Tuesday, September 6, 2011

12 Year Old Steve Jobs Meets Bill Hewlett (of HP)

I was eating pho with a friend the other night and he pointed out how grateful he was to be living in the one spot on the planet where it was easiest to contribute to the creation of the products and services that are driving massive technological change across the planet.  This is a big picture, technology-as-a-force-for-awesomeness perspective I had not been reminded of in some time (with all the noise of who is filing to go public, what are all the 65 companies in the last YC batch doing, etc.).

It also reminded me of how much I love Silicon Valley.

Here are 3 of the many reasons I love Silicon Valley:

1. Steve Jobs (at the age of 12) meeting Bill Hewlett (CEO of HP).  When Steve Jobs was a kid, he grew up in Mountain View.  HP was right around the corner and at the time was being run by Bill Hewlett, one of its co-founders.

To quote the HP website:
When he was in eighth grade, Steve Jobs decided to build a frequency counter for a school project and needed parts. Someone suggested that he call Bill Hewlett. Finding a William Hewlett in the telephone book, the 12-year-old Jobs called and asked, "Is this the Bill Hewlett of Hewlett-Packard?" "Yes," said Bill. Jobs made his request. Bill spent some time talking to him about his project. Several days later, Jobs went to HP and picked up a bag full of parts that Bill had put together for him. Subsequently, Jobs landed a summer job at HP. He later went on to co-found Apple Computer. 

Think of how amazing this is.  The founder and CEO of one of the major companies of the time, Bill Hewlett, got on the phone with a random 12-year-old he had never heard of.  He then proceeded to personally make sure to assemble the bag of HP parts the kid needed.

I wonder if this explains why decades later Steve Jobs was then so welcoming to the 10-year-old kid with an Apple logo shaved in the back of his head, who also contacted him out of the blue.  You can read the story here.

To me, this sums up the ethos that pervades Silicon Valley during non-bubble times - people helping each other out of the love of technology and the impact it has on the world.  People recognizing and nurturing talent even if it comes in an unexpected form (e.g. an eventual hippie-esque college drop-out obsessed with fonts starting Apple computer).  And once successful, people realizing they need to give back in turn when they are the person who can help others.

2. Netscape in a Strip Mall;  Taking a Baseball Bat to a Lamborghini
I remember feeling pretty exuberant the first time I landed in Silicon Valley back in 2000.  I flew into the San Francisco airport and immediately drive down to see all the great companies I had read about and/or whose products I had used.  As I drove down the 101S and related roads I saw the signs for Netscape, Intel, Yahoo!, eBay, Cisco etc. (this is back before Google, Facebook, and Twitter became the next wave).

The thing that stood out most for me was, well, how understated all the buildings were for these major tech companies.  They basically looked like one or two story strip malls.  If you compare this to the opulent, wood-paneled, 100-story buildings most of the Fortune 500 has, you realize how the culture of a technology company is often focused on building a great product, rather then building the perception of importance.  Great technology companies are too busy doing the important, to worry about looking important.

When Google was about to go public, I attended an engineering all-hands led by Wayne Rosing, Google's former SVP Eng who ran the whole Google eng organization (he was also the eng director at Apple who led the development of the Lisa Computer, Apple's precursor to the Mac).  Wayne said something along the lines of "Once we go public, if I so much as see someone drive a Lamborghini into our parking lot, I am going to take a baseball bat to it."  Wayne's message as I read it was "Keep your heads down doing good work- this is just one step in the long evolution of a our company.  Don't get showy - we still have lots to accomplish.  And lets not screw up our culture in parallel with gross displays of wealth - this is just a dumb distraction from our mission."

The people I am most impressed by in Silicon Valley still share these values.  Reid Hoffman, for example, (now worth billions post LinkedIn, and Zynga and Facebook investments) still drives a Toyota.

3. Drop Outs and Immigrants.  
Most Silicon Valley startup stories sound like the punchline to a joke.  E.g. "An Indian, a Jew, and a boy from the Midwest walk into an empty office space..." and the next thing you know a great company is born.   Many of the great technology companies were started by people who dropped out of college or grad school (Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Apple, Dell, etc.).  Cultures that, at their best, ignore a person's origin and education level, tend to create the most innovation.  The best ideas tend to rise to the top.

Summary: Silicon Valley Values
I guess to sum it all up, to me Silicon Valley as an ideal has the following values:
1. Understated
2. Focused on changing the world through technology
3. Egalitarian
4. Giving back to the community - Entrepreneurs and technologists helping one another out

I hope we don't lost sight of these values in the current boom cycle.

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