Where does everyone come from?

Where does all the brainpower that drives Silicon Valley come from? The answer, by and large, is not from round here.

A good analogy I saw recently was with Hollywood. Where do all those pretty young actresses come from? By and large, not from Los Angeles. If you are pretty enough with some acting talent living in a small town in the mid-West, Hollywood is potentially your route to advancement. The odds aren’t that great, of course, since pretty women aren’t a vanishingly small percentage, and Hollywood doesn’t want all its actresses to look like supermodels anyway.

Silicon Valley draws in intellectual firepower in the same way. In fact in an even bigger way since we don’t care what race you are and whether your English is perfect. We draw in many of the smartest people from all over the world, in many cases have them do Masters degrees or PhDs here, and then employ them, to the extent that our grandstanding politicians will allow (which is not the topic for today).

I remember studying a 240 person engineering group I was responsible for and I estimated that over half of them were born outside of the US: a lot of Indians, of course, Vietnamese and Chinese. But also French, English, South American, Egyptian. Pretty much everywhere. Of the people who were brought up in the US, a big percentage seemed to be from the mid-West just as in the Hollywood example above. That was a surprise.

This isn’t meant to be a criticism of California’s K-12 education system, although there is certainly plenty of criticism to go round, especially for the bureaucrats and the venal teacher’s unions. But if you are brought up around here (or in New York, Boston and so on), you have lots of options and working really hard in high-school so that you can go to college and work on a really hard engineering degree might not be that attractive. But if you are in a small town in the middle of an agricultural state, or a large town in India, with little in common with your peers due to your geekiness, then this seems like the a good way to escape. It’s probably not that deliberate a plan, teenagers are notorious for acting in the moment, but, as Sam Lewis and Joe Young put it: “How you going to keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” Well, Mountain View isn’t quite Paris but it’s not Nowhereville either, and the weather is a lot nicer.

Politicians all over the world look at Silicon Valley and say “we want one too.” But Silicon Valley is really self-sustaining, sucking in intellectual talent from wherever it is found. Those politicians want a film industry too.

But Silicon Valley and Hollywood both got started in another era through a serious of chance events like Shockley preferring California to New Jersey, and the early film industry wanting to get as far away from Edison and his patent lawyers . Getting a Silicon xxx or a film industry going in your state requires more than just a few adjustments to the state tax code. The best talent, even from your state, is going to California (so long as California’s appaling political leaders don’t sell the entire state to the public sector unions).

Silicon Valley, the Hollywood of the North.

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