On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, the historian for the Stanford University Silicon Valley Archives, Leslie Berlin, talks about her new book “Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age.” The book covers the history of Silicon Valley from 1969 to 1983 and follows the careers of seven important — but perhaps less well known — entrepreneurs.
You can read some of the highlights here, or listen to the entire interview in the audio player below. We’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Kara Swisher: Recode Radio presents Recode Decode coming to you from the Vox Media podcast network. Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode. You may know me as someone who makes trouble for a living, but in my spare time, I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode, a podcast about tech, and media’s key player, big ideas and how they’re changing the world we live in. You can find more episodes of Recode Decode on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to your podcasts, or just visit recode.net/podcast for more.
Today in the red chair is Leslie Berlin, the historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University. She’s the author of a new book called “Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age.” It’s about seven exceptional men and women who are pioneers of today’s technology in the 1970s and early 1980s. Leslie, welcome to Recode Decode.
Leslie Berlin: Thanks.
I like a little history. I’m a history buff and stuff like that. It’s nice to actually talk about olden times. I’ve got a lot of issues with the current regimes. Talk about your background. How did you become the historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University and then what the hell are they, essentially?
Yeah. Absolutely. I started out at Stanford to get a PhD in history. I thought I was going to do 19th century race relations, and just decided ...
19th century, not 20th century?
No, 19th century.
A lot went on in the 20th century.
Absolutely, yeah, but the 19th century’s really interested in sort of like, well, slaves got freed, then what happened? I ended up just looking around and deciding, wow, the action here, right around Stanford, was so interesting. At that point people weren’t really studying it as a historical phenomenon even though it goes way back.
No, they didn’t. They think of it as ephemeral in a lot of ways. They don’t care about history, I guess.
That’s exactly right. When I finished the PhD, I actually got a little entrepreneurial myself, and convinced Stanford to create a position for me to be the historian for these archives that already existed. The Silicon Valley Archives are really the greatest collection in the world of old notebooks and videos and different sorts of pages of notes and memos. It’s just incredible, it’s like a time machine back.
Where did it come from? Where was it started? Just so you know, I have a lot of stuff you might want. How did it come into being? Did they just start collecting it, or what was the ...
Yeah, absolutely. The origin was, well, what did Stanford have to do with launching Silicon Valley? It started with looking at that link and very quickly people realized this is so much more of a story than just the Stanford story. It’s just grown and grown and grown.
Because a lot of companies started from Stanford students or on Stanford’s campus, essentially. Google and others.
Right, sure. Stanford from really early on was all about “let’s make connections between this university and the broader technical community,” at a time when ... It’s hard to imagine now, but people were worried about a brain drain from this area of engineers and technical people to the east coast.
All right. Talk about what’s in the archives. You said it’s just a cornucopia. It goes back how long?
Oh my gosh. It goes back to Federal Telegraph and sort of even between the wars. Well, let me tell you some of my favorite collections that we have there.
We have Bill Hewlett’s papers. We have an incredible collection of ...
Yeah, from Hewlett Packard.
We’re going to have to define everyone for the broader audience.
Papers of Bob Noyce, who is the co-founder of Intel, co-inventor of the microchip. Incredible pictures, I think, from a series of photographs taken in the 1980s at video game arcades. What’s amazing about these photographs is you look at them and there are a bunch of girls playing these video games. It just sort of shows you ...
Yeah, it wasn’t always this way. Letters that are back and forth between various people trying to start companies, asking their parents for a loan. Then much more current stuff, screenshots from Second Life and all this sort of thing that really kind of gives a feel for the look, the time, and honestly what it was like to be here. We’re collecting also some of the papers of people who you might not think about, people who worked on the manufacturing lines, something like that as well.
Everything, just everything.
Is this dispersed everywhere? Is it all over the country? I’ll explain why in a second. Is there another place where it has a repository? Because I know there’s the Computer History Museum, obviously, which has a lot of stuff in their archives, a lot of machines actually, which is really kind of interesting.
We’re a really interesting hybrid because we’re a research archive, but we’re opened to the public. We have a lot of journalists coming in, lawyers sometimes trying to figure out, “Wait a second. What really are the origins here?” We get stuff from actually all over the world. It tends to be — it’s very interesting — it tends to be in basements. Often it’s after someone dies we get a call from their heirs saying, “I have this stuff of my dad’s,” usually, “do you want it?” The answer, people are always surprised that the answer is yes because ...
You never know.
You never ever know. Now, there’s a big question which is all this stuff, there really isn’t that much paper anymore. What’s going to happen?
You should come to my basement. I think I have everything you want. I have the original AOL business plan.
Yeah. I’ll get it to you.
All right. That would be awesome.
I have a lot of the original internet company’s business plans, which is funny.
That would be great.
And their press releases and everything else. It’s all on paper and it’s in my basement right now. It’s fascinating. I haven’t gone through it. I want to go through it first, but it’s a really, it is, everything was on paper. Now it isn’t. How do you deal with that? Then I want to hear about your favorite things. How do you do it? Because everything’s not on paper now and it’s all on disks or in the ether or on Slack or whatever.
