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  • Writer's pictureLeo Wang

Back from Silicon Valley: 2

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

The original Chinese version was published on July 2, 2014 at HERE

It’s been over a year since I last wrote “Back from Silicon Valley” on UA889, and this recent visit to Silicon Valley has been quite different, bringing a host of new insights and reflections.

Before I dive into the main content, a heads up to the readers: it would be beneficial to read last year’s “Back from Silicon Valley 1” first. Although the two articles are not logically connected, doing so would help in gaining a more systematic and profound understanding of the continued musings.


1: Globalization in Action

Before coming to Silicon Valley this time, everyone was stunned by the news that Uber, only four years old, had raised $1.2 billion with a valuation of $18.7 billion. So, the first thing we did after landing was to head to Uber for a free lunch and to witness and feel the “charm” of the company up close. We pondered, what made these “smartest” investors willing to trade $1.2 billion for less than 10% of its shares?

After the visit, I was struck by a profound realization: Peer-to-peer (P2P) is a groundbreaking revolution on the internet. It connects drivers and riders worldwide through Uber, facilitating instant interaction and safe transactions. More drivers attract more riders, and vice versa, creating a positive feedback loop. Once the numbers of both reach a threshold, the internet’s transformative power of “quantitative change leading to qualitative change” takes effect. The traditional model of drivers simply transporting passengers could evolve into drivers delivering anything from the physical world — like ice cream, flowers, pets, suits, coffee, fruit, and more.

However, the challenge isn’t the idea itself; Silicon Valley never lacks for ideas. The real test is gathering a group of geniuses to work towards a common dream. The Bay Area has the world’s top engineers (product managers), but countless companies are vying for these talents. Walking through Uber’s headquarters, seeing “ears” of all skin colors — true geeks — you realize that Uber must have done something right to win the talent war. The latest massive funding round adds even more ammunition to their arsenal. These geeks are leading a global revolution in transportation and logistics — emphasis on global. Uber already operates in 125 cities across 37 countries, with more to come. Their large screen showing a map with countless moving cars represents their significant “assets” around the world — a feat unimaginable in the past industrial era.

Therefore, in Silicon Valley, your small idea doesn’t just change the Bay Area, San Francisco, or even just the U.S. Here, you’re initiating a “global movement,” truly changing the world!

2: Let the Winds of Freedom Blow

This emotionally moving motto from Stanford University might have inspired me to aim for it in my college entrance exams if I had seen it 20 years ago. But back then, I lacked confidence and was full of ambition without action.

Donald Kennedy, Stanford’s eighth president, said: “The university must allow those with exceptional creativity to lead exceptionally creative lives.” This too brought me to tears. Over 5,000 companies in Silicon Valley trace their roots to Stanford, benefiting from its culture of nurturing creative thinking and the pragmatic spirit of “integrating knowledge with action.”

In 1884, after the untimely death of his only child, U.S. Senator and railroad magnate Leland Stanford promised his wife to found a university for all children of California. Ten years of tireless work and expenditure of his wealth led to the establishment of the university on their 35-square-kilometer farm. In 1935, Stanford’s electronic engineering graduates Bill Hewlett and David Packard, advised by their mentor and “Father of Silicon Valley” Professor Terman, founded HP in a Palo Alto garage, initiating the garage startup culture.

Over the next half-century, numerous IT and internet giants like Intel, AMD, Apple, Cisco, Oracle, SUN, Yahoo, Google, eBay, Facebook, and Uber emerged from this environment.

Stanford alone offers over 20 entrepreneurship-related courses, and over 95% of students take at least one. The most popular is LaunchPad by IDEO founder David Kelly at the Stanford Design School, where students turn an idea into a marketable product in just 10 weeks. Successful ventures like Pulse News, which raised over $10 million, originated from this course.

We also visited Stanford’s non-profit incubator StartX, where over 1,000 companies and 2,400 Stanford students have received funding, averaging $1.5 million each. One peer had just secured investment from Google Ventures, and Boosted Board, the electric skateboard company we later visited, also graduated from StartX. Their product made me want to learn skateboarding, with plans to get an electric one once proficient.

