What Makes Silicon Valley so Successful and Unique?

Silicon Valley is a magnet to which numerous talented engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs from overseas flock to in search of fame, fast money and to participate in a technological revolution whose impact on mankind will surely surpass the epoch-making European Renaissance and Industrial Revolution of the bygone age.

With the rapid spread of the Internet since the early ’90s, and the relentless technological innovations generated through it, the information era is truly upon us, profoundly influencing and changing not only our lifestyle, but also the way we work, do business, think and communicate with others.

The unprecedented success of the Valley is a testimony to the concerted international endeavours and contributions by people from diverse cultural and racial backgrounds, made possible by the favourable political, economic and intellectual climate prevailing, as well as the farsighted policies of the US government.

It is noteworthy that close to 50% of its skilled manpower, including engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs, come from Asia. Prominent among them are Indians and Chinese, and not a few Singaporeans. They include such illustrious names as Vinod Khosla who co-founded Sun Microsystems, Jerry Yang of Yahoo fame and Singaporean Sim Wong Hoo, to name a few.

Many countries have, or are in the process of creating, their own “Silicon Valley”. So far, none has as yet threatened the preeminence of the US prototype. What makes Silicon Valley such a unique entity? There are several crucial factors.

First and foremost, it has the largest concentration of brilliant computer professionals and the best supporting services in the world, and easy access to world-class research institutions, like Stanford University, which continually nurtures would-be geniuses which the industry needs in order to move forward. Without these advantages, the Valley would be a different place.

Secondly, it actively encourages, or even exalts, risk-taking. Hence, failure holds no terror and there is no stigma attached to a failed effort. On the contrary, they will try even harder next time round. Such never-say-die approach is the sine qua non for the ultimate triumph in entrepreneurship and technological breakthrough.

A third decisive factor is the vital role of venture capitalists who willingly support promising start-ups with urgently needed initial capital to get them started. Some would even give failed entrepreneurs a second chance if convinced that a fresh concept might lead to eventual success.

Of equal importance, many bright young people and middle level professionals are keen to work for a new venture at substantially reduced remuneration, as it offers more scope for entrepreneurship and job satisfaction than the established companies. There is also a pride of achievement if their efforts contribute to its fruition.

Intellectual challenges aside, it is a common practice for start-ups to offer generous share options to employees in order to attract the right talent into their folds. This is a powerful incentive to motivate the staff to do their utmost and to share in the company’s prosperity if it reaches its goal. Many regard this as the foundation of a successful enterprise.

Those that have become high fliers, such as Netscape, Intel, Cisco and Yahoo, have turned many of their employees, including support staff like secretaries, into dot.com millionaires overnight, often at the relatively young age of 20s or 30s.

The Valley’s professionals are among the most hardworking people anywhere. A 15-hour day and 7-day week is not uncommon, especially during the start-up stage. They would give up social life, and curtail their family life too, in order to pursue the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It is this single minded pursuit of excellence, supported by strong ethos of team work and esprit de corps, that sustain them until their mission is accomplished.

Paper qualifications, though useful, is not a be all and end all. More weight is given to a candidate’s proven abilities and aptitude for the job. This is amply demonstrated by industry icons like Apple’s Jobs and Wozniak and Microsoft’s Gates, all college dropouts who might not have emerged in a qualification-conscious community.

While racial prejudice no doubt still exists in the United States, albeit in a less degrading form as before, it is hardly discernible in the Valley. What counts most is one’s vision and track record, and not one’s nationality, skin colour or creed. This, together with its multiracial society, informal lifestyle and agreeable climate, lure foreigners to its shores .

Its phenomenal success has led to a worldwide fever to proliferate dot.com companies, both as a prestigious symbol and a quicker way to wealth. Singapore is part of this rising tide. In Consequence, many bright young people have given up their secure jobs to join in the race. But the reality is that, because of its high-risk nature, for every success story there are hundreds who will, perforce, fall by the wayside. Will they get a second chance, given their own operating environment?

However, with the collapse of the US NASDAQ share index earlier this year resulting in the plunge in prices of technology shares listed on it and elsewhere, the hitherto valuable share options held by numerous paper dot.com millionaires have become virtually worthless in these changed circumstances. Those who could not take the heat, as it were, left their employment feeling disillusioned.

Be that as it may, the majority in the Valley view this traumatic experience only as a temporary setback for the industry. They are sanguine that its longer term prospects remain bright as the ultimate potential of the information age has not yet run its full course.They are confident that it will flourish well into this century provided it maintains its cutting-edge in science and technology.

Lam Pin Foo
(This article first appeared in Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao Bilingual Commentary Column on 2.9.2000)

One thought on “What Makes Silicon Valley so Successful and Unique?

  1. Pingback: Hva er hemmeligheten bak Silicon Valleys enorme suksess?

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