Right. This is just a huge, huge issue. Stanford is part of an initiative of a number of university consortia and the Library of Congress to figure out what are we going to do about this because that paper in your basement was readable when it was made and it’s going to be readable 100 years from now if it gets out of your basement.
As long as you preserve it.
And is kept safe. It’s almost impossible to even use, like, remember the Palm Pilot? That just wasn’t that long ago. How are we even going to do this? There are people thinking about this and figuring ...
Because they are in emails or in some server, Google or wherever they are, and maybe gone in some way or hard to find actually.
That’s exactly right. It’s the needle in the haystack. Basically, someone said to me people used to file, right?
Now we have millions and millions of emails and not a single one of them is filed.
Or able to be found.
Exactly. It’s actually another place where Stanford has been really cutting edge on developing means for people eventually to be able to go through email, but not pull up personal materials and such. It’s a really sticky wicket.
Absolutely. One of the things that was interesting, I remember dealing with the Library of Congress a long, long time ago. They were trying to save certain early computer stuff and I was working with them about it. One of the things is they didn’t have devices on which to play certain things. They had to have an old kind of different old computers that would play the medium, like floppy disks and things like that, which if you think about it, how would you now play a floppy disk? How would you now look at a floppy disk?
Right. There is a whole universe called forensic archiving and it has to do with exactly this question. How do you get all of this back and how do you not corrupt it when you open it to look at it? You’ve changed all the metadata around it. It’s a huge, huge issue.
Right. We’ve got to go back to paper, I think. Don’t you think, Leslie?
You know, you can read paper forever. As long as there’s no fire or bugs, you’re in pretty good shape.
All right. Talk to me about your favorite things in the archive and then we’ll get to the book in the next session. What are some of the favorite things that are in there?
The piece that I wrote about that I was so excited to have found was a note from, I think it was from 1976, and it’s from someone who had a printing business. He has gone to the garage where Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak are trying to build the first Apple computer. He writes about how there are two young guys in a garage, sounds fishy. Watch out. I love that. The reason I love it is, one ...
I like fishy.
They were fishy. Let’s be honest.
It was just such a strange idea at the time. What’s beautiful about things like that is, one, that guy wrote that note never thinking ... sometimes I think that venture capitalists walk around with like a stack of napkins and they meet with someone and then they write on it, oh, whatever’s going to be huge, and then they put it away so that years later they can pull it out and say, “I knew it.” That just wasn’t the case here. Also, just gives you a sense, because this is totally true, in the 70s, the notion of going off and trying to do your own thing was still very new.
Those entrepreneurs were basically the washouts who couldn’t make it in a real, decent company.
Absolutely. Yeah, they were the washouts. Absolutely. What else? What other things do you have?
What else do I completely love in the archives? I’ve told you about the video game portraits that I love. There’s a scrapbook of Robert Noyce’s that I love from his childhood. He put it together, and it’s a list of inventions that he wants someday to build.
On it he says, “I like inventing things. You can build something important that doesn’t cost very much.”
Wow. How charming.
I love things that give kind of a glimpse in. The lab reports and such that are coming out of these companies at a time, you’re just watching them. Sometimes you ...
You know the ending.
Yeah. Exactly. You see these subject lines and they’re things like vented frustrations or what am I doing here? We’ve all been there. There’s something really wonderful about seeing that.
That the people inventing the future were frustrated just like anybody else.
Absolutely. They’re running up against walls all the time.
A lot of these companies also have archives, right? Some of them have their own. I know HP has some of that and some of the other companies. Do you work with those or do they bring those to you or how do you figure?
It’s a totally bespoke process. Different companies, we’ve worked with companies who want help setting up their archives. For example, when Steve Jobs went back to Apple, he really wanted to focus that company and focus it on the future. They had a whole library and a project to start a museum. That entire collection, which I think is something like 600 boxes, came to Stanford. It happens in a number of different ways.
You got those boxes of Steve Jobs. Anything interesting in there?
You know, it’s so vast. There’s some very, very interesting videos and such, training. You can find so much, but you ...
Everything is interesting to you.
What do you do proactively now to get people ... Like Snapchat. Do you pick companies and say, “We need your history”?
Yeah. There’s a big educational process, a big component, because these are places that are completely focused on the future. Very often what happens is it’s only once an anniversary is on the horizon ...
Right, the 10th anniversary.
Right, where they’re like, “What happened to all our stuff?” That’s a good time to talk to them.
That’s why I have all the originals. They gave them to me and they’re like, “Watch them for us.” They forgot that I had them. I have quite a few of them. They had them sitting in a desk or something like that. I’ll never forget, they tried to give me at AOL, there was one great moment at AOL where they all signed this dinosaur, which was Microsoft. The whole company signed it. We’re going to beat the dinosaur. Everyone rushed up and it’s signatures of all the original employees of AOL.
They wanted to give me the dinosaur. I was like, “It’s a piece of plywood shaped like a dinosaur. I don’t have anywhere to put it.” They were like, “We think it’s going to get ...” I think Ted Leonsis has it. Someone has it. It’s an important moment and it has every signature.
