be able to retire at all anymore! However, I have always had the feeling that if I worked hard and kept my eyes open to new ideas, opportunities would be there for me. I think I owe these men a debt of gratitude for that above everything else. I still hate the amount of waste from people that jump ship every six months for a $100 a week raise in pay. And if recent news reports about “No Poaching” agreements between Apple/Google/Palm/Pixar/etc. are any indication, I’m not alone. However, it has not stopped people from going out to form their own start-ups; and certainly hasn’t slowed down the pace of innovation. My Dad used to tell me that you had a choice in how you wanted to live. You could choose the “Merry-go-round” or the “Roller Coaster.” The merry-go-round is nice but the view never changes. The roller coaster is exciting but you have to be prepared for a lot of ups and downs. 

So far I’m really enjoying the ride.

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