SILICON VALLEY is in the news almost every day, discussing stories around the technology giants that truly shape our day. Software and its products are what shapes our lives in so many ways, not much of this software is architected in the VALLEY. The hardware is what we touch, is what makes it all possible. The heart of the hardware is silicon chips. No one talks about them much in public view.
As a Silicon Semiconductor Engineer, I came to Silicon Valley in 1996. I was imported from Germany, almost straight from University. I was fresh, able and hungry for challenges. As a well-trained engineer with an innovative mindset, I did not really fit well into the German workforce. I wanted to stir things up, change things, make a difference. After 2 years of working in Germany, I managed to find a way out, a way up. I landed straight in the VALLEY. I made it, I did it, it was a big deal for me to be hired by LSI Logic Milpitas. As proud as you can be, I packed my bags, married my 13 year-long girlfriend and we immigrated to the VALLEY. My supervisor was German as well, my US manager is now my good friend.
I was not even fully landed and I already synthesized hardware-based multipliers for the latest technology test chip, did what I was trained to do. The technology just transitioned from micrometer to nanometer technologies. Gates now were no longer wired up “by hand” but “synthesized”. All that is GEEK talk. Things went really well for me, I wrote up patents, my way of thinking and working fit really well into the valley of the time. My manager titled me a “cheap copy of a German” and meant it as a compliment. With a good strategy, to be sure I solved the right problem and being detailed enough to solve the problem right. The VALLEY was humming as I saw it. People worked hard and things were moving along at a rapid pace.
After 23+ years in the VALLEY, I am hearing a lot of VC talks in coffee shops, employment interviews over the phone or over WhatsApp on the street. People are working from any and all places imaginable and it seems like the earlier cohesion between people, is not nearly as strong now. Corporations grew more influential over people’s lives and day to day actions. The Valley changed. People needed to do more in less time, people move from one company to the next faster than even 10 years ago. The VALLEY seemed too small and more companies expanded their office locations up the peninsula, up to Sunnyvale, Menlo Park, San Francisco and even further North. What I heard way too many times was; It is so crowded here, it takes me 1.5h for a 30mi drive, it takes me 2 h for a 40mi drive, I don’t drive there anymore it’s just too much time. The accessibility of fun things to do, the quality of life outside of work is what brings so many people here. You work hard, then you play hard. Now the playing hard is much harder to reach. Getting to skiing can be a 5-hour standing expedition, a visit to Yosemite Valley can set you back 6 hours before you know it. Try to visit Napa Valley and you are on the road for 3-4hours. Of course, you do it. It’s your time off.
Any day of the week can look like this. Your boss calls you at 10.30PM to discuss the results of the last release. This call just ends before you need to jump on the call with India, to discuss the feature list of the new version, due to go to QA in 23 days. Then, yes you write up the report of the call because no one else can capture it quite the same way you can and no one was in all the relevant meetings and can bring it down to the point just the way you can. You allow yourself to drop to bed well past 1am. Sleep comes later, much later. The next morning, on the way to the office, you take it easy. You take a “Four Barrel Coffee” in a real cup. It is so relaxing to just sit there and slurp your $3.20 espresso, hand made for you, by your favorite Barrista. You feel good about yourself. Life is so good. Only 2.5 minutes after you got your coffee you are back in the car to finish the rest of your 2hour commute. No, you are not bored as you attend 3 conference calls in sequence and then arrange for your oversee travel next weekend for the PVT release meeting in Taipei. The product your CTO relies on for the next company breakthrough. Then your regular 8-hour job starts in the office at 9.30am. ——- I am not exaggerating.
In a more generic term, I see people creating their own little bubble, the bubble of work-work-work, only this matters, everybody else needs to be excluded from this bubble. It seems like a sate of deep psychological something. I don’t have a name for it. But the power of this bubble destroys friendships, relationships, wealth and more. In the bubble many people don’t work because they need more money, they work because they are so driven by something, something that drives many so many, manages to destroy their life. The out-of-box thinking that draws people into the VALLEY now ruins the life they were trying to build. It makes me sad. I am also trying to make a point. Any and all your energy is demanded and expected as a bare minimum effort. Just to have the right to work in your position for this company. All your peers work the same or more than you do, so it seems ok to do that, required to do that. It is no wonder I am seeing more people clearly under the influence of drugs, as an escape and also as the only way to stay in the game and keep up with it all, keep up with peer expectations. Some show the signs of drug use more visibly than others. Still many take it regularly.
In private conversations I hear more people talking to each other and in a clear tone, talking about their EXIT STRATEGY. The way they plan to make it out of this mad circle, out of this VALLEY. Making it out alive. Making it out rich. Making it out sane. Making it out at all.
A responsible way out was what I looked for next. I had a lot of choices but really had no choice if I wanted to stay true to myself. Staying was not an option. The VALLEY was in the process to change my personality, the very core of who I am. My wife and I decided during our last 2 years that we will not let the VALLEY change us and we will exit. We took one year off. We quit the jobs and started our trip around the world. The year was to serve as a tool. A tool to slow down our minds and get us grounded again. From this grounded state of mind, we wanted to make a decision about what to do next. A decision of this magnitude deserves time. It needed to be a process, not an event. In the process of traveling South America, we meet several VALLEY people. All, really all of them used the phrase of EXIT STRATEGY within the first 10 minutes of conversation. It is on so many people’s minds. I was amazed.
Fast forward. We are now exiting. We bought a house in Tuscany, we are on our way back to the VALLEY and we will sell the house of ours in the capital of Silicon Valley. Just to keep our sanity. Just to stay true to ourselves and stay alive.
Take-away: What I am really trying to say or do with this text is, there is still a huge draw to the VALLEY. But there also is a strong outward movement in progress for some time. It is driving the People out of the very jobs that got them here. The very areas they are working in and used to love are turning on them. Some jobs lose the heart and soul, the reason one used to love working there, some are just incredibly demanding, some areas are just too expensive, even for the salaries in the VALLEY. The golden handcuffs of money, company equity, status seem to still work, but the tides are certainly turning, the way I see it.
(in a secular way).