Some of the graffiti at Facebook, I know they pulled it off the walls. It was very important graffiti for them. They pulled it off the walls and put it into frames so they would have it. They had a sense of history there, much more so than other people. It was interesting, the physical stuff, do you collect those things too, the physical?
Yeah. We do have some of the physical stuff as well.
Such as computers?
Yeah. I mean we have, actually, as part of that Apple collection we have basically every piece of hardware that they had developed up until that time.
Yeah, you know Walt Mossberg has one. You should ask him.
Is that right?
He’s got everything. He’s got a whole museum.
He would have quite a treasure trove.
He would have it at his office and might have it, you might want to ask him. I think he’s got almost every device ever made, all the iterations of them, which is interesting. You also are doing that physical objects?
Like the first StarTAC, for example.
Also, just trying to, and it’s not just that too. It’s also the manuals and such around it, which to me, that is not my personal ...
I’m really into the people and the stories, but there are people who are so fascinated and how did all this work.
By manuals, right. Exactly. All right. We’re going to get into that more. How many people do you have working on this at Stanford? How big an initiative is it?
We’re integrated in with the whole special collections team, so it’s probably, all said, I guess a couple dozen people.
That are trying to take care of this.
Yeah, and other collections across Stanford. Part of what makes this so very cool is that at Stanford, people see this as part of a story of American history, part of a story of international history.
Yeah, hundreds of years from now it will matter more.
Exactly. It didn’t happen in a vacuum. I think that people think about computer history or history of technology is something that just sort of showed up. Something that you learn very quickly is there’s a reason that this happened here. There’s a reason that it happened when it did. We’re able to kind of tell that story.
Tell the story.
Yeah, because we’ve got the expertise across all these different fields.
All right. We’re going to get back, we’re going to talk about the stories you have in your book. We’re here with Leslie Berlin. She’s the historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University and the author of a new book called “Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age.” It’s about seven exceptional men and women who were pioneers of today’s technology in the 1970s and early ’80s.
We’re here with Leslie Berlin, the historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University and she’s the author of a new book called “Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age.” It’s about seven exceptional men and women who are pioneers of today’s technology in the 1970s and ’80s. Tell me about this book. What was the impetus for this book and what you were trying to achieve?
With this book, I really wanted to, A) talk about more than one person. My first book was a biography of Bob Noyce. He deserved a full biography, but it really was apparent to me that innovation is a team effort. It’s a team sport. I wanted to be able to talk about more than one person, and also talk about people across a variety of industries.
The reason I wanted to do this particular time period — the book starts in ’69 ends in ’83 — is that before this time Silicon Valley was this obscure little place where it was gearhead engineers selling to gearhead engineers who used chips. Within just not even a dozen years, really, if you add up the time, the most activity, you had ... The video game industry was born, personal computer industry was born, biotech — which no one talks about — biotech was born right here. Modern venture capital took root. The first Arpanet transmission comes into SRI. It’s like you’re watching the Big Bang. It was so exciting to me.
It reminds me of the Beatles and how in 1963 they’re doing Little Richard covers and by 1970 they’ve completely transformed music and the broader culture. Also at that same time, you see the roots of things like the celebrity entrepreneur is really born. Also, the real effort to send people to Washington and try to promote the notion of tech as an important part of the economy. It’s all happening during that time.
Talk about why that is. I want to hear about who you thought were the most exceptional people, these seven people. Why don’t you list who they are, the people you are focused on.
Sure. Do you want just their names?
Yeah, and who they are.
One person is Bob Taylor. Bob Taylor is the guy who convinced ARPA — the Department of Defense, really, to start the Arpanet that became the internet. Then he ran the computer science lab at Xerox Park that Steve Jobs visited and saw the graphical user interface and other components for the first time. Then he went to DEC and was the head of the group that invented an electronic book and also Alta Vista, one of his key researchers.
Search engine way before Google.
It was the search engine that wasn’t Google.
DEC was the computer company that wasn’t Microsoft, right? Apple, I guess. IBM.
DEC definitely was ...
DEC was not IBM.
That’s a funny way to think of it, yeah. Absolutely. Another person I profile is Mike Markkula. Mike was ...
Very important person.
Yes, who is really not well known at all. Most people know Mike as the investor behind Apple. They usually don’t even know that he owned one-third of Apple with Jobs and Wozniak.
Yes he did.
What interested me about Mike is that if you think about it, Jobs was 21, he had 17 months business experience. Wozniak didn’t want to be an entrepreneur at all. He just wanted to be an engineer at HP. He had to kind of be dragged into starting Apple. It was Mike Markkula and the people from the chip industry that he brought in who made Apple from that little garage company with admittedly two geniuses, but still, a tiny little idea ...
Yeah, there’s lots of geniuses.
Into the youngest company ... Exactly. Exactly. They were the youngest company to hit the Fortune 500. It’s because of Mike and the people he brought in to help.
That’s an excellent choice.
He was super interesting and someone who had always been in the back. He wrote software under a pseudonym, Johnny Appleseed. That’s how much of a back ... behind-the-scenes guy he was.
