BC v. Silicon Valley, Pt. I

It’s hard to believe but we’ve been living in Silicon Valley for year. It’s been interesting living in the center of the Technology Universe, and now that I’ve had a bit of exposure to the environment, I think I’ve started to figure out a bit about what makes this place tick. Given my previous internship with the Premier’s Technology Council studying how to make British Columbia a leading technology development centre, I thought it would be useful to compare and contrast Silicon Valley with British Columbia. In particular, I want to see if I can identify the gaps and shortcomings that British Columbia must overcome if it is to be successful in its bid for technology development stardom. I’m going to write up some thoughts on the topic over the next couple weeks. Comments welcome from both BC and Silicon Valley techies.

The Benefits of Population Density

The first thing that struck me about Silicon Valley was that just about everyone was exactly like me. I didn’t have to explain new-fangled technology in conversation to non-techies I encountered – in fact, I’m not even sure such a label can be applied to anyone in the area. People on the street that you might mistake for a refugee from a sixties commune can be overheard casually discussing network routing optimization problems and how to hack commodity consumer electronics goods in order to transform them from lifeless husks into pure, uncut geek street-cred. It’s mind-boggling.

Linus Pauling once said “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.” If I could narrow Silicon Valley’s success to one factor, it would have to be this: lots of smart people packed into a contained space. It’s entrepreneurship by Brownian motion – if enough smart people vibrate around Silicon Valley, eventually enough of them will collide and something interesting will happen. And the process is doubly efficient as no one has to waste their time giving background introductions on the technological underpinnings of their idea. It’s a recipe for building cutting-edge companies fast and seeing what works: shake, stir, and strain pure intellectual gold.

Of course, not everyone succeeds and therefore not everyone stays. The circadian cycles of Silicon Valley’s booms and busts leaves the area with the feeling of a transient population. When I first arrived, people always laughed when I used the term “native Californians” – no such creature seems to exist, apparently – everyone here is from somewhere else. However, that’s not to say that the population of the area varies significantly – looking at the California Department of Finance population statistics, the population doesn’t vary as much as you’d expect. In fact, the population is downright steady, especially when you consider the number of people who lost their jobs in the post-dot-com blowout.

That said, I believe part of Silicon Valley’s success is attributable to its machine-like ability to separate the entrepreneurial wheat from the chaff. In some ways, it resembles a casino: people scuttle in, deposit their dreams, and if their dreams don’t pay off, scuttle back to wherever they came from. After all, there’s no way in hell you’re going to be able to afford to live here and afford a home unless you hit a home run (hence Mountain View, the town I live in, is 55% rentals). That kind of churn cleans out the cruft, refreshes the talent pool regularly, and keeps the fresh ideas coming to replenish the pool to form the basis of the next run up the innovation curve.

To summarize, it would appear the first two rules for duplicating Silicon Valley’s success are:

  • Get talented people: Create conditions to attract lots of talented people – such as lots of talented people. (Chicken? Egg? You decide!)
  • Create conditions that reward the good, or punish the bad: Either one, it doesn’t matter which, as long as the end result is a growing population of talented people who have good ideas and know how to execute on them. The rest you can do without.

Next time: Hot Geek Action!

Between Us French

In the midst of the seriousness of the results of the election, a drama comparable only in excitement to watching paint dry, I thought it might be fun to take a little detour into the world of Bush and language. But not just any language. Freedom, er, French!

There’s a quote that’s been floating around the Internet, a comment attributed to George W. Bush in a conversation with Tony Blair. According to Bush, the story goes, the problem with the French is they have no word for entrepreneurship. Any educated person with even the slightest knowledge of language immediately lapses into giggles over this story. “No French word for ‘entrepreneur’? It’s a French word, you dolt!” is the typical response.

Now, I’m a Canadian. I went to a private Catholic school in BC where, despite no native French-speaking population, we started learning French in kindergarten. It’s safe to say that I can speak a smidge of French. And when I started thinking about this quote, I got curious: does entrepreneur mean the same thing in French as I think it does? Part of this line of thinking was prompted by Ashley‘s comments on how one of the French guys at work insisted that he was an entrepreneur. According to him, in France, anyone who has been to university and works in a company qualifies to be called an entrepreneur.

Just what does “entrepreneur” mean in French?

In my mind, I rewound back to high school French class. “Entre”, I recalled, means “between”. But I was damned if “preneur” meant anything. A quick trip to my French-English dictionary revealed:

preneur: nm (acheteur) buyer; (locataire) lessee, taker, tenant.

Entrepreneur = “between buyer”? A go-between? I suppose that was an accurate description, at a rudimentary level, but it lacked the flair we associate with the word in English. Perhaps the combined word in French packed a little more punch. A quick flip through the dictionary revealed:

entrepreneur: nm contractor. ~ (en bâtiment) building contractor; ~ de transports haulage contractor (Brit) trucker (US); ~ de peinture painter (and decorator); ~ de pompes funèbres undertaker (Brit), funeral director (Brit), mortician (US).

That’s an entrepreneur? A contractor? A guy who hammers up drywall? It hardly conjures up the image of glamour that is associated with the word in English. On a whim, I checked the French-English translation of entrepreneur (i.e.: translating from the “English” version of “entrepreneur” to the “French” version). I know, it seems silly – after all, they should be the same, right?

entrepreneur: n entrepreneur m (chef d’enterprise).

Entrepreneur means…entrepreneur in French. Whoppee, no big surprise there. Except, the alternate meaning is “head of an enterprise”. So the translation from the “English” version of entrepreneur to “French” actually carried an additional meaning – someone in charge of a business, not merely a contractor.

I reeled at this revelation: could it be that in a moment of unrecognized lucidity, George W. Bush had uttered an insightful comment on the difference between the French and Americans? That the French, despite being the source of the original word, actually had no single word to convey the meaning that the word entrepreneur had gained in English? That entrepreneur in English no longer meant the same thing as it did in French?

My world views shaken, I numbly returned to watch the conclusion of the wall-to-wall election coverage, afraid for a future that could include a President George W. Bush who might not actually be a complete moron.