Silicon Valley" 9 p.m. Tuesday, PBS
Among the many things that define Silicon Valley is a communal focus on the next big thing, whatever it may turn out to be. In Silicon Valley, to coin a phrase, the present is prologue to the future.
“We’re not really big on history around here," says writer Michael Malone in the “American Experience" documentary “Silicon Valley," airing Tuesday on PBS. “We don’t look back very much."
Malone’s observation is one of the reasons for Randall MacLowry’s film, as well as for two other films to be broadcast by many PBS stations on Tuesday as well: “Something Ventured," a documentary by Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine (“The Ballets Russes") focusing on many of the pioneering venture capitalists who gambled and won by investing in Silicon Valley; and Mimi O’Connor’s “Steve Jobs: One Last Thing," a documentary on the late Apple visionary.
Because Silicon Valley is so collectively driven to focusing on the future, its past is often overlooked. But as all three of these films make clear, individually and together, there is much to be learned from the past, lessons which can be applied to the future.
From the moment William Shockley launched his transistor business in what was then known as the Valley of the Heart’s Delight, the valley’s entrepreneurs, engineers, physicists and nerds have kept their eyes so focused on the future that Malone is right when he describes the valley as “perpetually young."
“It’s always made up of the next generation of bright young entrepreneurs, showing up and having their ‘killing dad’ moment of the previous generation of valley executives. And they start their own companies."
“In Silicon Valley, innovation is everything," echoes Jerry Sanders, longtime CEO of Advanced Micro Devices.
Shockley located his business in Silicon Valley because he felt restricted by the way business and research were done on the East Coast and because he had ties to the area.
But it was left to one of his employees, Robert Noyce, and seven other Shockley colleagues to band together to make the move that would create Silicon Valley. As Shockley became more erratic and the corporate climate at the company became more restrictive, Noyce and the other “defectors" met to plan their own venture — a new corporation that would encourage research and participation at every level and, in so doing, create a template for a new corporate culture on the West Coast. Noyce was a reluctant revolutionary at first, but eventually threw his lot in with the others. After agreeing to launch their own business, the eight men each signed eight $1 bills to seal the deal to create what would become Fairchild Semiconductor. They would be known as the “traitorous eight."
Timing played a huge role in Fairchild’s early success: The company was still in its infancy when the Soviets launched Sputnik and the U.S.-USSR “space race" was on. Responding to the sudden need for advanced technology, Noyce invented the integrated circuit used in the Apollo space program.
But as valuable as Fairchild’s contribution to NASA was, Noyce knew the real future of the company and its products was in the much larger consumer market.
Over time, Fairchild went through what would become evolutionary phases of Silicon Valley companies, experiencing its own “killing dad" moments as talented and ambitious Fairchild players left to begin their own companies. Even Noyce left: He teamed with colleagues Gordon Moore and Andy Grove to found Intel. Sanders was Fairchild’s worldwide sales manager before leaving to co-found Advance Micro Devices.
MacLowry’s film does a terrific job laying out Silicon Valley’s backstory, making it seem as thrilling as a top-grade Hollywood epic about the original California Gold Rush.
In a sense, that’s exactly what it was and, with a few bumps here and there, what it continues to be. But as much as Silicon Valley’s story is about products that have changed our entire way of life as radically as the invention of the telephone or electric lightbulb did, it’s also a story of corporate culture.
Boring as that may sound, one reason that Silicon Valley was able to have such a revolutionary impact on so many aspects of modern life is that the valley pioneers were largely refugees from the East, restless visionaries who felt confined by the hierarchical structure of East Coast businesses like Bell Labs and Philco.
With the creation of new companies in a previously bucolic Santa Clara Valley, pioneers like Noyce intentionally rejected the traditional corporate model they’d known in the East and opted for a less structured environment that encourage participation and original thinking from every corner of the nascent firms. In other words, whenever Mark Zuckerberg shows up for a press announcement in a hoodie, somewhere Robert Noyce is looking down with an approving smile.