I write about Sandy Kurtzig, who is the first woman to take a tech company public. She was a software entrepreneur at a time when software just ... I mean, Larry Elliston when he started Oracle talks about how he went to the venture capitalist’s offices and not only would they not talk to him, they would check his briefcase to make sure that he hadn’t stolen BusinessWeek on the way out. Talk about something that sounded fishy. Here you had Sandy Kurtzig sort of doubly an outsider because software and she’s a woman. When she said she was selling software, people thought she was selling lingerie. It was crazy.
She did, she started Ask and was the CEO of this company that she actually didn’t start in a garage, but at her kitchen table, which I think is kind of a nice touch.
Another person who I profile is Niels Reimers. Niels was the person who at Stanford was sort of a mid-level staffer who convinced the university that they ought to be able to make some money and in the process get ideas out to the rest of the world by patenting the ideas from their faculty and staff and students. Before Niels started what is now called the Office of Technology Licensing, in the previous 13 years, Stanford had gotten $3,000 total in 13 years from their faculty and students’ inventions. Now that number, thanks to this office, is two billion. Two billion dollars. One of the first ... actually, one of the very first ones that he patented was the idea for recombinant DNA. Niels’s story blends into the story of Bob Swanson and the birth of Genentech and the biotech industry. Swanson was sort of the business side of the Genentech start.
Another person is Fawn Alvarez. Fawn is an incredible story of a woman who, when the book opens, she’s 12 years old. She’s picking plums for pocket money in the bucolic haven of Cupertino, California.
Fruit fields and orchards.
She gets a job on the manufacturing line at Rolm, which is something a lot of people don’t know that there used to be factories in Silicon Valley. Someone had to build the computers and the chips and that all happened here. Then she moves off of the manufacturing line and eventually ends up as the chief of staff, effectively, to the president of IBM Rolm when Rolm was acquired by IBM. That is a career path that doesn’t really exist anymore. She was able to buy a house. She had the same benefits as other ... even when she was on the manufacturing line, they didn’t get stock options, but they could buy stock very cheaply. It’s a part of the Valley’s history that’s just gone.
The final person I profile is Al Alcorn, who is the designer of Pong.
I really wanted to make sure that I just had a straight-up engineer. Al is a super interesting story. I wanted to make sure that these were actual stories, that these were narratives.
Exactly. I wanted them to read, have a beginning, a middle and an end, and the people actually get somewhere different. Those were my criteria. They had to be ...
Pong. Explain Pong.
It was a game.
Pong was a video game.
First video game.
Really, first popular.
First popular video game. You look at it now and it’s sort of like a rectangle hitting a square across what’s supposed to be a ping pong net.
Yeah. It was fun. I played it a lot when I was a kid.
It was totally radical because most people in the world at that point had only, the notion of interacting with your TV was completely ... Nobody did it.
Pong was the first thing.
Yeah. People wanted to know, how did the networks know that they had moved the paddle so that they could transmit that? It’s hard now because we’re here to dial it back and imagine what it was like at the beginning.
Sure. It’s like not understanding a car before you saw one or a plane or anything else.
You told these narratives and your goal was to tell these stories. Was there a story that was common in all the narratives or was there something that knit them together or all different?
They were certainly different.
Different stories, but were there things that knit them together?
I feel there was a common theme that I would describe as these were people who were audacious, for the most part. They were persistent, which I think people don’t necessarily recognize often needs to come with audacity. It’s easy to go blazing out with guns firing, but then you have to kind of keep it up.
They were doing it for a purpose. They were not sort of these, “I want to blow things up for the sake of blowing them up,” or even, honestly, “I want to blow things up for the sake of making money.” It was, “I want this idea to reach the public. I want computers to be able to talk to each other. I want everybody to be able to have the power of electronics at their hands.” These were actually quite lofty goals at play here. That, I think, was an important unifying theme as well.
What about the sense of place? Because it’s all in the same place. You talked about all these things were invented in one place during one period. People talk about the Renaissance or wherever something big happens in one place. What was it about here that mattered, besides Stanford University? And I do think it’s critically important.
Stanford was critically important. I think that there was sort of three things at play here. One was it was just plain old good old-fashioned luck that William Shockley, the co-inventor of the transistor, his mother lived here. He wanted to be near his mother. The transistor arrives at a time that it’s ripe for change, and I’ll get to that in a second, but the transistor is an incredibly powerful and flexible little tool. It’s like the tiny grain of sand inside a pearl. Kind of everything that has come since you can think of as a layer of the pearl having been built on it.
You take this incredibly powerful technology and you drop it into a place that, on the one hand, of course, is fully integrated into the most advanced economy on the planet at the time, and at the same time itself really is still rural. They were able to basically custom fit an ecosystem around this technology that was really sort of designed for entrepreneurship and to promote it.
The third thing that I would really point to is the culture out here. It was, this particular time, was the ...
Exactly, and that sort of openness and rebellion. It was a very potent combination to stick that technology in those people’s hands. And because they were so against the war, most of them, you really had people who normally would have gone to the DOD or to defense contractors because they are experts in microelectronics or graphics, are suddenly freed up to be playing with this technology in a way that ...
And making things.