Running each morning at Stanford University, absorbing the tranquility and intellectual atmosphere of Silicon Valley’s birthplace, surrounded by a diverse group of people on skateboards, bikes, running or using the latest “elliptical machine” bikes, was a pure delight. The century-old motto, “Let the Winds of Freedom Blow,” echoed in my ears, highlighting the profound connection between societal progress, technological development, and educational philosophy and systems.

Stanford’s exceptional system and philosophy attract the world’s brightest minds who generously give back after succeeding. Despite only admitting 10,000 new students annually, Stanford provides over $70 million in financial aid, offering free tuition to students from families earning less than $100,000 and granting scholarships to 77% of its students.

A heavenly institution I missed this lifetime, but in the next, I must apply!

3: Winning with Systems

Whether it’s a school, company, city, or society, healthy development fundamentally relies on excellent systems. Systems must evolve; outdated ones can halt progress, while overly advanced ones may cause instability or chaos. A fitting, excellent system is vital for education, enterprise, and societal development.

Some argue that talent is key, but delve deeper and you’ll find that talent cultivation requires educational institutions to offer excellent education systems, and talent attraction requires businesses to provide outstanding corporate systems, including rewards, development, growth, and wellness. Without excellent systems, there can be no outstanding talent.

Beyond Stanford’s educational philosophy and system displayed to the world, every Silicon Valley company we visited demonstrated an advanced and evolving corporate system.

We all know the routine: visit friends at Google, Facebook, Uber, etc., for a free lunch. A local entrepreneur shared that for the first three months of their startup, they ate for free at Google because one co-founder hadn’t officially quit, allowing them to sneak into the company for meals — a minor thing for Google. The open culture of free meals and visits starkly contrasts with traditional IT companies like Cisco, Oracle, HP, etc. At Huawei, where I worked, bringing guests for a visit wasn’t so simple, with many procedural and management restrictions in place, and meals definitely weren’t free.

Entering these companies, one finds the working environment exceptionally comfortable and healthy. Engineers, like me, prefer standing desks with mats; some like lounging on sofas, hence the abundance of comfy couches at Google and Facebook. Everyone has multiple large screens, all embracing their inner geek. Work seems casual, with flat management, result-oriented evaluations, and at Google, employees officially allowed to spend 20% of their time on personal projects.

Competitive salaries and stock options, being part of changing the world, flexible result-oriented assessment, choosing work based on interests, a fun and comfortable office space, free food and entertainment, a healthy and sustainable work environment, and even pet-friendly policies — who would say no to such companies?

An aside, during our Facebook visit, we saw Mark Zuckerberg and a colleague walking and talking post-lunch, seemingly in deep discussion, a common work habit for Zuckerberg, reminiscent of Steve Jobs’ preferred way of problem-solving. For Facebook employees, there’s no hierarchical system or unapproachable bosses, fostering an environment where genius and creativity naturally thrive.

4: Moving Fast

During our visit to Facebook, we connected to a free Wi-Fi named “Facebook Guest” with the password “m0vefast”. Our host explained that “Move fast” is part of Facebook’s work culture, just like the ubiquitous “Hacker” signs around the campus, it’s indicative of the Facebook hackers’ work ethic.

Silicon Valley, in fact, has an intense work pace. People here know how to enjoy life and work efficiently. They spend weekends with family, surrounded by beautiful landscapes, and it’s common to see cyclists and runners everywhere. Even on the highways, it’s not unusual to see bikes strapped to cars, and these bikes aren’t cheap — often costing over $1000, reflecting a culture that values cycling as a sport. When it comes to work, Silicon Valley denizens embrace a “fast-paced” attitude where time is life — and money. At an F50 pitch event, an investor emphasized time management, stating that she wouldn’t meet with entrepreneurs without prior preparation and a convincing business plan, packing her schedule tightly.

Setting up meetings with local investors and entrepreneurs requires advance planning. Due to unfamiliarity with local traffic, I’ve scheduled meetings inefficiently across different parts of the valley, which proved unadjustable later due to everyone’s packed schedules, creating a domino effect of conflicts.

