Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Invention of Silicon Valley.

I've just finished The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley, by Leslie Berlin. It's a remarkable book. Living and working in Silicon Valley, you can sometimes forget that there was a time before integrated circuits and venture capitalists. Berlin does an excellent job of documenting the creation of the Valley and the emergence of an industry.

Her work on Noyce's boyhood and very early career is fascinating. He grew up in the Midwest. As a boy, he designed and built technical toys, like an aircraft powerful enough to lift him and his twelve-year-old brother when it was pulled behind a neighbor's car. Through a very good high school teacher, he learned of the Bell Labs work on transistors almost immediately after it was published. His fascination with the device led him to MIT, and into industry.

He quickly discovered an entrepreneurial streak in himself. That led him to Santa Clara, still a tiny town in the midst of apricot and orange groves. He worked for William Shockley, but strong personal differences drove him and his colleagues out, and together they formed Fairchild Semiconductor. Several years of success at Fairchild led Noyce and others to found a company called Integrated Electronics, shortened to Intel.

Besides Shockley, the book is loaded with names that industry veterans will recognize: Eugene Kleiner, Andy Grove, Gordon Moore, Arthur Rock and many others. There is the obligatory collection of Steve Jobs stories, in which the unkempt and ill-mannered teenager invites himself into a central role in the Valley and the industry. Noyce even rubbed shoulders regularly with Warren Buffett, as both were on the board of Grinnell College in Iowa. Intel is one of the very few technology investments that Buffett is on record as endorsing, but his endorsement carries an important qualification: "We were betting on the jockey, not the horse."

It's hard for an entrepreneur to read the book without identifying with Noyce -- his mix of passion and pragmatism, and even his professional failings, will be familiar to many who have started companies.

As much as it's a history of Noyce, though, the book is a history of the Valley, and the business and economic forces that shaped it. Berlin documents this wonderfully here:

In the same way that [Tandem, Atari, Genentech and others] build on the previous generation's technical advances, they also took advantage of the network of suppliers, venture capitalists, equipment vendors, specialized law and public relations firms, contract fabs, and customers that had sprung up in the past decade to support high-tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. By 1983, more than 3,000 small consulting firms in Santa Clara County provided new companies with startup expertise and continuing help over the early years of operation. Many of the chip designers, glass blowers, fab houses, and die cutters that catered to Silicon Valley high-tech entrepreneurs were themselves small privately-held firms. This "supply chain," most often mentioned for its support of small companies, is itself an entrepreneurial phenomenon.

You read a great deal these days about the emergence of high tech economies in China, Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Berlin's observation here is critical: You can't create an entrepreneurial powerhouse without a substrate of small, entrepreneur-driven companies competing to provide consulting and services to the tech companies. It simply isn't possible to direct a one hundred million dollar firehose of capital into a region and drive fast economic growth and innovation. It takes time for the ecosystem to produce a diverse collection of suppliers and consumers. In the Silicon Valley, these companies evolved simultaneously with the tech companies they served.

Of course, entrepreneurs today have an important advantage over Noyce: The global Internet, built on the integrated circuit that Noyce and his colleagues invented at Intel, allows companies to reach across large distances to share work and products with others. In that sense, the Silicon Valley that Noyce invented has become a global phenomenon.


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