Exactly. Those things all combined. At this point now we’ve got 40-some-odd years of ongoing perpetual motion machine happening here such that you’ve really got quite the finely tuned organism.
Right that it is. It’s the place and the tonality and the culture and the mentality and the money, the venture capital. As you said, the invention of modern venture capital really did happen here.
Did you include, you didn’t include a venture capitalist in this list.
I didn’t as a separate person, but there’s certain people. Don Valentine actually funds Atari and he funds Apple and he’s one of these old microchip guys. Burt McMurtry is all over it. Kleiner Perkins backs. Genentech and Tandem. While they aren’t, I don’t have one who is a main one. Same one, actually, as attorneys or the PR and marketing people. Larry Sonsini appears in this book, although he’s not profiled. Regis McKenna is super important.
PR for Apple.
And Intel and Genentech, actually. The same guy introduced the world to the microprocessor, the personal computer and biotech. Actually, he’s the guy who came up with the idea of let’s send tech execs to DC rather than lobbyists and sort of put a face on this technology.
So that we get more funding and different things.
Exactly. Plus, this tech, it’s still really hard to understand, but imagine what it was like back then.
To explain what this is and make it a critical part. Yeah, Regis McKenna, right. I didn’t think about that. One of the things that’s really striking is you’re not profiling people that are so well known. You could have gone to Jobs and all the early ... Obviously Bob Noyce was very important, but there was a list of higher-level people that you didn’t look at. Why do you think it’s important to look at these other people? I agree with you 100 percent, by the way. I’m not arguing with you. What was your goal in that?
My goal in that ... I actually wonder if the seed was planted at a party I was at a long, long time ago. There was the COO of a company with a very famous CEO and the COO started singing this little song. The words were, “I did all the work, he got all the credit.”
That’s a little song I’ve heard.
I wonder if that planted a seed, because the people who get the credit often deserve credit and they never deserve all the credit. The honest ones would be the first one to tell you that they don’t. I think that growing a company is such a complex business, and I really wanted to be able to ...
Cohesive teams are critical.
Exactly. That’s exactly right.
There are people who switch things a different way just by being there, like Mike Markkula. I think you’re right. It wouldn’t have happened that way without his critical influence in different ways, or any of these people that you talked about. One of the things about Silicon Valley, things jump off from other things. Pong jumped to something else, jumped to the idea of interaction. It introduced that idea. There’s a lot of ideas that look like failures or have had their time but haven’t finished yet.
Yeah, I mean that actually points to, just as an aside, the importance of basic research. You never know exactly what’s going to end up coming out of these different operations.
Or I was talking to someone the other day, they were making fun of Google glasses. I said it’s an important invention. You don’t understand. It’s not today, but later there’s going to be a facial thing on your face that you’re going to do AR on, but not that one. Just not that one, which is interesting. A lot of the failures, I know it’s kind of a trope with Silicon Valley that failure is a good thing. I don’t necessarily think it’s a good thing, but the conceptual ideas are good things, not necessarily the product. They just failed.
I think so much has to depend on why did you fail. Did you fail because you’re an idiot?
Yes. All right. When we get back, I want to talk about Silicon Valley now as opposed to then and what are your thoughts on the evolving-ness from these people and do you think the people today are reflective of what was originally happened or perhaps a mutated version or where it’s going.
We’re here with Leslie Berlin. She is the archivist at Stanford University for the Silicon Valley Archives, and she’s written a book called “The Troublemakers” about people from the ’70s and early ’80s who had been critical, people you might not know about, being critical to the development of Silicon Valley.
We’re here with Leslie Berlin, the historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University. She’s also the author of “Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age.” Why did you call it “Troublemakers”? Because they just made trouble or what was the ...? I like troublemakers.
Yeah. I amend it with all of the positive connotations of risk taking and mischief making. I think that these people were making trouble because the existing structures just didn’t, they couldn’t do what they needed to do. I think any time that you’re pushing through a barrier, you are making trouble for everyone around you because you do leave a little bit of disaster in your wake sometimes.
Sure. Absolutely. Do you imagine that still exists today? Let’s take a bright line from these people. What is the good parts of what has remained from these beginnings? Because it was a counterculture movement, it was people that were different, it was a more tolerant community, essentially, allowing differences, but it seems to have morphed into something else.
There’s now ... we’re in the middle of the sexual harassment things, lack of diversity, huge companies that have huge influence over the whole country and maybe aren’t using their power quite so benignly. Can you talk about that concept, the idea of what it’s evolved into? Do you have any thoughts about that?
Yeah, sure. I have a lot of thoughts about that.
I think that some of the good that has maintained is the spirit of risk taking. The welcoming of outside perspectives ... The way you see this most clearly is in the role of immigrants. When this book opens, it’s 1969, and in the past 20 years, the population of Silicon Valley has tripled and you basically had the equivalent of a new person moving into Silicon Valley every 15 minutes for 20 years straight.
You have this constant refresh of new people. They’re coming in, they’re younger, they’re better educated than anyone who’s been there before. At that point, they’re coming from other parts of the U.S., but by the end of the time that I’m writing about they’re coming from around the world. We’re running about two, two-and-a-half times of the percent of the population is immigrant as the rest of the country.