On Bay Area highways, everyone drives fast. On my first visit to the U.S., I got a speeding ticket for driving 90 mph due to my ignorance of local traffic laws. Since then, I never dared to speed again. However, you can’t drive too slowly either. On roads with a 70 mph speed limit, most drive at 80 mph. Drive at the limit, and you’ll be passed one after another. It’s interesting — you can’t be too fast or too slow; maintaining a speed of 75 to 80 mph is necessary to keep up with the pace here.

“Move fast” also has a deeper, implied meaning here. Internet companies in the Valley pursue a “lean” culture, like the Lean Startup methodology. They’re very careful and deliberate about every new hire, expecting each individual to be capable and self-sufficient. Silicon Valley companies believe in the multiplier effect of excellent talent and go to great lengths to attract the best, with Google being famously known for posting a complex math problem on a billboard along the highway to pique the interest of curious minds who could find the answer and were encouraged to submit their resumes. These genius engineers live to solve problems, and moving fast is part of their DNA — they think quickly, speak quickly, code quickly, and naturally, release products quickly.

Therefore, “Move fast” is not just Facebook’s motto; it embodies the spirit of Silicon Valley as a whole.

5: Greatness by the Ordinary

“Even the greatest of undertakings can be done by the ordinary person.”

Near the main entrance of Stanford, in a garden, there is a group of statues without any protective measures, which are the authentic works of Auguste Rodin. Stanford is the place with the largest collection of Rodin sculptures outside of France. The description of these statues reads:

In 1884 the French city of Calais commissioned Auguste Rodin to create a memorial honoring heroes of the Hundred Years'War. He depicted the six burghers, or citizens, who in 1347 volunteered to leave the defeated city barefoot, tied by rope at the neck, and offer their own lives and the keys to Calais to King Edward III of England. The burghers' fortitude, de-termination, and devotion to their community preserved Calais from being pillaged at the end of a devastating siege. The burghers are shown at the moment of departure from the city. For Rodin this episode was an opportunity to celebrate the idea that heroic deeds may be performed by ordinary people. He did not follow tradition by idealizing the figures, rather he was uncompromising in his depiction of the emaciated hostages and represented them as distinct individuals. Their faltering steps, despairing gestures, and anguished expressions eloquently express the inner turmoil of each man struggling in his conscience between fear of dying and devotion to their cause. This installation of independent casts was suggested by the sculptor's wish to have the figures set amidst the paving stones of Calais' town square so that the citizens of today might learn from the example of their heroic ancestors.

This statement is the best motivation for ordinary people like us. I believe that the great men and women who have created miracles today, when traced back to their origins, were once inconsequential, ordinary people. We are born equal, and it is the efforts and perseverance we apply later in life that lead to different life experiences and the realization of our values.

Many entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley did not start their companies for material enjoyment or the pursuit of money; they were driven more by a simple dream. Some dreams may not initially reflect profound social value, but with the support and encouragement of a mature venture capital industry, these humble dreams slowly transform into commercial missions that change the world. Like black holes, they attract excellent talents to work hard together, and every individual’s small dream adds up to a great ideal. In Silicon Valley, there seems to be a magic that gathers these elites in garages or incubators, where they compose the symphony of life on their keyboards. They are all ordinary programmers at the moment, but with persistent pursuit and perseverance, in the not-too-distant future, these ordinary individuals may create new miracles in numerous scientific fields and leave their extraordinary names in the annals of business transformation.

AT LAST During our time in Silicon Valley, we discussed many scientific topics, especially robotics, unmanned aerial vehicles, and stem cell technology, which are all very exciting. The key point is that all these are sciences around us, not far-fetched science fiction. The leader of our delegation, the president of the Youth Angel Investor Association and the founder of KongZhong Corp, Yang Ning, expressed in each of his speeches that he will commit to investing in the fields of robotics and stem cells. The future that seemed distant yesterday may be right before our eyes; the seemingly ordinary “Sheldon Cooper” next to us may be the leader who makes history tomorrow. The world has never lacked miracles; what is lacking is only the “heart to believe that miracles can happen.”


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