The Temple of Innovation

June 9, 2014 Ray Rivera

temple of innovation

As the internet gets noisier and nastier, the need to stand out by emitting even more noise and effrontery is becoming greater. Even in the space of business, where the default is praise and the alternative silence, inhibitions are falling rapidly. I get to read all about it during my long train ride from the California Central Coast to Palo Alto, as a smartphone app captures the best such chirpings about the decline of Big Tech companies in Silicon Valley. Management missteps are played out in public melodramas and executives are roundly excoriated for their shortcomings in leadership. Once temples of innovation, Big Tech companies now uniquely provoke feelings about everything that is wrong with the world. Headlines and quotes now regularly contain f-bombs.

For a moment I lose myself in puzzlement as my train arrives in Palo Alto. But I snap out of it quickly as I board a public shuttle, and remove my earbuds to greet the driver and my fellow regular passengers. We turn left on Page Mill Road where on the corner is a smart new executive briefing center at the corner of a Big Tech campus. We arrive at the first shuttle stop, adjacent to a parking lot covered by a rich canopy of treescaping.

Many of the early temples of innovation in Silicon Valley were companies founded by engineers for engineers, where ingenuity was valued and given a lot of runway. Talented employees were allowed to fail but also grow. Silicon Valley grew up beside big science, and adopted many of the virtues, such as putting a humble desire to know at the core of organization culture.

We turn up Hillview Boulevard and proceed into a driveway leading to a derelict parking lot, with cracked pavement, only partially full. Anyone wishing to park under the shade of an oak tree may do so. The sprawling lot seems to function more as storage of heavy construction equipment, containers, and waste bins. There appear to be more construction workers than engineers walking about.

The Big Tech employees get off the shuttle. One is a husky looking guy with a cheerful outgoing manner, always greeting his colleagues as he boards, proudly sporting a San Francisco Giants jacket and cap. Another is the classic image of an engineer, thick glasses and beard, hair parted to one side, careful eyes, and a calm analytical demeanor.  Another wears a scally cap and windbreaker. Some are freshly graduated MBA’s or BSEE’s, others look like laboratory scientists headed to a workbench where all space is taken up by electronics parts, coffee cups, product manuals, academic journals, tools, and projects in various stages of completion.

They are my colleagues and yours. They belong to a community of Bay Area commuters who all know each other, not by name, yet all watching out for each other. You only have to experience one massive Bay Area transit failure to see the extraordinary level we will go to assist one another. No analytics as far as I know can describe or measure this community, or even detect its existence. But we assemble daily as we enter the train stations, touch our Clipper Cards to the readers, and take our favorite seats. This is where innovation resides, in networks that come and go, rise and sleep, and follow the sun. My colleagues are not completely part of any organization. They are embedded in many organizations, formal and informal.

Leaving the Big Tech campus, the atmosphere is not sprightly but shopworn. Guard shacks are unmanned, a motor pool building has no vehicles, gates are chained open, decades-old satellite dishes are discolored by lichen and decay. The buzz of a global headquarters just doesn’t seem to be here.

But across the way, at the site of a cloud hosting company, there is a skyline of cranes and massive construction is seen everywhere. Will Big Tech sell some of its vacant buildings to rising agile firms wanting to root themselves at the place where the tech industry was birthed? Or will Big Tech hold on till the ugly end, when the buildings’ fates are determined by the striking of a bankruptcy judge’s gavel?

And what does this have to do with analytics or business, or anything? There is nothing to rejoice about the destruction of the Big Tech way. It is what made Silicon Valley and the US tech industry a national treasure, something every emerging economy is now seeking to imitate. The Big Tech way left the company long ago, and soon the physical evidence may be gone too.

Or has it?

The shuttle crosses Foothill Blvd and passes PARC Labs on the corner. Who would not be inspired? The roadway is lined with redwoods and smart landscaping. Another cloud company appears over the ridge, and at the first stop one of its employees gets off, a snap in her step. She is also my colleague and yours.

I get off at the next stop and make my way up a steep hill, also excited about what the day will bring. One by one my colleagues arrive as the sun breaks warmly over the foothills and illuminates the building. My day began long before sunrise with the Big Dipper turned upside down, with only the sounds of the Pacific Ocean currents crashing in overtones on the California earth. It will end long after sunset, at my home down the Central Coast, with Sirius overhead and the fog cutting through the coastal valleys. During the many hours in between, a lifetime’s worth of tweets and texts will be exchanged, and the world will reinvent itself once again.

And the temple of innovation becomes even more like a tabernacle.

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