It’s happening again. Life in Silicon Valley is getting that otherworldly glow it gets every few years. The rest of the world doesn’t always take notice when this happens. It did when the PC was invented and when the Web was invented. But those of us who live here – and especially those of us who were born and raised here – can tell when the surge has started again. Sometimes it’s all we can do to flail for something that seems solid and hang on for dear life.
Back in the late 80s and early 90s, in the heyday of the PC, I could sense part of it. Business at the technology publishing companies where I worked pulsed so strongly that if I didn’t like my bosses, I could just pick up a phone and start interviewing. Sometimes people called to recruit me. It was so strong and so intoxicating that when people talk about the recession of the early 90s, I have no idea what they’re talking about.
And that was even before the Web. Once that invention rewrote the rules about how people used computers to communicate, late in the 20st century, being here was like being in the middle of the Gold Rush. Every time I switched jobs, my salary jumped. At the end of the decade, I was making three times what I’d made at its start. Of course, the boom eventually busted, and at the beginning of the 21st century, I was back to making one-third of what I’d made a couple of years before.
And so it went. Silicon Valley surged again, until about five years ago, when it receded again. Now it’s surging again. There are a cluster of new technologies that are making everyone excited: mobile technology is only one of them, but that’s the one everyone sees, what with tablets and smartphones. But the tablets and smartphones are connecting to wildly new efficient architectures in the bowels of companies, incorporating such buzzwords as virtualization and the cloud. As with the Web, there’s a raft of new capabilities that vendors are trying to sell, and I’m one of the people that they’ve asked to – as I have during my entire career – translate these capabilities into English.
That’s why things are getting weird again. I can see it from my desk. In years past, I would call Europe or Australia once a month. In the last two months, I’ve had calls to Pune, Beijing, Macau, Singapore, Sydney, Sao Paolo, London, Oslo, Prague, Istanbul, Frankfurt, and probably a few more cities that I’ve forgotten. Different projects, different clients. More than once I had early morning calls to Europe and late afternoon calls to Asia – an advantage, I guess, to living in California, but it gets old after a while.
I can see it outside my door, too. Housing prices are always a good bellwether of weirdness. Business is booming, so they need employees. The employees need a place to live. Houses in our neighbor have a “for sale” sign up one week and a “sold” sign the next. If you’re already here, it’s like having a lottery ticket that keeps paying off year after year. If you’re just arriving, it’s like trying to buy a winning lottery ticket.
Sometimes the weirdness comes down a very personal level. Back in the 80s I noted that Silicon Valley was the kind of place where you could dial a wrong number and someone you knew would still pick up the phone. It hasn’t changed. I have a longtime friend who’s gone to work for Company A and wants me to write case studies for them. This would hardly be worth mentioning except that I also have a long-term relationship with Agency B, for whom I’m writing a couple of white papers on behalf of Company C – Company A’s biggest competitor. Even though I’ve told Agency C about the offer from Company A, it does not want me to stop writing material for Company C because their products are so arcane and bringing someone else up to speed would be problematic. It won’t be the first time I’ll be writing material for competitors at the same time, and it’s not the first time I’ve faced these complex disclosure issues but it always feels … weird.
It also feels weird because, as always, there’s an innate inequality to it all. As companies struggle to shed what they’ve done that isn’t working and ignite what they think will work, I have friends who are out on the street. Some have been there since the last downturn rewrote the rules around them. Others are there for the first time. It’s like being at a party full of glimmer and glamour, until you notice that off in a corner, there’s a really vicious game of musical chairs underway.
And so it goes. Someday I won’t notice all this churn because I’ll be retired and it will swirl on without me. But in the meantime, there are two advantages to having been through it so many times. You’re experienced enough to know that this kind of craziness won’t last forever – and you’re smart enough to savor it while it does.