Absolutely. At this point we are at two-thirds of the people who were working in the tech industry right now between the ages of 25 to 44, two-thirds of the men, actually, 76 percent of the women were born outside of the United States.
Hello. Pay attention, Donald Trump.
Whenever people ask me what’s the biggest threat to the Valley, that’s always my first answer.
Immigration, 100 percent.
Yeah, 100 percent. I think that openness has been an important thing we’ve maintained. Something that I really have been scratching my head about a lot, I genuinely don’t understand this, is how the same place that can be so open to immigrants has been so closed to women. I really don’t get it. I’m not understanding. I’d be curious to know if you had any thoughts on that.
I just had a guest on talking about the ideas that a lot of these computer labs were like this and they’ve just now become the most powerful people. They had that mentality and it just carried out into the broader part. I have my saying that I always say that they think they are a meritocracy but they’re a mirror-tocracy. They are super comfortable. It’s a very common human trait where you are comfortable with people that look like you or act like you. I don’t buy the socially awkward and they can’t get along with women crap. That’s crap.
The act like you for sure, but a lot of these people, they don’t necessarily look like you. There are people coming from other parts of the world. I like the mirror-tocracy. I’ve heard you say that.
I think it’s not just that, not just the white, although it is. If you look at the numbers, they pretty much are that, especially in the critical engineering jobs. If there’s people from Asia or India, or India is in Asia, but Asian or other parts of the world, it’s really interesting that they also do fit the mantra of a nerdy tech. It’s the same person, essentially. It’s not necessarily color, but you don’t see, say, a lot of African Americans. You don’t see a lot of older people. You know what I mean? It’s not just women, but it’s sort of a hostility towards men. You can see it, just these stories coming out just one after the next.
I do think it is because of a tolerance for juvenile behavior and celebrating perpetual youth. Not in the Hollywood sense, although that’s certainly just a different iteration of it. It’s the idea of young and grow and break and who cares as a toddler kind of things. If you let toddlers run things, you’re going to get what you got, essentially.
What’s so interesting is I open the book with Steve Jobs’s 2005 commencement address at Stanford, which is justly famous. It’s been seen tens of millions of time. There’s a part of it that I think people kind of skip over, which is he talks about when he was first fired from Apple, he called David Packard. He called Bob Noyce. He said he apologized for dropping the baton. I think that sort of notion that there’s a handoff of a baton from one generation to the next to the next.
Jobs didn’t talk about it, but Zuckerberg has talked about how Jobs was important to him. Google founders, same thing. I think that this notion of what’s derisively called adult supervision, the people who are smart, I mean Zuckerberg went and talked to Bob Taylor. The people who are smart are leaning on the guidance of the people who came before.
I think something interesting about your mirror-tocrcy point, to sort of talk about what’s good and what’s bad, I mean what we’re seeing there is, to me, the shadow side of Silicon Valley’s great strength, which is the networks. For a long time, these networks have completely transcended industries. They’ve transcended companies. The PayPal mafia is a great example. There was one of these at Xerox Park where these groups of people work together and then they disperse.
General Magic was one of them.
General Magic is a great example. What we see now is this really important question of what if you’re not in the network? Those networks are so powerful, but then how do you get in?
Right, or how do you create new ones that will give you just as much power and access? I think that’s right.
Exactly. How do you convince the people on the inside of the networks of the value of opening them up? Because data does not ... I mean, for such a data-driven place, it’s very strange. It’s been shown again and again and again that increasing diversity of all sorts creates more valuable companies.
Yes. I think one of the issue is it’s not ... It is malevolent, but it’s not malevolent misogyny that’s so obvious as has been in other industries where it’s just real misogynistic. It’s misogyny in a very pleasant clothing. “I’m a nice guy. I don’t mean to do this.” Then what happens is a lot of the men have no clue what’s going on with the predator types and don’t seem to care, don’t take the time to care.
When we did a lot of the coverage we did recently on sexual harassment, even going back to the Ellen Pao trial, every woman — I say this all the time — every single woman had at least six stories in Silicon Valley, every one of them. They range from the very microaggressions to “you should smile more,” “don’t you look pretty today” to really, serious sexual harassment. Very few of the good men knew it. Either the women didn’t tell them, and I always try to think when I think historically, where does that come from. They just didn’t, they were insular to this group and why therefore would they care what they thought?
The original Apple had a lot of women on that team, Susan Kare, a whole bunch. There were tons of important women there and then they went. Now you look at that and Apple doesn’t have a lot of women at the top in the really influential positions, but certainly did at the beginning. What occurred? Did motherhood occur? They couldn’t keep up? Did misogyny? It’s really hard to wonder.
Yeah. It’s interesting. I was talking just the other night with Sandy Kurtzig who is one of the people in the book. She was saying that in her day, the sexism was just overt. She was the CEO of a company and people would ask her to bring them coffee. She would just flat-out be told, because she wasn’t started out doing manufacturing software, “A woman can’t do manufacturing software.” A woman can’t do manufacturing software. She felt like she knew what she was up against.
