Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Meeting IRL: Why The Valley's So Cool

IRL is a reference you see on twitter -  it means "In Real Life."

Sometimes we underestimate the value of meeting in real life. It's more convenient to email than to pick up the phone. And more easy to call than to arrange to have lunch. And for those of us addicted to Twitter, we feel as if we have our own community of followers and frequent commentators at our fingertips.

The value of meeting in real life struck a chord a few weeks ago while in Santa Clara at the Cloud Connect conference.  Many of the speakers, start-up stars, consultants, bloggers and tweeps were all known to each other.  Its a very clubby bunch... but mostly online in the virtual world.

Once at the conference, there was this explosion of meetings and meetups in the hallway, over lunch, over drinks, even over Falafels (you know who you are).

And then there was a re-launch party given by CloudScaling Inc.: Open bar, DJ, packed room, endless conversation groups - a who's-who of the Clouderati, hangers-on, and maybe even cloud groupies.  But symbolically, this party was important.  It not only signaled that "the valley is back", but also illustrated to me the importance that all of these people, from all over the country, needed to meet in real life. 

In fact, I bet that the majority of the "who's who" in cloud - top consultants, bloggers, influencers - where all there, congregating.  No, not the Masters of Industry. But the people doing the work, the innovation, the evangelizing. Yes, it was clubby. And surprisingly small, if you think about it as an entirely nascent-but-growing industry.

These people were performing and important social and economic function. They were exchanging ideas, opinions, information. Where is the industry going?  Which are the hot companies this month? Who got hired where?  Where is so-and-so working now?

What makes the Valley so cool - and so hard to replicate

Every so often I hear that a local government is looking to replicate Silicon Valley.  High-speed optical networking. Tax breaks. Cheap commercial real estate. Attracting VCs.   What they Really need to do is host more parties.

I say that tongue-in-cheek, but in reality it is the social networking component to the valley that makes all of the difference - the talent fluidity, the idea fluidity.  And that's really hard to legislate.

Back in 1990's, AnnaLee Saxenian authored a prescient book, "Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128."  The thesis is why two regions, both with many great schools, and many great corporations, evolved so differently.  In the prologue she wrote
"The valley is very fast-moving and start-ups have to move fast. The whole culture of the Valley is one of change. We laugh about how often people change jobs. The joke is that you can change jobs and not change parking lots. There's a culture associated with that which says that moving is okay, that rapid change is the norm, that it's not considered negative on your resume... So you have this culture of rapid decisions, rapid movement, rapid changes, which is exactly the environment that you find yourself in as a start-up.
Indeed, the cultures are different. The companies that formed around 128 (and I worked at one for 4 years in the '80s) were large and mostly completely vertically-integrated.  They were their own technology ecosystem, designing hardware, coding software, and assembling things themselves. And once you were hired, being a "lifer" was what most people did.   Meanwhile in the Valley, each company was componentized. Your partners were across the street. Your new hires worked at your partners... or maybe even your competitors. (True, California cannot enforce noncompete clauses, whereas Massachusetts does)

All this adds up to an incredibly driven, creative, localized and fluid talent pool. Doing what people do best - schmoozing, swapping ideas, creating the future.