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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Silicon Valley's secret...

Over at Chris Yeh's blog, there's an interesting discussion about startups and Silicon Valley.

I'll be the first to admit that Silicon Valley has a lot of negatives: real-estate is ferociously expensive, and if McMansion living is your thing, you won't do it here unless you hit a serious home-run. By American standards, it's fairly crowded (although having lived in Beijing and Shanghai, I always laugh when people complain about the crowds here), and most people here aren't "well-rooted", so the sense of community can be rather lacking. (Another of my wierdnesses is I'm a rare native son of the Valley, born in San Jose.)

But Silicon Valley has been counted out after many busts, and has come back every time; even as a kid in the early 1980s, I remember hand-wringing articles in the San Jose Mercury about whether the Valley can get its mojo back. But it somehow always does: in addition to "natural" and obvious strengths such as good weather and top universities, a big and usually overlooked strength of the Valley is a large number of people who've spent much of their careers in startups, and are professionally and personally accustomed to dealing with startup ups and downs. These people make up the early startup team and help to get it from vision to early funding, and if they do well and have a bit of luck, to the stage of being a profitable company doing something useful in the world.

I'm one of those people. I've done two of my own startups, extensively consulted for another, and been an early-stage employee in three others over the years. My "startup niche" is what I call "Number Two in Engineering": I'm the guy hired after the VP-Eng or CTO, whose job is to get the early coding done, set up initial engineering processes such as version control, QA, and release management, early IT stuff (which I get out of as quickly as possible), hiring early team members, etc. I'm not a "suit guy" who talks to VCs or hangs out in strategy meetings; I'm more of a "sergeant" who "faces inward" to get the product up and shipping. My particular technical specialty is complex data management on small systems and devices.

Would I move to Colorado, Boise, or wherever? Maybe if the price was right, and I was convinced it was a can't-miss opportunity. But probably not. Since most startups fail, I'd be wondering about my next gig, which would be far easier to find here in the Valley than elsewhere. The chance to own a big house, likely for a relatively short time, wouldn't be worth the price of uprooting myself professionally, so I'll stick around...

The beauty of Silicon Valley is that it is so resilient and so tolerant of failure.

In some sense, I've been a miserable failure my entire professional career. I've never worked for a money-making organization. But in the world of Silicon Valley, that just means I haven't gotten lucky yet.

God bless Silicon Valley!
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