Everybody has theories about what makes Silicon Valley special, and most of the theories are right: It's the density, the competition, the constant chatter about business plans over tables at Il Fornaio in Palo Alto. It's the universities, Stanford and Berkeley, world-class research institutions that nonetheless nurture the practical. It's the money, the greatest concentration of venture capital the world has ever seen. It's the diversity, the immigrants from everywhere, the best and most brilliant spilling out of Oracle's food pavilions to eat burgers, curry, and sushi in the California sun.
The California sun.
Eventually, all the theories wind up there, at the one thing that makes Silicon Valley unlike Boston, or Austin, or Seattle, the one thing they can never hope to copy: It's the weather.
The weather in the valley is perfect. Not temperate, not tolerable, not good. Perfect. Month after month after month of sunny days, with just enough breeze and humidity to keep your skin happy. Prelapsarian weather, the stuff of utopian dreams.
People from elsewhere think Californians are crazy--or terminally superficial--to go on and on about the weather. That's because it has to be lived to be believed, or appreciated.
Zero-point-zero inches, read the four-month rain report in the local paper when Bart Kalkstein moved to the valley from Philadelphia in 1995. Before the he'd never understood why his Princeton roommates, Bay Area natives, wouldn't shut up about the weather. "When they told me it doesn't rain," he says, "I had thought it doesn't rain that often--you probably only get a couple of nights here and there a week. But, literally, it doesn't rain." Now product director of Sterling Software's desktop integration division, Kalkstein, 27, grew up in Massachusetts. He never imagined such a thing. "The weather is by far the most important" influence on local culture, he says, the key to its energy and a magnet for youth.
I believe him. In 1986 I came to California from Boston, a city that proclaims itself "the Hub of the universe" yet seems eternally hunkered down, hemmed in by clouds, darkness, and narrow streets. Recalling elementary school history lessons as I trudged to work against a below-zero windchill, I used to wonder how any Pilgrims survived that first winter. I was sick half the time, and sleepy the rest. California made me happy, well, and energetic. I could work twice as hard with half the effort. If you want to know why the valley has supplanted Boston--which also has brains, money, and a proud technological and business heritage--as the Hub of the high tech universe, you can't ignore the weather.
"There's nothing more depressing than being in East Cambridge on a rainy, cold spring day, looking out at the river and having the wind blowing. It's just generally nasty. It doesn't inspire you," recalls Tom Henry, now president and CEO of Quote.com, an Internet provider of financial-market information based in Mountain View, California. "Out here, the sky's crystal clear. It makes a huge difference. No matter how bad your day is, if you look out the window and it's sunny, it's pretty hard to stay down for too long."
Silicon Valley's perfect weather means you don't need backup plans, just in case it rains. It means you don't resent spending a beautiful day inside at work, because tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow will be just as gorgeous. It means you have more energy, sapped neither by sleep-inducing clouds nor enervating heat and humidity. It means fewer days dragging into the office with a brain dulled by allergies and winter colds. It means you have more life.
BUT AGAINST THE BEAUTIFUL blue skies of the valley sprawl its tawny hills, their curves clearly visible beneath a bare wisp of foliage. In the dry landscape of the West, the earth is not camouflaged by trees and vines and underbrush. In the valley, the ground itself is omnipresent.
And, as everyone knows, it is also unstable.
On October 1, 1987, as I was about to step into my morning shower, my apartment began to shake--just as it had once shaken when the Boston T went by, rising on aboveground tracks to cross the Charles River. But this apartment was in West Los Angeles, where, I realized in an adrenaline spurt, there is no train. The shaking clocked in at a magnitude 5.9.
Two years later, while Bay Area residents eagerly awaited the beginning of a World Series game between the Oakland A's and the San Francisco Giants, the earth beneath them convulsed in a 7.1 quake. The Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge buckled, sending a 50-foot top span crashing through the level below. A mile-long, double-deck section of Interstate 880 collapsed, crushing more than 100 vehicles and killing 42 people.
Every year on Yom Kippur, Jews recall the people of an ancient, unstable region of the Middle East, for whom it was prayed that "their houses not become
their graves." The prayer occurs in a relatively obscure part of the service, a section many people skip. But in California, they pay attention. To live in earthquake country is to know, way back in the back of your mind, that your house, your car, your office could--at any moment--become your grave. All your worldly goods could crumble in an instant. That, too, makes Silicon Valley special.