I think that of course the opportunities for women now, I believe, are better than they’ve ever been in this particular industry. They’re not where they need to be, obviously. I think it’s a pernicious sort of ideology, an almost unthinking-ness is something that is different and in some ways harder to combat.
Absolutely. You can’t face it head on. When you complain, you seem crazy. It’s almost like a gas-lighting of the situation. You know what I mean? You’re like, I’m sure it’s there. How does it end up in this way? You’re just imagining it. You have lost of opportunities for women and you’re like, do you? Do they get promoted? It’s a really interesting thing. There’s all kinds of solutions presented, but I do think it goes back to the history of who started it. They just hold onto this mythology. I think that’s the problem with history. There’s history and then there’s mythology of history, which I think there’s all these tropes in Silicon Valley from the beginning days of what they think they were.
It’s like the tropes around the United States of America. We always, oh we’re this independent da, da, da people and then we leave out the slavery, we leave out the brutality, we leave out ... There’s a really great Ta-Nehisi Coates essay about this just recently. We leave out the parts that are, we’re very good at leaving out the inconvenient parts of our history, which I think is important. Is that hard when you’re a historian when you come across sort of negative stuff around the people that you’re depicting?
I think you can’t do the job if that’s going to be hard for you. I mean, you as a journalist have experienced exactly the same thing.
Yes, but his stories have papered over lots of things. A lot of historians have tried to paper over ...
Well, sure, especially if you’re taking on something as huge as trying to understand the entire roots of why something happened. You have to pick an argument, and sometimes tracing that argument out means that you’re going to leave aside things that aren’t directly contributing one way or another to it. I think this is where the paper record is so important. It’s right there in black and white, or in this case it’s right there on video is where we’re really catching it now.
How do you then translate that when it’s video, but then again, more and more, there are probably really important Snapchats. I’m certain of it. There have to be, or texts, or something like that. I bet there’s super important text going on.
I think about it now, 20 years later, but I didn’t do texts. I did emails and then later text with Marc Andreessen. I’m like, should I save these because most of them are like, “Did you see that movie?” You know what I mean, some are so mundane. Some of them are like, “Are you selling Netscape? Why are you selling Netscape?” You know what I mean? Something like that. I’ve been vaguely aware and then I never do anything about it because I know they’re important at the time, but then don’t preserve them.
I think that one of the problems that kind of holds things up is that people seem to think that they have to sort through, like, I’m going to go through and cherry-pick out all of the ... And that is actually the job of the historians. First of all to figure out, and plus that sort of like did you see that movie kind of thing gives you the context in which you can kind of talk about these relationships. It’s really important, yeah.
Years ago when I was at the library, when I was working at the Washington Post, and I understood that these persons were going to be important. I wanted to do interviews with all of them then, 20 years. Marc Andreessen then and Steve Case then, and then I wanted to say then we’ll do them later. Then we’ll have young Marc Andreessen on video or young Steve Barksdale.
Like Seven Up, yeah.
You know what I mean? Then later we’ll have it. I do think that often about some of the interviews we’ve done at All Things D 15 years back. I mean, they are an archival treasure trove someday. I do think about that. Someday, people are going to watch those and right now News Corp owns a lot of them, but hopefully they’ll give them up. They are. They are like Steve Jobs over the course of his most productive years interviewed. The only interviews they did. There’s something very valuable in that.
Absolutely, it’s like a time-lapse photograph. You watch someone learning. Not just learning how to present themselves, but learning what they’re about.
Also lying. “I’m not going to make a phone.”
Then the next year, “I lied about making a phone.” It’s great because you have him actually lying about not doing a phone on the record, in a video thing. It’s kind of interesting to think about. Same thing with photographs and things like that. Do you spend a lot of time on photographs?
Yeah. Photographs are a complete treasure trove, in part because they show you what things looked like around them. Very often I’ll look at a picture and I really don’t care who the person is in the picture. It was like, wait a second. I remember seeing a picture of Mike Markkula in his office at Apple. I remember he looked a little bit like John Denver. The main thing is ...
The “Rocky Mountain High” days, right.
Exactly. There’s nothing on his desk. There’s nothing hanging on the wall behind him. There’s sort of a file cabinet and there’s a coffee maker, and that’s it. That sort of thing gives you so much ...
Exactly. You totally get it. Photographs are also really frustrating because so often they include people you don’t know who they are. I know Stanford in the past has had events where basically you invite people to come tell you, “Who are these people?”
“Who are these people, what did they do?” There’s one photograph I’ll never forget. I hope you will put in your archive. It’s one of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates together when we did the interview. Gates did not want to do the photo. He just didn’t. He did, eventually, but it was hard to get them to take a photo together. They had some issues that day and their history, essentially. One of the things that appealed to them was Walt and I were like, “This will be for history in 100 years. This is the photo that you were together. You’re the two greatest, you know, one of the two greatest people in the history of tech and you need to have a photo together.”
It was really funny. I think that’s what got him to do it, I think. “You’ll be dead and this will be the photograph.” Nobody will know what they were saying before they took that picture except for me and Walt and the PR people, because they were arguing. You know what I mean? If you knew it, you could see just a little bit of “eh” in the smile. It was really interesting. They tell a story without telling a story, which I think is interesting.
