Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Silicon Valley - Old Guard, New Guard

Last week was a very good week for me.  It was the epitome of academic life, where old and new are encountered, and both bring insights.  On Wednesday, I had the extreme privilege of meeting Tom Peters over lunch here at the U of A Business School.  An affiliate of great universities and scholar himself, Tom made himself available for an open and free-flowing exchange of ideas about economic policy, management education and New Zealand's comparative advantages in a global marketplace, especially for talent.

At one point in the conversation, I asked Dr. Peters what he thought about the rise and rise of new forms of connectivity, especially in relation to small isolated economies.  Instead of his usual rapid fire response, he stared at me, in thoughtful contemplation and then said, 'I am not 100%, but I am about 85% buying the act,' which is his way of saying that he thinks it's real.  He then made the connection between the notion of 'social business' and its potential impact on conventional business models.  The main thing is that social business is still about 'people' and Tom Peters has been advocating the power of people ever since his most famous book (with Robert H. Waterman), In Search of Excellence, was published in 1982.

That the most prolific and well-recognized management guru of our age, who lived for 35 years in Silicon Valley, believes in the new age of business based on social and technical connectivity should not surprise us.  However, I think that Tom is speaking for a lot of the 'old guard,' who 'get' the new stuff, even if the new stuff is represented and carried forth by a 'new guard' of super-young, super-smart, super-charged talent, all hoping to make their mark in 'their time.' We may not be getting (or want to get) jobs at the coolest places to work, but we are nonetheless on the sidelines, supporting (with our hearts and wallets) the brash and brilliant young technorati.

On Friday, I had the great pleasure of having Emma Dawson, Director of Leadership Development at LinkedIn join my Executive MBA classroom via WebEx to discuss the culture and values of LinkedIn and its drive to develop the best leaders on the planet. I am very proud to have worked with Emma, first as an undergrad and then as supervisor of her first Masters degree. The class was then also joined by local entrepreneur, Duncan Shand, co-founder of Young & Shand, a New Zealand-based communications company building a global business. As Emma points out, hyper-growth companies like LinkedIn and Young and Shand see leadership development, not as a luxury, but as an imperative.  The link here is that leadership development is what Tom Peters has espoused—evangelized--for years. 

Over the weekend, the 'old guard, new guard' divide in Silicon Valley was explored (exposed) in a long, but well-crafted essay in the New York Times Sunday Magazine by Yerin Lu (edited by Deane Robinson), called ‘Tale of Two Valleys.’ The on-line version, which is attracting lots of searing criticism, is entitled, ‘SiliconValley’s Youth Problem.’  But, does Silicon Valley have a youth problem, or is this sub-set of industry simply, finally heeding the call from management gurus and management scholars over the past 3 decades to take organizational culture and values (including fun and play, as well as nerdy obsession with detail) seriously? 

Critics of Lu’s article bemoan the fact that too many talented software engineers are choosing to write yet another derivative social check-in app, rather than say help make healthcare.gov work better.  And, yes, one cringes at the elite East Coast old boy networks that are being replicated in the otherwise meritocratic and relatively democratic ‘melting pot’ of the Valley.  Lu himself talks of West Coast internships where he encounters and hangs out with friends from Harvard.

Lu himself also acknowledges the angst that his generation feels about purpose and meaning, or the lack thereof, in the quest for another Farmville or sexting app, as shown in this excerpt:

“Yet for all the glitz and the glory and the newfound glamour, there is a surprising amount of angst in Silicon Valley. Which is probably inevitable when you put thousands of ambitious, talented young people together and tell them they’re god’s gift to technology. It’s the angst of an early hire at a start-up that only he realizes is failing; the angst of a founder who raises $5 million for his company and then finds out an acquaintance from college raised $10 million; the angst of someone who makes $100,000 at 22 but is still afraid that he may not be able to afford a house like the one he grew up in.

Tech is fun now, deliriously so, but this fun comes with a built-in anxiety that it must lead to more. As an engineer, coding should be your calling, not just a job, so you are expected to also do it in your time off. Interviewers will ask about side projects — a Firefox browser add-on maybe, or an Android version of your favorite iPhone app — which are supposed to indicate your overflowing enthusiasm for building software. Tech colloquialisms have permeated every aspect of life — hack your diet, your fitness, your dates — yet in reality, very little emphasis is placed on these activities. In a place with one of the best gender-ratios in the country for single women, female friends I talk to complain that most of the men are, in fact, not available; they are all busy working on their start-ups, or data-crunching themselves. They have prioritized self-improvement and careers over relationships.”

Lu's clever peers are not immune to the superficial follies of youth with too much money and privilege, but they are also likely to be the next generation who can make a difference in engineering (according to Lu, 39% of Harvard’s CS50 introductory computer science course are now women, something Marissa Mayer would be pleased to hear), organizational and, dare I say, American culture.  

Coming back to Tom Peters, for all its obliviousness in some sectors and regions, Tom suggests it is hard to write off America when you consider how Silicon Valley continues to represent the pinnacle of not just innovation, but also of organizations (large and small) where the human spirit soars.  I think both Tom Peters (‘old guard’) and Emma Dawson (‘new guard’) would agree that the tradition of social as well as technical excellence in Silicon Valley bridges and transcends any ‘old guard, new guard’ divide.