The Hidden Giants of Silicon Valley
The software and Internet companies of Silicon Valley have become symbols of American prowess in the 21st Century, just as the factories of Detroit, Pittsburgh and other industrial cities once demonstrated the nation’s manufacturing dominance in the post-WWII era of the last century. As the world watches with anticipation — and with hard-earned money to spend — Google, Facebook and Apple have unveiled a parade of the most prolific products ever to be “Made in the U.S.A.”
They build with bits and bytes rather than nuts and bolts, but America’s tech companies are indeed making things right here in California and other parts of the country. Brands that are recognized and embraced in every corner of the world — from iTunes to Instagram — are developed by small armies of programmers and designers, collectively making these relatively young companies some of the largest employers of skilled labor in America.
And how their modern marvels are made, well that’s the stuff of legend as well. Stories of life on sprawling campuses abound, with tales of employees who practically live at work in their sneakers and skinny jeans. Company retreats, long breaks for fun and games and, of course, some of the toughest interview processes in the world all add to the mystery. Companies everywhere have gawked at this behavior in hopes of unveiling secrets that will unlock similar success in their own industries.
As much as we admire our tech giants, Americans tend to approach them with a bit of skepticism as well. Our hesitation goes beyond doubts that recent grads in casual clothes can produce reliable products. Simply put, we don’t trust them.
This distrust has shown itself in many forms. Concerns about the personal information collected from us fill the news, as do frantic stories about the potential harm of the “always on” world our apps and devices make possible. It feels like these things have happened to us, rather than with us. They are changes made by very smart people behind very closed doors. As a result, we simultaneously celebrate and loathe these companies in a love-hate relationship as complicated as the software and devices they make.
There is something about a factory tour that helps clear the air between a manufacturer and its customers. Seeing a product being made by real people, and the connection between a community and the facility, usually reveals the humanity of a brand as few things can. There is a certain vulnerability in opening your doors to the public. Putting everything on display in front of a crowd, especially one equipped with recording devices, is like admitting that a great company truly belongs to the people who support it.
We have encountered many companies that have handled this openness with grace and even style. Boeing opens its doors to the public, allowing the new 787 Dreamliner to be viewed in production despite recent PR disasters over performance issues. Ford, Toyota, Hyundai and other automakers display their latest, robotic assembly lines, while Winnebago reveals itself as a manufacturer from days gone by, with dated equipment and lifelong workers that makes one dream of cruising in one of their motorhomes.
Surprisingly, visitors to Silicon Valley will not find any such fanfare for Google, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter or any of the household names that reside here. Anyone hoping to witness the faces and places behind their favorite products will find those hopes dashed as they poke their way around, as we did, in the winding streets of the San Jose area.
The sights are the same at each campus — guard booths, security trucks and gates preventing access to endless office buildings that could as easily sell life insurance policies as make social networking apps. There are no tours here, and anyone without proper credentials will be stopped and questioned very quickly. At Apple, there is a rare opportunity to buy company-branded clothing, but nowhere to see Apple geniuses at work. At Google, the outsider would struggle to find anything that looked like the search giant lived inside the big boxes at the Mountain View site.
It is difficult to celebrate something you can’t see, and even harder to support something from which one feels distanced. Sadly, this was the case for Silicon Valley. Perhaps it is the young age of these companies, or the fierce competition in which they find themselves, but it is our hope that one day the greatest companies in modern America will present themselves to the people who made them as our legacy manufacturers still do — with pride and open arms.
For an example, they need only look a few miles north to Redmond, Washington. Microsoft has always been the awkward geek of the tech world. They make the software we have to use at work, and rarely the products we want to use at home. For all its garish design and unsexy products, Microsoft is not shy. The Microsoft Visitor Center displays the company’s many accomplishments, as well as its latest work to be experienced first hand. On the day of our visit, groups of children roamed the center with their parents. It was “Bring your child to work day” for Microsoft employees. No one seemed to mind our intrusion as we tagged along.56006812698