That’s right. Stanford is actually in the process of developing the technology so that people can annotate things online. We’re still a little ways out from that, but people will be able to say ...
Like a Wikipedia thing?
Yeah, but actually the image and maybe do it through a voice recording or something like that.
Right. “When I was taking this picture, this is what I remember.”
I’d love to do that, like, “They were arguing, FYI.” They really were arguing over something.
Lastly, I want to finish up on the lessons that you’ve learned from doing this and what the lessons are we can have today looking backwards at history. When you look back at history, you can learn about what you’re doing going forward. What do you think are the key things people should keep in mind, especially during this fraught time?
Yeah. The first one is that the first shall be last and the last shall be first.
Very biblical of you.
Yes, exactly. Actually, people can see this any time if they go past Facebook, where if you’ve ever wondered why the Facebook sign changes all the time, the answer is that there’s a huge piece of vinyl that is literally bungee corded around the front of the sign for Sun Microsystems that used to be there.
Microsystems. Marc kept it there.
He kept it there specifically. I checked with him.
It’s true. He told me that.
He kept it there to remind people that this can all go away.
It will go away, not can. It will.
It’s such a lesson. Andy Grove, right? Only the paranoid survive kind of concept.
And don’t survive.
Change is just sort of coming on. The second thing that I think is really important to bear in mind is this notion that ... Silicon Valley is most interesting to me because it has been wave after wave after wave of different technologies coming up here. There’s always been ... Think of Detroit. There are regions that have been built around technology at full stop, but here it’s been like we’re chips, no we’re computing, no we’re biotech, no we’re video, now we’re in cloud, now we’re doing networking, now we’re doing mobile.
Exactly. It’s all just sort of built on top. That, in part, is due to, for my money, two things. One is this baton pass concept and two is the influx of new ideas from all over the world. I think that’s very important to bear in mind.
Last question: Is the past prologue? That’s a question for a historian.
Yeah, I mean, the past ... No. The past is so deeply interwoven into everything that we do and are that we don’t even recognize it. It takes a superhuman feat of self-awareness to say to yourself, “I’m keeping what’s good and I’m changing what isn’t.” In these fraught times, it’s really important to recognize you have to physically and intellectually wrest yourself out of those grips.
The present, out of the present. When you think about, we had Eric Weiner from the Geography of Innovation, this will pass. The next place might be China or something like that. What is the cycle of this innovation, or can they keep it here for good?
I think what we’ve seen already is that there are plenty of other tech regions, right?
Still not Silicon Valley.
No, but I think that Silicon Valley at this point wouldn’t exist without those other regions in play. I think we have to change the model a little bit in terms of feeling like this is a zero-sum game.
It has to be analogue.
Exactly. There are and there will continue to be these regions, and I think the winner is going to be whoever can be most attractive to the people who are most likely to be the innovators.
Right, which will be hard. It’s really interesting. I have a theory of everything called “Babylon was,” like Babylon used to be important. It was. I think the people here should keep that in mind, like how easily it can slip away essentially or just does, it just does by lack of openness, lack of tolerance, lack of diversity. Those are always the things that end up killing these innovative cultures.
Although the government can do a good job of killing it, too. I think that people really underestimate how important the government has been to the rise and ongoing success of Silicon Valley, everything from stuff that we totally take for granted, like generally speaking, and we hope it continues, the rule of law. Clean water. This is just stuff we don’t even think about, but honestly it puts us on third base relative to most other countries.
Then there have been all sorts of legislation that’s passed, changes in rules, decisions not to change rules that have ended up paying out really, really well for the tech industry. I think that we can’t forget that we have this notion that the valley is the result of individual effort. Of course it is, but that is predicated on a whole system that needs to be maintained and recognized and course-corrected when it’s going off.
Right. What can the government do?
What can the government do now? I’ve been thinking about this just like everybody else, right? What I think we can’t do is start saying we’re going to charge these companies with the responsibility of, say, determining what is real, what is fake. I don’t see how that’s going to work. I do think there is some validity to these questions around are these companies functioning more and more like utilities? I think that’s something that if the answer to that is yes, then there are ways to act.
My latest thing is that I’ve decided that we as consumers and citizens need to be more responsible for what’s happening. I’ve been thinking that we need ... One way for us to at least begin to get a slight hold of what is happening to our data that is then being fed into these algorithms, AI and these neural networks is — and this is so small — do you remember how credit cards used to be that you’d get your statement and then buried deep in the fine print it would tell you if you pay your minimum amount you’re going to pay forever? This is called compound interest.
Now there’s big letters on your credit card statement that says if you only pay the minimum amount, you’re going to end up owing three times. I would love to see something like that for terms of service that basically said if you click this box, you are saying that we can collect the following information about you and we’re going to use it in this way. I think that we need to be making some conscious and sometimes difficult decisions around am I okay being the product or not?
Right. That’s a very good thing to end on. Leslie Berlin, this has been fascinating. I think you should run Silicon Valley, frankly. Thank you so much for coming on the show. It was great talking to you.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.